Simon Harris looks and acts like a man with a plan. It is not a nice plan. In fact, it is a deeply cynical plan. But the signs are that Harris’s plan is working, at least for now, and at least for him.
By any metric, the Minister for Health is performing poorly in his appointed role.
In the last fortnight, it was reported that overspending in the Department of Health would amount to €700 million in 2018.
As the Finance Minister was drawing up his budget plans, Harris’s profligacy must have caused problems both for him and for other ministers.
Very few Irish people would begrudge Minister Harris his financial woes if they felt the money had been well-spent.
But all the evidence is that in addition to spending more than any other health minister in history, Simon Harris has overseen – if not created – a crisis of historic proportions.
Lots more money, much worse results:
Along with the slow-motion horror show that is the CervicalCheck scandal, 2018 has seen Harris set new records in the area of trolley numbers and waiting lists.
Winter is generally a season where trolley numbers rise sharply, and in January a new record for the number of patients waiting on trolleys across the State was set.
But much worse was to come in March, when these figures were exceeded and a new record of 714 people on trolleys was set. Every one of those 714 people represented a human tragedy: someone’s daughter or someone’s son forced to wait for medical treatment, and denied the denied and privacy which any ill human being should be afforded.
The problem continued throughout the year. In May 2018, 9,091 admitted patients spent time waiting on trolleys before beds could be found – the highest such figure for the month of May in Irish history.
Records have been set in other areas too.
The National Treatment Purchase Fund said in September that there were some 718,165 people waiting to be treated or seen by a doctor in August – an all-time high.
More than 1 in every 7 people in Ireland are waiting for a much-needed doctor’s appointment.
More people are waiting than ever before, and more people who end up in hospitals are being forced to spend time on trolleys.
It takes a special class of incompetence to spend this much money and achieve these outcomes.
Never in the field of Irish health policy has so much been spent on so many to the benefit of so few.
Change a law, change the subject:
That brings us to the aforementioned game plan. Normally, a Minister focuses on the positive points within his ministerial remit, and downplays the bad news.
With Harris, there is nothing positive, at all. Things are bad and they are getting worse.
Harris will have known this for some time. Young Simon suffered some severe embarrassment in early 2017 when it was revealed by the Fine Gael Minister Charlie Flanagan that Harris was considering running for party leader: not because he especially wanted to succeed Enda Kenny, but because he wanted “out of Health.”
Upon becoming Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar chose not to sack Harris, but to leave him in the Health department, and Irish patients have been paying a terrible price ever since.
Faced with no immediate possibility of fleeing the department short of an election and resulting reshuffle, Harris is stuck. But the proposed abortion legislation has been an ace card for him, and he has played it routinely, and with shameless regularity, for months.
Few politicians demonstrate a greater obsession with social media than Harris does. Almost every day brings more tweets, more retweets, more Instagram photos and more short videos where a giddy Harris associates himself with the successful campaign to legalise abortion in Ireland.
In recent weeks, for instance, he: tweeted about Fine Gael’s selection of the Together for Yes campaign manager as an election candidate; he tweeted about his attendance at the march organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign, and retweeted a photo of himself and Minister Katherine Zappone at it; he tweeted about his delight that abortion advocate Dr. Peter Boylan had been appointed to work on the implementation of abortion services; he tweeted about how he was about to introduce abortion legislation to the Oireachtas, and retweeted an RTÉ’s journalist’s tweet featuring a short clip of him doing just that.
This strong focus on abortion is not accidental, but appears to be part of a deliberate strategy on the part of Harris. While clearly no genius, the Minister is shrewd.
Having studied journalism for a time at IT level, and having spent years in close proximity with the political correspondents, Harris knows how the Irish media operates.
By focusing so many of his public statements on this one issue, he appears to believe that he can continue to curry favour with the Irish media, while distracting them from the ever-worsening conditions within our health system.
To date, it has worked, and worked well.
The Yes Minister means to stay on top:
Don’t take my word for it.
In July, the much-esteemed Political Editor of The Irish Times Pat Leahy wrote an extremely-perceptive article outlining how the popularity which Harris enjoyed in certain circles – he did not specify which – was helping him to avoid criticism.
“At present Harris’s simultaneously brave and deft handling of the abortion referendum is insulating him from criticism about the state of the service over which he ultimately presides,” Leahy wrote. “The insulation will be buffed up when he brings the legislation to the Oireachtas in the autumn.”
Those seeking to understand how Harris is likely thinking should also read the lengthy analysis piece in The Irish Times which their former political reporter Sarah Bardon wrote a week after the referendum.
In a piece entitled ‘How Simon Harris became the ‘Yes Minister,’ Bardon described how in playing a leading role in the referendum campaign, Harris had out-staged his boss Varadkar. This led to Harris’s stock rising significantly in the party.
Harris must have liked the piece: he hired Bardon as his ministerial advisor shortly afterwards.
His bright future, and our dour present:
There’s a lot of other journalists out there though, and a lot of potentially catastrophic stories about the political minefield that is the Department of Health.
In order for Harris’s political future to stay bright, he needs to leave the Department of Health soon, but not before he finalises the abortion legislation which he has tied his political fortunes to.
In the coming months, be prepared for Simon Harris to amplify his pro-choice rhetoric, to continue to pick fights with weak targets online, and to do everything he can do direct attention as far from the mundane matters of trolleys, waiting lists and astronomical budget overruns.
His failures are greater than any of those who have served in the role before him, and his utter cynicism in championing the ending of some lives in order to distract from the failure to care for others demonstrates a profound defect in character.
The people of Ireland deserve better, and they should not have to endure the hellish winter which could be in store for them if Harris is left at the steering wheel.
To quote the heartthrob himself, it’s time to make it stop.