An extraordinary twist…and a welcome one

COMMENT: PAUL HEALY

“I wonder how Frank Feighan feels this week” a friend said to me following the political events of last Friday.

  I imagine Frank is thinking ‘That’s politics.’

  It’s an understatement to say that Feighan bore the brunt of the public’s anger when Fine Gael/Labour reneged on cast-iron pre-election promises and closed down Roscommon A&E in 2011. He has been shown scant loyalty from Taoiseach Enda Kenny since (perhaps Mr. Feighan will be appointed to the Seanad soon by his old friend?).

  Feighan is out of politics for now – possibly for all time – and there is undoubtedly irony in the fact that his one-time party colleague, Denis Naughten, is now back in favour with Enda Kenny.

  In fact, five years after an acrimonious divorce from Fine Gael, Denis Naughten is back living under the same roof as Enda!

  “We have a businesslike relationship” Denis Naughten said this week of the burying of the hatchet between the Taoiseach and the new Communications Minister.

  Naughten’s elevation has been widely welcomed this week. Locally, the welcome has come from all directions – including from Fianna Fáil TD Eugene Murphy, ex-HAC candidate John McDermott, and Roscommon Chamber of Commerce, whose President, Sean Mahon, spoke of the Chamber’s “delight” at the appointment.

  No doubt some within Fine Gael, who parted from Naughten in a toxic atmosphere in 2011, are observing the extraordinary turn of events through gritted teeth.

  Was Denis Naughten right – or wrong – to help put Enda Kenny back in as Taoiseach? It’s a very fair question. It is also legitimate to ask why Naughten didn’t force Kenny’s hand on Roscommon A&E services – or at least get some specific movement on the hospital – during the recent talks.

  I asked Minister Naughten those questions this week.

  His argument is that there is no prospect of Roscommon A&E re-opening in the foreseeable future. I think we can all agree on that. Naughten says staffing is the primary problem (see interview alongside).

  He accepts that thousands of the people who gave him their number one vote in February didn’t want Enda Kenny back as Taoiseach, but says he took the right decision last week and that it will greatly benefit the constituency.

  Minister Naughten says he got 97% of his agenda included in the Programme for Government, including a commitment to review the opening hours of Medical Assessment Units, such as the one in Roscommon Hospital. Naughten says that, given his huge influence on the Programme for Government, and the opportunity that arose to be a member of Cabinet, it was the right call to do a deal with Fine Gael and Kenny. The last Government was unpopular, he agrees, but adds that this one will be very different, not least because of the unique breakdown of Dáil seats.

  Over the last few years I personally haven’t spared Frank Feighan (not to mention Enda Kenny and James Reilly) on these pages. (I’ve also acknowledged Frank Feighan’s good work in the last Dáil term).

  In truth, things have moved on. Once the Roscommon public lost its appetite for what I termed the ‘Hospital War’, we had collectively started the process of letting our politicians off the hook. This growing apathy ran parallel with the HAC apparently losing some of its appetite for battle. Now it’s fashionable(!) to say that A&E will never come back, but we helped create that mindset. The politicians loved it, breathed a sigh of relief. Most of the major political players locally – of various persuasions – have gone into recent elections essentially dodging the A&E issue.

  Now, we are where we are. I agree that there is massive irony in the fact that Denis Naughten is now supporting Enda Kenny, and in fact serving (as an Independent) in an FG-led Government. And Naughten has undoubtedly softened his position on emergency services here over recent months. But then Naughten makes no bones about that, and stoutly argues that staffing is a problem – and that A&E restoration, while desirable, is a long way off – while insisting that other positive gains can be secured for emergency services in Roscommon.

  I think that’s what we need to go with. We can judge Denis Naughten’s ministry over time. He can still agitate on Roscommon Hospital and have the public assess his record in so doing.

  It is better for all of us that he would try and substantially improve the health service here by using his influence from inside Government, as opposed to in his previous capacity as an opposition TD.

  So Naughten was right to ‘go for it.’ I believe that legitimate misgivings about the hospital saga are very much superseded by the fact that Roscommon now has a senior Government Minister for the first time since 1982.

  Minister Naughten’s appointment represents a big opportunity for Roscommon and this constituency. He has a great opportunity now to achieve big things. 

  In any event, we are nearing the end of Enda Kenny’s reign. Another bit of the Hospital War will fade away with his political demise. Either inside Fine Gael in years to come, or outside as an Independent, Denis Naughten is destined to feature in several future Cabinet roles, and that is good for Roscommon.