Brian Geoghegan’s role as chairman of MKC posed conflicts of interests for Mary Harney
By Miriam Cotton and Frank Connolly
This article appears in this month’s issue of the Village Magazine (April 2009).
The curious professional relationship between health minister Mary Harney and her husband, Brian Geoghegan, has raised quite a few eyebrows among friends, critics and colleagues over many years. Their paths have crossed in many ways not least during Harney’s most recent terms as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and since 2003 as Minister for Health. Geoghegan’s former position as Director of Economic Affairs for the employers’ group, IBEC, meant regular, sometimes daily, contact with the enterprise and trade department while his more recent role as chairman of public relations consultants MKC Communications (previously MRPA Kinman) involved intensive negotiations with the health department on various matters.
It is well known that Harney appointed Geoghegan chairman of FAS during her term in Enterprise just months before they married in 2001, and that they travelled together on a number of official trips which were recently the subject some embarrassing scrutiny by the Oireachtas committee on public accounts and the media.
While many were amused, and distracted, by the cost of Harney’s hair-do during the FAS trip to Florida, the more serious questions surrounding the benefit of such trips to the Irish taxpayer and of similar junkets with her husband in her capacity as health minister have remained largely unaddressed. Last year, a trip by Harney, her husband, and several officials to the US on the government jet cost no less than €190,000 and took in visits to four cities and controversially the US Superbowl. Due to this trip, which was described as a ‘dental and cancer fact finding trip’ she missed an important Dail debate on the health services. A total of €3,380 was spent on food and drink and €11,000 on hotel bills during the Stateside excursion.
There is an even more serious matter concerning the involvement of Harney and Geoghegan with the private medical health sector. Very few have considered whether there has been a long running conflict of interest arising from the various roles she and her husband have played in the rush to privatisation of the health services. Certainly, the overlap in the personal and professional activities of the Minister and her husband up to his recent retirement as chairman of MKC Communications warrants a good deal more public scrutiny than they have had to date.
In this regard it is worth revisiting a press release issued by IBEC on 18th June 2003:
‘IBEC Welcomes Health Service Reform Programme;
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 centruy 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 interestes, concluded Geoghegan.’
Clearly, Geoghegan did not mean to imply that he might have a vested interest in the matter himself. Within a year, Mary Harney resigned unexpectedly as leader of the Progressive Democrats and took up her post as Minister for Health.
In January 2006, Brian Geoghegan resigned from IBEC and took up a position as Chairman of MRPA Kinman. According to the company, which re-branded as MKC Communications in mid 2008 and from which Geoghegan resigned as chairman in October last, it is a consultancy firm that prides itself on its access to government for lobbying purposes. It is led by former PD spokesman, Ray Gordon, and former party press officer and policy director Stephen O’ Byrnes. It counts among its government and commercial clients the Health Information and Quality Authority, a body which was set up by Minister Harney to implement the sort of reforms which Brian Geoghegan was anxious to see – and which his wife is now responsible for implementing.
HIQA might be described as exactly the sort of ‘team’ or quango that Geoghegan had called for – and in due course his own firm was benefiting financially from its establishement. Moreover, MKC has been the point of contact on behalf of HIQA for many of the agency’s reform activities so that interested stakeholders have had to apply not to HIQA itself for information about what is happening, but to MKC Account Executives.
Further questions about MKC were exposed by Kieran Allen, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at UCD. In his book ‘The Corporate Take-Over of Ireland’, he has written about the influence they were able to bring to bear on persuading Harney to ditch some urgently needed legislation, painstakingly put together for the purpose of tackling the enormous problem of young people and alcohol abuse in ireland. Allen puts it like this:
“The sharpest move that the drinks industry made was to hire MRPA Kinman Communitations as its lobbying agency. MRPA Kinman boasts that ‘it has unrivalled experience’ of lobbying as two of the firms partners ‘worked at the coalface with one of the leading political parties’. With this team on board, the drinks industry certainly had access to the corridors of power…by the start of October 2005, it became clear that the government had capitulated and had withdrawn the Alcohol Products Bill. In its place a special code of practice was accepted – just as the drinks industry had requested. Junior health Minister Sean Power, who happens to be a publican, claimed that the industry were told about the draft law and were asked their opinions. As they agreed to implement an improved voluntary code drawn up under the aegis of the Department of Health, it was decided to ‘delay’ the introduction of the Bill.
‘The Department approached representatives from the relevant industries – not the other way around’, he said.
The cynicism of this statement was, however, revealed when the journalist Fintan O’Toole, showed that the new voluntary code for advertising alcohol in cinemas was written by none other than Carlton Screen Advertising. O’ Toole wrote that the
‘The Department of Health were so subservient to industry that they even used the same grammatical errors as the original version supplied by the company!’..The drinks industry had won – game, set and match”, Allen concludes.
In recent years, Harney has been to the fore in promoting private health care and the co-location of private hospitals on public lands; and is currently rolling out the National Plan for Radiation Oncology which also involves the private-sector construction of new radiation units on the grounds of public hospitals. While there may be questions about the viability of the controversial co-located hospital scheme in the current economic climate, the proposed new radiation units at Beaumont and St James in Dublin and at Cork and Galway University hospitals are a guaranteed money spinner for the private developers involved.
They will replace the current radiation treatment cetnre at St Luke’s in Dublin and every patient needing the service will have no choice but to attend one of the p[rivately-built units, with their treatment funded by the taxpayer.
Meanwhile, Harney has been busy opening other private radiation units at the Beacon Clinic in Dublin, in Galway and in Waterford. Each of these openings is organised and facilitated by the PR consultancies in which some of her former colleagues and friends are also involved. It is believed that the objection of very senior figures in the health service to the private corporate role in the construction and operation of these radiation units were overruled by the minister.
MKC and similar private lobbyists have arguably mroe influence on such matters than the elected representatives of poltiical groupings that have a much better-grounded mandate than the PDs – especially since their drubbing at the last election.
Surely taxpayers should be told the full extent to which various consultancies have benefited commercially and the nature and extent of their 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 hopsitals and others employed to put them into effect, the continuing service-failures and their serious impacts on patients call the Minister’s priorities into question. We are certainly a long way from the reduced bureaucracy, improved accountability, value for money and resistance to vested interests that was so urgently called for by Mr Geoghegan in 2003.