I continue to be amazed our Irish caretaker government’s pursuit of policies that will ensure the continuing erosion of their public support.
Last week the government announced a disastrous plan to divert €12 million from crucial mental health services to other areas of the executive.
The Irish Minister for Health Leo Varadkar, who put forward the proposal, was briefly present for the poorly attended start of the announcement but he left during the session. The chamber was almost empty for the entire proceedings.
The message from the government could not be clearer: you can skip crucial ministerial debates about mental health in Ireland without consequence.
But this official indifference isn’t just lamentable, it’s insufferable. More than one in 10 people in Ireland are affected by depression and 10 people commit suicide there each week. If you thought that these obvious crisis statistics would inspire a strong national response you would be wrong.
Although suicide rates among young men and women in Ireland are now alarmingly high the government is sending the message that it’s simply not a priority for them.
The pain of ordinary Irish people, daily afflicted by issues of unemployment, emigration, or the social isolation that often comes with poverty, are literally of no concern to them. So they don’t show up in chamber and the mental health services of the country can literally take a number. There are more important places our elected representatives had to be that day apparently.
The optics of the empty chamber riveted social media sites like Twitter, of course. But callous disregard for mental health is really nothing new in Ireland.
In 1735 the master satirist Jonathan Swift bequeathed his life savings to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of Dublin for the foundation of a Hospital for Lunatics. His motive for doing so was contained in one of his own poems: “To show by one satiric touch/ No nation needed it so much…”
In terms of how we treat the vulnerable though, things really haven’t much improved since Swift’s time, a fact that was underlined for me on a recent visit to Dublin where, on a walk through the inner city I came upon Hawkins House. Constructed in 1962, the building is a mid century brutalist folly, widely considered to be one of the worst buildings in Dublin’s inner city.
I was dumbstruck by its state of near dereliction now. It looks like it could collapse at any moment, it looks like it should be condemned. Upon my return to the US this month I read that it actually will be condemned: demolished to make way for a new building on the same site, which will cost around 50 million euro RTE News reported.
I bring it up because the crumbling Hawkins House is home to the Irish Department of Health. How’s about that for an example of fine Irish irony?
During the Celtic Tiger years, when the city and the country embarked the greatest property development kick in its history, our government, in their wisdom, refrained from investing in national infrastructure or public health. Buildings like Hawkins House were left to deteriorate.
But there are other ironies to consider: whilst the department’s replacement building is under construction its 400 staff will temporarily move into to the former Bank of Ireland headquarters on Baggot Street.
As they settle into their temporary digs I wonder if they will have time to reflect on how Bank of Ireland was one of the three central players in the 2008 banking crisis that helped upend the Irish economy and cost each taxpayer in the country an estimated 18,000 euro each?
The Irish banking crisis, you’ll remember, stemmed from the collapse of the Irish property sector and the consequent contraction in national output.
Inadequate risk management practices at the main Irish banks and the failure of the Irish financial regulator to supervise these practices effectively led to a shattering crisis. What followed was one of the most severe banking and economic collapses in a developed country since the great depression.
Soon after the Irish people had their fingers forcibly pressed down on the fiery braille of the IMF. They’re still paying for the hard lesson, of course. They’ll be paying for years to come. And those lamentable developments have adversely affected millions of Irish lives, making mental health issues one area that our government really should have been more sensitive too.
We are where we are however. The government’s cold indifference to the plight of the nation's most vulnerable is just another manifestation of an increasingly obvious leadership malaise, one that goes right to the heart of the Irish body politic: our insular and parochial 19 century political model is not fit for purpose in the communal and interconnected 21.
As our ministers balance thorny questions of their own power they give no countenance at all to the powerless. In fact they treat them as a symptom of the very condition they hope to escape. No wonder they run in the other direction.