Blind man’s buff is how we’re gov­erned

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - COMMENT - GER COLLERAN

THERE’S never been an adult in the room as far as run­ning this coun­try is con­cerned. The Scally Re­port into the cer­vi­cal smear scan­dal proves that. Bu­reau­cracy Ir­ish­style more re­sem­bles a game of blind man’s buff than a fully func­tional, thor­oughly con­sid­ered, strate­gic project with the in­ten­tion of de­liv­er­ing a ser­vice that is both ef­fi­cient and ac­count­able.

As far as the cer­vi­cal smear dis­as­ter is con­cerned, it all started with such great prom­ise.

Some­body, some­where sug­gested that mas­sive health­care ben­e­fits would re­sult from the State pro­vid­ing a free cer­vi­cal smear test for women at risk of con­tract­ing cer­vi­cal can­cer.

The Ir­ish Fam­ily Plan­ning As­so­ci­a­tion says about 90 women die each year in Ire­land from the dis­ease, with 300 di­ag­nosed. That’s a lot of pain and suf­fer­ing.

So, in Septem­ber 2008 the Cer­vi­calCheck test­ing sys­tem was of­fered to the women of Ire­land. Fan­tas­tic.

Since then more than two mil­lion tests have been car­ried out with enor­mous gains from early de­tec­tion.

But de­spite the ob­vi­ous ben­e­fits to women in par­tic­u­lar, and the health­care bud­get in gen­eral, de­spite the cost which this year will be €23.9m, no­body has been per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble for the smear test pro­gramme for most of its ex­is­tence.

YOU read that cor­rectly! There was no­body in con­trol. No­body was ac­count­able. There was no­body, in par­tic­u­lar, in charge. Dr Gabriel Scally’s re­port into the smear test scan­dal, pub­lished this week, found (page 27) that the pro­gramme sim­ply didn’t have ‘a sin­gle man­ager who is ac­count­able for the ser­vice’.

The short-lived Head of Cer­vi­cal Screen­ing re­tired in De­cem­ber 2010 and, as­ton­ish­ingly, wasn’t re­placed. Imag­ine set­ting up a sys­tem to pre­vent the avoid­able deaths of po­ten­tially thou­sands of women, with the nec­es­sary in­vest­ment of sig­nif­i­cant amounts of pub­lic money, and then ne­glect­ing, per­ma­nently, to ap­point a leader to drive it.

You don’t have to at­tend the Har­vard Busi­ness School to know that’s a struc­tural de­fi­ciency that will re­sult in com­plete and ut­ter dis­as­ter. And so it has. Trouble is, we’ve been here be­fore many times. Ir­ish State bu­reau­cracy is no­to­ri­ously lack­ing in lead­er­ship and def­i­ni­tion.

Banks were al­lowed to run rings around our fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tory sys­tem for decades with con­se­quences that even­tu­ally ended up cost­ing us at least €85bn – debts our great-grand­chil­dren will never have time enough to pay off.

Pa­trick Neary was, in truth, scape­goated for a sys­tem that was never fit for pur­pose be­cause politi­cians didn’t want it to be.

Neary didn’t have the smarts or the nerve to deal with the de­vel­op­ment of casino bank­ing that wrecked the coun­try – but prin­ci­pally, he didn’t have the back-up po­lit­i­cal will or the le­gal where­withal. Be­cause the Oireach­tas didn’t want him to have it.

The politi­cians re­fused to have any­body in charge.

The col­lapse of the Seánie Fitz­Patrick trial last year was an­other out­stand­ing ex­am­ple of the de­lib­er­ate fail­ure to im­pose di­rec­tion and lead­er­ship in an­other key area of pub­lic pol­icy – com­bat­ting sus­pected white-col­lar crime.

The de­ci­sion by the judge to di­rect an ac­quit­tal in that case had noth­ing at all to do with Mr Fitz­Patrick. In fact he was en­tirely blame­less.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary fail­ures ex­posed at the trial – the ap­palling mis­han­dling of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the shred­ding of im­por­tant doc­u­ments, coach­ing of wit­nesses and the con­tam­i­na­tion of state­ments – did not come out of the blue.

It was the re­sult of a wil­ful re­fusal on the part of politi­cians to pro­vide re­sources in terms of Garda per­son­nel and le­gal ex­per­tise to man­age such cases.

PUB­LIC ad­min­is­tra­tion in this coun­try ap­pears like a drunk, stum­bling and stag­ger­ing from cri­sis to cri­sis. There is a sense, how­ever, of shad­owy fig­ures in the back­ground who pre­fer a com­plete lack of clar­ity to any ra­tio­nal form of com­mand and con­trol.

Suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments – by de­sign – have never re­quired ac­count­abil­ity at any level of State bu­reau­cracy. Be­cause ac­count­abil­ity through­out the sys­tem would even­tu­ally land in­side the of­fices of min­is­ters.

If a mid-rank­ing of­fi­cial was sacked for not do­ing the job that could re­sult in the head of the civil ser­vice be­ing held sim­i­larly to ac­count. Af­ter that, it would be a min­is­ter, or God for­bid, the Taoiseach.

And that’s never go­ing to hap­pen.

State bu­reau­cracy con­tin­ues to op­er­ate in a fog of con­fu­sion. Trag­i­cally, the cer­vi­cal can­cer scan­dal has shown us that some­times real peo­ple – women, wives and moth­ers with lit­tle chil­dren – pay for this de­lib­er­ate po­lit­i­cal ne­glect with their lives.

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