Harris’ ‘broken promises’ probed during first Leaders’ Questions as Taoiseach

Harris’ ‘Broken Promises’ Probed During First Leaders’ Questions As Taoiseach
Simon Harris opened a large folder and frowned as he nodded while the Sinn Féin leader spoke.
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By Cillian Sherlock and Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA

Simon Harris’ has been accused of breaking promises and sitting on his hands as his record as health minister was analysed during his first Leaders’ Questions as Taoiseach.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald was the first opposition leader to question Mr Harris in the Dáil on Tuesday, as she told him that children are waiting in “unimaginable” suffering for scoliosis treatment.


As Minister for health in 2017, Mr Harris set a target that no child would be waiting longer than four months for scoliosis surgery.

However, Ms McDonald said that promise had been “broken again and again”.

She added: “You failed to build the capacity needed here and in 2019 you ended the scheme through which children could travel abroad to have their operations faster.”

She said that the consequences of long wait times are “devastating”, resulting in the need for more complex procedures or situations where children become inoperable.


She added: “Why are they inoperable? Because they waited, and they waited, and they waited.”

Mr Harris opened a large folder and frowned as he nodded while the Sinn Féin leader spoke.

Ms McDonald went on to say there were 4,000 children awaiting their first consultation and 270 children on the surgery waiting list.

Irish constitution referenda
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: Damien Storan/PA.

She said 78 children have waited “far longer” than four months.

She said she met with parents of children with spina bifida and scoliosis on Monday night who feel “completely betrayed”.

She added: “They asked me to relay their words to you directly.


“They said: ‘I want to tell Simon Harris the Government has actively consistently and comprehensively failed our children. Tell them that we as parents did all the right things, everything we could do and yet our children are subjected to serious and ongoing harm’.”

Mr Harris said it was an “extraordinarily important, stressful and worrying issue” for many families.



He said it was correct that he had placed a focus on the issue while he was health minister, and that the four-month plan was put forward to him at the time as clinical advice from senior management at the HSE.

The Taoiseach said: “What I definitely know is by placing that focus on scoliosis, we saw a very, very, very significant reduction in the number of children waiting over four months.”

He added: “Progress was made in a short period of time in very significantly reducing the number of children waiting over four months. It was real, it was felt, weekly reports were produced.”

However, he said waiting times for all procedures worsened due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Harris said current health minister Stephen Donnelly had put a “real focus” on the issue, appointed a new clinical lead and seen a “significant increase” in procedures.

He said he would also engage with Mr Donnelly on Ms McDonald’s suggestion to fund an independent second opinion for their children.

However, Mr Harris also accused the Sinn Fein leader of being a “little dismissive” of progress in the area, adding: “120 procedures this year, that’s not rhetoric.”

He added: “It’s real solid action that we’re taking to address an extraordinarily difficult thing – you can shake your head as you wish but that’s what it is.”

Social Democrats leadership
Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA.

Mr Harris also asked Ms McDonald how she would “square the circle” of Sinn Féin allocating half a billion euro less to health in its alternative budget.

Later in the Dail session, Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns accused the Government of engaging in “political pass the parcel” over reforming abortion services.

Ms Cairns said Irish law still forces some women abroad because Irish doctors were often unable to say complex foetal abnormalities would lead to death within 21 days of birth as required, or they interpreted the legislation “conservatively because of the threat of criminal sanction”.

It comes after an RTÉ topic on the subject and after an expert review into the matter by senior barrister Marie O’Shea last year.

Ms O’Shea called on Government to prioritise ongoing issues with the legislation, saying vulnerable women who continue to be forced abroad for terminations are being treated like “criminals”.

As part of her report, she recommended the removal of a mandatory three-day waiting period between a woman’s initial medical consultation and her being given access to abortion treatment or medication.

Rose Dugdale funeral
People Before Profit TD Brid Smith. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA.

On Tuesday, Ms Carins called on the Taoiseach to remove the mandatory three-day waiting period, to provide clarity on the provision of abortion in the case fatal foetal abnormalities and to “end the criminalisation of healthcare workers”.

Mr Harris said these were issues that the Government “has not yet considered”, but added that Mr Donnelly would engage with the Cabinet Committee on Health “shortly”.

However, he also said that the draft legislation that was published in advance of the referendum, which included clauses such as the three-day wait, “has to count for something”.

Ms Cairns said it was “extremely worrying” that the expert report had not been fully considered after being provided to the Government one year ago.

On the draft legislation, she added: “I don’t know if you’re suggesting that you think the majority of people who voted for repeal wanted to continue to force women who needed terminations for medical reasons to travel abroad?

“Because I have to say that I think the very brave women who spoke out about needed a termination for medical reasons during the repeal referendum won more hearts and minds and yes votes than your heads of bill.”

Mr Harris said he was “very conscious” those women played a larger role than himself in the campaign.


People-Before-Profit TD Brid Smith said Mr Harris made his “political name” as health minister during the referendum campaign to repeal an amendment restricting access to abortion in Ireland.

However, she said the Government is now “sitting on its hands” when it came to further reform.

She said: “During the debate on abortion legislation, you repeatedly said how important it was that the legislation be kept under review.”

She added: “And yet here six years after appeal, and well over a year since Mario O’Shea’s report, we’re still waiting for the Government to stop sitting on its hands.”

Mr Harris said that many of the recommendations in the operational space had already been enacted but several areas which would require legislation have yet to be considered by the Oireachtas.

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