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Saturday November 24, 2007 16:42 by Aragon
Mary Harney has a case to answer
Mary Harney cannot convincingly deny the serious conflict of interest that exists between her role as Minister for Health and the business interests of her husband Brian Geoghegan, Chairman of the consultancy firm MRPA Kinman.
Amid the current outcry about failures in the health service and calls for Mary Harney's resignation, there is an ongoing situation about which the media have been strangely silent.
In June 2003 the Irish Business and Employers Confederation issued the following press release:
IBEC Welcomes Health Service Reform Programme
IBEC Press Centre 18 June 2003
The business and employers organisation, IBEC has today welcomed the publication of the Government’s Health Service Reform Programme.
The Programme is a serious effort to address issues of accountability and value for money in the health service. The two reports on which the Reform Programme is based confirm the need for much greater clarity, accountability and efficiency in the management of this major area of public service delivery, said Brian Geoghegan Director Economic Affairs, IBEC. Managers in the health service and hospitals need to be given the power to manage. It is a positive development that organisational structures are being streamlined and unnecessary layers of bureaucracy stripped away.
Health accounts for a quarter of all public spending. Ireland needs a 21st century health service that is delivered in a cost effective, efficient and accountable manner, said Geoghegan. The Reform Programme is a genuine attempt to achieve this goal and should be implemented in a speedy and determined manner by the appointment of a high level leadership team with responsibility to follow through on these Government decisions. The Government must stand firm in the implementation of this important Reform Programme and withstand the inevitable pressure from many vested interests concluded Geoghegan.
The press release reads like marching orders for the government – a stern admonition that it had better do as it is told or IBEC will not be best pleased. A lot of IBEC’s press releases read like that, in fact, and it makes you wonder whether there isn’t something more to their relationship with our elected representatives, in what is supposed to be a democracy, than there ought to be.
Cleary Mr Geoghegan does not mean to imply that he might have a vested interest in the matter himself. At the time the press release was issued his wife Mary Harney was Minister for Finance with, among other things, responsibility for departmental budgetary allocations – including health. Within approximately 12 months of her husband’s statement, and after a surprise announcement that she was resigning as the Leader of the Progressive Democrats, Mary Harney was appointed Minister for Health - in which role she has since been directly responsible for implementing the controversial and largely unpopular programme for reform of our health service - very much in line with her husband's recommendations as outlined in the press release above. Harney has evidently heeded her husband's call and stood firm both in her tenacity about retaining the health service portfolio and in her determination to push the reforms through.
There has been an unusual degree of overlap in the personal life and professional careers of Mary Harney and Brian Geoghegan. In 2000, it was Mary Harney who appointed Geoghegan Chairman of FAS and in the same year he took up his position as Director of Economic Affairs at IBEC. Their personal relationship began sometime after that and they were married in November 2001. Over the next four years they frequently encountered one another in their professional lives and it must have been difficult to keep work matters appropriately separate.
In January 2006, however, Brian Geoghegan resigned from IBEC and took up a position as Chairman of MRPA Kinman – a private consultancy firm - and it might have been that the potential conflict of interest ended there. But that's is not how it worked out.
MRPA Kinman is a consultancy firm that prides itself in its access to government for lobbying purposes and counts among its government and commercial clients the Health Information and Quality Authority, a body which was set up for - and which is very much involved in - implementing the sort of reforms which Brian Geoghegan was anxious to see - and which his wife is now responsible for carrying out:
This means that the consultancy of which he is now Chairman are retained by a newly created division of the government department for which Mary Harney is responsible. Moreover, Kinman are the point of contact on behalf of HIQA for many of HIQA's reform activities so that interested stakeholders must apply not to HIQA itself for information about what is happening, but to MRPA Kinman.
On its website, HIQA describes itself, among other things, as follows:
The Health Information and Quality Authority was established in May 2007 as part of the government's health reform programme...
We are an independent Authority, with broad ranging functions and powers reporting to the Minister for Health...
We have been set up to drive quality, safety, accountability and the best use of resources in our health and social care services, whether delivered by public, voluntary or private bodies...
We will help deliver value for your money by monitoring that the resources in our health and social services are used in a way which delivers the best outcome for the patient or service user...
But how independent can HIQA be, in the circumstances?
Other clients of MRPA Kinman include pharmaceutical companies and private hospitals – business sectors which have benefited from government investment courtesy of Minister Harney’s Department. In 2003 at a Biolink conference in New York the then Tanaiste announced that the Irish government was investing 2.75 billion dollars of taxpayers money over seven years in the biosciences business sector. Fellow speakers at the conference included representatives from the pharmaceutical giant Wyeth who have a significant operation in Ireland - and who are also clients of MRPA Kinman.
Political Lobbying: ‘Unrivalled Experience’
MRPA Kinman’s relationship to Mary Harney goes further even than all of this. Managing Director, Richard Gordon is a former Press Officer and Spokesperson for the Progressive Democrats.
Director, Stephen O’ Byrnes was National Press Officer and Policy Director for the Progressive Democrats and also PD Government Press Secretary in the coalition government.
What need have these Progressive Democrat supporters to trouble with elections and the democratic process when they can have access to the health service via a commercial back door, to the Minister's husband and directly to the Minister herself via their role at HIQA? How can opposition parties, to say nothing of the majority of the electorate whose wishes are being resolutely disregarded - and who are opposed to the privatisation thrust of reforms which Harney and her husbands firm are pushing through - not be up in arms about this? MRPA Kinsman have more influence on the matter than the elected representatives of far more popular political groupings than the PDs - especially pertinent in the light of the electoral drubbing the PDs suffered at the election. We should be told the full extent to which the consultancy has benefitted commercially and the nature and extent of it's influence on health and other policy. When all of this is considered against a background of massively increased spending on these reforms and on private consultants, private hospitals and others employed to put them into effect, the continuing service failures and their serious impacts on patients call the Minister's priorites into question.