Minister gives papers the slip in Ballymote
It used to be that you’d know an election was in the air when the Ministers started rolling into town.
I remember the heady days of 2003 - 2007 when Bertie Ahern could do no wrong. Local news diaries practically bulged with ministerial markings. Those were not to be missed occasions. A chance to doorstep the particular minister on whatever the big news story of the day might be.
You got plenty of notice in those days too - all the better for the Minister to have a scrum of journalists and photographers waiting as they alighted smiling from their black mercs ready to bask in the glory of whatever new centre was opening.
I can recall fighting my way through scrums to see the likes of Health Minister Mary Harney at Summerville Nursing Home in Strandhill, resolutely ignoring her snarling press officer. Oh how things have changed.
Last Monday, there were raised eyebrows all round in Sligo County Council chamber when news emerged that ‘ the minister’ was in Ballymote to officially open the new Primary and Mental Health Care Centre. Not just any old junior minister either, the ‘actual’ Health Minister, Simon Harris.
“As Chair of the Council I only got word on Friday evening and I had plans I couldn’t change. A number of Councillors haven’t even been contacted. It’s not good enough,” said Cathaoirleach Martin Baker.
He was lucky. They only told the newsrooms an hour earlier.
Councillor Declan Bree was quick to lambast the HSE and the Government for their lack of notice to Sligo’s First Citizen.
“This is unacceptable. These people seem to have respect for no one and are answerable to no one. It doesn’t reflect well on the HSE,” he thundered.
Councillor Seamus Kilgannon agreed it was wrong and “should be conveyed very clearly to them.”
The Ballymote Primary and Mental Health Care Centre was a public building and the lack of notice to local public representatives was an attack on the public, he said.
The Councillors scrambled out to Ballymote, some of them almost achieving the art of bi-location in the process. For most local newsrooms, it was too short notice however to cover the visit of the esteemed minister to Ballymote.
A query from this newsroom to the HSE afterwards resulted in a one line apology.
The Department of Health didn’t even bother their blarney to reply.
The minster ducked in and out of Ballymote (and Sligo Hospital!) cosseted from any awkward questions from pesky journalists. These ministerial stage-managed events without giving local papers enough notice are becoming more and more common over the past 18 months.
What are they so afraid of ?
There was such fear of Government spin from the controversial Strategic Communications Unit (headed up by Sligo’s own John Concannon) that it had to be disbanded. And this in the same week it emerged Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ‘floated’ the idea of creating anonymous online internet accounts to make positive comments about news (it didn’t happen).
The SCU may be disbanded but the spin doctors are still there. And very busy.
FG Minister Simon Harris is greeted only by politicians to Ballymote - but where are the newspaper reporters? James Connolly.