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Dublin Report Has the government lost its way — and its heart?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By John Kelly

In recent weeks, the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, has let us catch sight of his feet of clay. The political sure-footedness of the politician memorably described by Charles J. Haughey as the most cunning of all, seems to have deserted him.

While there is no reason to think that Fianna Fail would lose a general election if forced to go to the polls tomorrow, there is little doubt that a slap in the face is due.

Even at the close of the Dail for the summer recess, the government stepped into deep water.

It drafted a bill to ban the publication of opinion polls within a week before an election. Naturally, the media were enraged. Election polls make for good copy. The later they are, the better they are.

The coalition government clearly believes polls are dangerous because they may influence voters. They may even encourage those who would otherwise have voted not to bother on the basis that their vote would not affect the outcome — or vice versa.

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Like young girls, the media and the people just want to have fun — and polls are fun, especially for the punters who want to bet a few bob in the local bookmakers.

The plan to ban late polls was supported by both of the major parties. In fact, it was Fine Gael’s Olivia Mitchell who first proposed the bill almost as a throwaway piece of legislation just before the T.D.s deserted the adjourned Dail for their "holliers."

Because of the bill’s late timing, there was no debate in the Dail. The government guillotined all discussion. It wanted to rush it through.

But it quickly dropped the plan when it became clear that it would be challenged in the Senate and might have been turned down legally on constitutional grounds.

For once, the Senate proved its worth.

The penalty was certainly draconian — a £100,000 fine and/or a two-year imprisonment for offending editors.

Sen. Shane Ross, a financial journalist in the Independent Group of newspapers, put the kibosh on the whole madcap idea when he pointed out that the proposed legislation would still permit publishing a poll on election day — so long as it had been carried out more than a week earlier.

Ahern, celebrating his success in a nonsensical defamation suit, which claimed he had accepted a bribe, had his smile turned to a frown.

The electorate clearly takes the view that politicians of all hues are becoming too arrogant. This was a core reason for the no vote on the Nice Treaty. People believe the politicians aren’t listening.

Later in the week this became even clearer when the Supreme Court found against an autistic 28-year-old man who wanted to continue his free primary education.

The young man, Jamie Sinnot, is the son of a courageous American mother, Kathyrn. She has fought a 20-year battle for the right of her son to an education.

When she finally seemed to have won in the High Court, the Irish government appealed to the Supreme Court.

It seemed mean-spirited. Yet the government won its appeal — the Supreme Court found against Kathryn Sinnot.

The majority of Irish people could not believe it. Once more, the government and even the judiciary seemed oblivious to public sentiment.

Michael Woods, the Fianna Fail minister for Education, was quickly on his feet, publicly assuring everybody in sight that he would ensure the provision of full and appropriate care of disabled people like Jamie.

And he said the government would make an ex-gratia payment of all of the costs borne by Sinnot, the mother of nine children, in her Supreme Court defense.

He also assured her that all of the costs awarded to her by the High Court for Jamie’s care would be paid in full.

And he explained that the government appeal had been based on its own need to seek clarification of the constitutional provisions for the education of the children of the State.

While all of that may be true, the public has the feeling that the coalition government has not only lost its way — but its heart as well.

Meanwhile, health care is paining everyone.

In the heavily populated Dublin area, the situation is worst of all.

Some of the large inner-city hospitals have been closed down. Previous governments considered that health needs would be better matched with vast, modern hospitals in Beaumont on the north side and Tallaght in the south.

It has not happened. The hospitals are indeed modern. They possess facilities that would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds in the older hospitals like the Meath and Jervis Street.

But they are also hopelessly overcrowded. They also appear to be underfunded — although, in that respect, the government might do its image some good by taking on increasingly greedy consultants who are capable of bleeding any system!

The big issue in the Tipperary South by-election proved to be the health one. If the government can really come to grips with the national need for proper health care, it will assure itself of success in the next general election whenever it comes about, most likely in the spring of next year.

The average Irish person will sneer that Ahern seems to be intent on bread and circuses, pushing the idea of the "Bertie Bowl" while ignoring the plight of the sick and the aged.

Perhaps that is a pity. The national stadium plan is quite a good one, despite the criticism it has attracted — but health comes first.

Ignore it at your peril, Bertie.

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