The extent to which we are resigned to politicians making promises they do not intend to keep was laid bare during the last Dáil term when Pat Rabbitte famously asked: “Isn’t that what you tend to during an election?”
Not only do election candidates sell us promises they will not deliver on, but they recycle those same promises and sell them to us again, election after election - and the most ludicrous thing is that it works.
This is an insulting practice. A politician promises to deliver something if s/he is elected. S/he wins a seat, does nothing; and at the next election, knocks on the door again to say, “No, seriously – this time I promise it for sure.” In a way, it is treating the electorate like an over-excited dog. The politician brandishes a stick, pretends to throw it, and we go running in that direction until we eventually realise s/he's still holding the stick. We come running back, waiting for the politician to throw it again.
The phenomenon is so regrettably commonplace that it is incredibly rare to see a politicians genuinely making progress to make good on their promises. When that happens, the electorate tilts its head in puzzlement until it eventually realises the politician has actually thrown the stick - and when that happens, it is only fair that it should be recognised and credit given where it is due.
It appears to have happened in the case of Fine Gael Galway West TD Hildegarde Naughton, who included a new hospital for Galway in her ambitious election manifesto.
A candidate campaigning on a health platform promising a new hospital is like a candidate campaigning on a climate-change platform promising a new planet. It sounded excessively ambitious and highly aspirational. However developments since the former city councillor and senator was elected to the Dáil last February, suggest Galway West has contracted a rare case of a politician intent on delivering her promise, and that Hildegarde is making remarkable progress.
Major infrastructure projects, particularly in the cash-strapped area of health, generally take years to get near the political agenda, let alone win political support in principle that they should proceed.
A new hospital for Galway was nowhere on the political horizon at the beginning of the year, when sticking-plaster solutions to the overcrowding crisis were being vaunted as a snake-oil elixir to the hospital’s problems. Operations were being cancelled and healthcare managers were stacking trolleys into corridors like geriatric building blocks in the Nintendo video game Tetris. A new emergency department was promised, along with a 75-bed ward block.
However Dep Naughton completely changed the narrative on Galway’s hospital crisis when she let the air out of the hospital management’s strategy by revealing that the new ward block would not result in a single extra bed. Planning restrictions at the congested UHG site meant three wards had to be closed as part of the €18-million development, and there would be no net increase in bed capacity at the hospital.
Dep Naughton’s revelation drew criticism from her party colleague and election rival, Dep Sean Kyne, who denied the claim, but planning documents and a letter penned by former hospital chief Tony Canavan emerged confirming the new block contained only replacement beds.
It was becoming clear that the UHG site was no longer fit for purpose and the hospital could not be expanded to meet the current and future needs of the regional demographic.
Dep Naughton kept reiterating her pre-election rhetoric that a new hospital was needed and could be developed on a green-field site within the ample grounds of Merlin Park on the east side of the city. Hers seemed to be a lone voice until something very unexpected happened - Dr Pat Nash, the clinical director of GUH, conceded at a meeting with Oireachtas members that neither the hospital nor its site was any longer adequate.
Hospital management and clinicians were now on the same page regarding the need for a new acute facility and, all of a sudden, the prospect of a new hospital for Galway had appeared on the horizon. Local politicians sensed something electorally palatable and gravitated towards the issue like a blood-thirsty hoard of zombies from The Walking Dead. Representatives of all parties, and none, were quick to endorse the call for a new hospital.
It was remarkable that, in the space of just a few short months since the election, the apparently unattainable prospect of a new regional healthcare facility had found its way on to the political agenda. Moreover, it had the cross-party political support, and the backing of hospital management and clinicians.
The next step will be to secure political support and Exchequer funding from those seated at the political top table. This appears to be a huge ask but, given the unexpected alacrity of progress thus far, maybe it is time we stopped judging all politicians by the low standards to which we have become accustomed.
Already, Dep Naughton has managed to get herself a seat on the new Special Oireachtas Committee on the Future of Healthcare, which is a 14-person body tasked with devising a 10-year strategy for the health service.
Her intentions in relation to UHG are widely known and the committee’s members have been hand-picked by the Government, suggesting that An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and company, are not completely averse to the idea of a new hospital.
Dep Naughton's next task will be to convince Fine Gael’s boy wonder, Health Minister Simon Harris, of her stance on UHG. It remains a tall order, but it is refreshing to see a politician doing her best to keep a promise. It is what they all should tend to do following an election.