Being St Patrick’s weekend, the Cabinet are away doing (delete where applicable) thankless drudge work/damn all; working to exhaustive schedules/lounging beside a pool; and drowning the shamrock/drowning the shamrock.
They may deprive the population of admiring their extremely tight-fitting but fabulous flesh-coloured outfits on parade stands all over the country today.
But one thing is guarantedd, they won’t be slouching when they come back knowing their collective and individual futures are on the line.
People are still in the thinking mode that goes: The election will happen towards the end of May and isn’t that a full two months away?
But the reality is that the 29th Dáil is down to its last 11 or 12 days and counting. So, when it comes to proposed Bills, unless the guillotine is applied with the abandon of France 1789, most of the priority legislation is going to disappear down the plughole.
For over the next couple of days, Government chief whip Tom Kitt will be marshalling his colleagues like a RyanAir check-in attendant. Hand-baggage only. No heavy stuff. No frills. Only stuff you can carry on board. You need to travel light from here on in.
So a lot of the worthy and useful stuff will be chucked out for the expedient reason that they don’t win elections. And only the real essentials will remain.
And of course, they will all revolve around the big three issues that will win or lose this election – Iraq, questions surrounding Bertie Ahern’s governance, and Eamon O Cuiv’s handling of the Dingle controversy. Ok, a little joke there. Predictably, the star issues are economy, crime, and health.
That’s why a doorstep of a new Criminal Justice Bill (CJB) was published on Thursday, less than a year after another massive CJB became law. The phrase ‘rush to judgement’ doesn’t do justice to the haste with which it came. It’s a runaway train. New mandatory minimum sentences. New electronic monitoring. A radical erosion of the right to silence. And sorry for being so crude, but it will become law quicker than fresh dung sliding off a shovel.
And that’s why too the Government is so keen to resolve the row with consultants by the end of March – to proclaim that, yes, folks, we have turned around that elusive corner on health.
You look at McDowell’s spontaneous combustion act for a not strictly necessary CJB and compare it with the perfectly still surface of that backwater known as mental health policy.
In January 2006, the Government published a report called a Vision for Change. It presented the findings of an expert group on mental health policy. Well-researched, well-argued, nobody demurred from its own recommendation that ‘A Vision for Change should be “accepted and implemented as a complete plan.”
When it was published groups like Mental Health Ireland said it gave the “country a second, and possibly last, chance to develop balanced and integrated modern mental health services.”
A second chance? Yes. There was an earlier document called Planning for the Future. That was published in 1984. It took 22 years for successive governments to fail to fully implement that one. Last year’s plan is already showing early signs of the slippage that doomed the 1984 plan. And that’s why the groups are getting so nervous and concerned.
Their problem is that, electorally, they are nowhere. They campaign in huge and complex areas. But unfortunately they affect a minority and, ergo, don’t sufficiently influence electoral outcomes.
In fairness to the Government, there has been progress. But it has been halting and limited, and not helped by the off-the-wall comments we occasionally get from the junior minister in charge Tim O’Maley.
Sure, the number of people with ID placed inappropriately in mental hospitals has gradually fallen to about 250. But where are they going? According to Inclusion Ireland, hundreds have ended up transferred from inappropriate mental hospitals to even more inappropriate nursing homes where inspections are geared towards standard of accommodation, not towards activation, quality of life, or development of potential.
There is O’Malley’s plan to sell 10 old mental hospitals to raise new funds. When is that is going to happen? In two years? In five years? A decade? The C&AG identified one home with 250 residents where “a custodial culture had developed largely due to constrained resources”. That was shocking. These are the most vulnerable people of all in our society.
As Dr John Owen, chairman, of the Mental Health Commission referred in its 2005 report to the severely mentally ill.
“These people still make up the majority of inpatients and while many have been
discharged to alternative community residences this has often been an exercise in relocation, serving the priority of closing mental hospitals rather than a
treatment and rehabilitation exercise in its own right.”
Sad. More sadly, there has been no rush from our political masters – or indeed from ourselves in wider society - to right this appalling situation.
This is my column from today's Irish Examiner