In praise of Mary Harney

If there’s one occupant of the Dáil I really, sincerely admire, it’s Mary Harney. She is – I assert this entirely without ironic intent; there will be no punchline – probably the most honest politician in Ireland. I take umbrage on her behalf when allegations of cronyism are directed towards her by opponents on the left, on account of her husband’s involvement with IBEC and his private healthcare-related lobbying activities. I genuinely believe such grubby personal vices to be beneath her.

There is a purity to her vision, to her earnest determination to put herself where she can do most damage to the welfare state and stay there, which partakes of the intoxicating clarity of fascism that appealed so strongly to former generations. Her ongoing tenure in charge of the Department of Health is already widely held to have been an abject failure; she herself would consider it anything but, and would be correct to do so.

She will indeed, as her critics protest, leave behind a health service stripped to the bone, critically shorn of staff, demoralised and defeated, in which ability to pay is the greatest arbiter of life and death. To suggest that this constitutes failure on her behalf is to imply that she ever intended it to be otherwise.

Cowen, Lenihan, even ideologues such as McCreevy, Cox and Sutherland, all act simply to preserve an order of the world which they have internalised by undiluted osmosis. The methodology may be systematic, but the impulse is instinctual. George Bush didn’t care about black people. Brian Cowen doesn’t care about poor people. Geraldine Kennedy, deep down, doesn’t really believe they exist.

Mary Harney, on the other hand, really, truly and dispassionately believes that they must be made to suffer. But not through malice borne of hatred; it’s not pathological, nor is it an unthinking prejudice. It’s a cold, rational belief that the poor are unworthy, parasitical and an impediment to progress and a just ordering of the world.

It is one thing to evince indifference to suffering through ignorance, stupidity or contempt (one might call it Pat Kenny Syndrome if claimants to the title were not quite so numerous.) But to inflict suffering, without malice, without passion, on the scale that Harney achieves with almost her every act in office; that is an awesome capacity which most people simply cannot hope to comprehend. Her closest analogue is Colm McCarthy, but the comparison does her little justice.

Her single-mindedness is staggering. In the history of the state, no one individual (I include Taoisigh in this) has ever left so personal an imprint upon the lives of so many. She has her foibles, of course (arrogance and a short temper), but studiously prevents these from interfering with her mission.

She has endured the disgusting petty corruption and opportunism of a bumbling coalition partner, has even had to hold her nose and compromise with unions she despises in order to keep her project on track. She is, I would venture to suggest, the most hated woman in Ireland and the most hated member of the most hated government in history. To knowingly place oneself in that position without retreating an inch or even feigning regret bespeaks a singularity of purpose which only the truly great and the truly wicked ever attain.

The defining moment of Mary Harney’s career was its coup de grâce. Greater depredations will be inflicted upon the poor and sick in years to come, but they’ll issue from the pen of an IMF bureaucrat or the mealy mouth of a Labour minister. Harney’s final flourish, however, will echo through the generations. Her insistence upon a 50 cent charge per item dispensed to medical card holders was a magnificent and magnanimous curtain call.

The charge as it stands will strain the wallets of only the most wretchedly vulnerable; that, however, is merely a propitious side-effect. It could equally have been set at 20 cents, or 1 cent. The goal was simply to establish the principle of paying for prescriptions. It was a gift to her successors; from here on, the charge can only move in one direction. She herself will not be around to reap the benefits. She will not endure the quiet, desperate opprobrium of pensioners forced to choose between heating their homes and staunching their pain, though none could endure it with more poise.

It was an act of selflessness, of far-sightedness and of cool, clear-headed, rational cruelty. Mary Harney is an honest woman, a visionary and an idealist. May we never see her like again.


6 Responses to “In praise of Mary Harney”

  1. pratie9 Says:

    ‘bespeaks a singularity of purpose which only the truly great and the truly wicked ever attain.’

    Can I sugest that the ‘and’ be replaced by ‘or’. In the interest of clarity and to make clear that true greatness does not apply to Harney.

  2. neilcaff Says:

    Brilliant character sketch.

  3. Tomboktu Says:

    In a peculiar contrast, yon Congress paper (which I got at work today) has an article (genuinely) praising something she did while Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

  4. @no2irishbailout Says:

    This is nuts! And this is cheesy dips! And while I’m here at the Superbowl while flying around in the Government jet I’ll have a rather large bucket of chicken wings. Young man, stop playing that piano and get me my facist, I mean, facialist up here now. I can’t go on TV looking like an aggressive engorged money-ripened tomato now can I?
    “I’m worth it.” I love my job. I love tough decisions for the good of the people. I have to go, my private aircraft is outside. I’m off to New Zealand on a sight – I mean, fact-seeing mission. Love and onion rings dipped in garlic mayo, Mary xx

  5. wickedfairy Says:

    excellent article. And very funny no2irishbailout

  6. T. Shandy Says:

    Beautiful piece of writing and analysis, and of course eerily prescient.

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