Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny this week faces his most serious domestic confrontation over claims that he reneged on pre-election promises to protect threatened hospital services in Connacht, his own province.
Denis Naughten lost the ruling Fine Gael party whip for voting against the government on downgrading hospital services. They included the closure of Roscommon County Hospital’s emergency department.
Naughten was also expected to be stripped of the €9,500-per year post of chairman of the Oireachtas (parliamentary) health committee.
On a more local level, two Roscommon councilors quit Fine Gael over the downgrading of hospital services and demanded that Kenny apologize to their constituents.
The councilors, Dominick Connolly and Laurence Fallon, accused Kenny and Health Minister James Reilly of reneging on promises to protect Roscommon hospital’s accident and emergency department.
The Roscommon hospital’s emergency department closed at 8 a.m. on Monday -- six years after it was upgraded at a cost of €8 million -- and was replaced with a minor injuries unit for adults only.
Kenny came under pressure after he was forced to deny misleading voters when a tape recording revealed he made a pre-election pledge to maintain services at the hospital.
The recording was made by a Sunday Business Post journalist when Kenny addressed a pre-election rally in February. In the recording he said, “We are committed to maintaining the services in Roscommon County Hospital.”
A separate recording was also this week at the center of the storm, this one made by junior minister John Perry when he was in opposition and addressing a Fine Gael Sligo meeting in March 2010 at which Kenny and Dr. James Reilly, who is now health minister, were present.
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The Perry recording, available via Google, has an extract in which he specifically thanks Kenny and Reilly for their commitment to restore cancer services to Sligo General Hospital within 12 months.
But last month cancer care campaigners highlighted the failure of the new government to keep that promise. The cancer services were transferred from Sligo to Galway two years ago.
One of the leaders of the cancer care campaign, Jim O’Sullivan, said the recording clip highlighted, beyond any doubt, that both Kenny and Reilly gave commitments to return them to Sligo.
On the Roscommon issue, there were demands for Kenny this week to offer an apology to the people of Roscommon and the staff and the patients for misleading them in his February statements.
Labor Senator John Kelly, who ran unsuccessfully for the Dail (Parliament) in Roscommon-South Leitrim said, “I possibly lost a seat because of that promise by Kenny and the Fine Gael health spokesman Dr. James Reilly. That promise was enough for the majority of people to vote Fine Gael in this constituency -- it was a very strong commitment.
“I’m a man of my word and if I got elected on that promise and it was reneged on I would do what Denis Naughten has done and vote against the government.”
The new urgent care center, replacing the Roscommon hospital emergency department, will not accept heart attack or stroke patients or people in need of major or complex trauma surgery. They will be transported to Galway, Sligo or Mayo.
Kenny was forced to issue a statement after the tape of a pre-election pledge emerged in which he promised to maintain services at Roscommon.
He said that, since the election, the Health Information and Quality Authority reported that the accident and emergency services at Roscommon and other smaller hospitals were not safe.
“The government cannot ignore this expert advice and, consequently, this element of Fine Gael’s commitment is no longer tenable. I regret any confusion that may have arisen from my comments. It was never my intention to mislead anyone on this matter,” he said.
Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin, the main opposition leader, claimed Kenny was caught falsely denying his own claims, and had done so repeatedly and misled the Dail.
Sinn Fein health spokesman Caoimhghin O Caolain criticized Kenny’s “false commitment” and claimed the axing of the Roscommon accident and emergency department was motivated primarily by budgetary considerations rather than patient safety.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan refused to be drawn into the controversy but came closest to anybody in government in an acknowledgement of the budget restraints that undoubtedly ruled government thinking on the Roscommon hospital.
“It’s not an easy time to be in government and we have to work every day. The country is in a bad state and we have to work our way out of it and it won’t be done overnight,” he said.