History Revisited

August is traditionally seen as the silly season, where news can be sparse and journalists often look back at old events or use freedom of information requests to generate news. During the month of August, the Irish Times ran a series of articles on events in 1989 based on diplomatic cables and communications between then US Ambassador to Ireland, Margaret Heckler and the US State Department. Ambassador Heckler commented during the course of her correspondence with the State Department on the performance of the then Fianna Fáil minority Government and Taoiseach Charles Haughey. She appeared to be of the view that they were doing a good job and were turning around the finances of the country, and she speculated that quite a period of time would elapse before an election would be called. Shortly after that, the Government did call a General Election following a Dáil defeat on a motion relating to haemophilia. In her correspondence, the Ambassador clearly regarded this as a strange issue on which to call an election and communicated to the State Department that it was not a good issue for the Government to go to the country on.

On reading this article, I was able to vividly recall the events of those months in 1989. It was a strange and unusual time. In 1987, Dr. Barry Harrington and I carried out a survey of all of the 106 people with haemophilia who had been infected with HIV through blood products to ascertain their needs. There were clear and basic needs such as the need for insurance provision, travel costs to hospital, diet supplements and other basic requirements. We then drafted a comprehensive document called “Aids, Haemophilia and the Government” which we submitted to the Department of Health seeking specific assistance for people with haemophilia infected with HIV. In lieu of the provision of these, we suggested an alternative might be to set up a trust fund in the amount of £400,000 a year for a three-year period, and the trust fund could actually provide these requirements for people.

The year 1987 was my first as Chairman of the Irish Haemophilia Society, and this issue was a personal priority for me because I saw so many of our members struggling with the financial and clinical issues of HIV infection and AIDS. This was my first experience of sending a detailed submission into the Department of Health. Our expectation was that following the sending in of the submission we would have a meeting with the department officials to discuss the specifics. This did not happen. Our submission was met with a deafening silence. Following months of delay, we then embarked on a deliberate advocacy and lobbying campaign to try to get the Government to take action to assist people with haemophilia with HIV. This was a major undertaking. It must be remembered that at the time, the society had a small shared port-a-cabin as an office and no staff apart from one secretary two mornings a week. All of this had to be done by us, as volunteers. The campaign was intensive. It included many letters to TDs and Senators, meetings with TDs, public meetings, media work and the involvement of several brave members with HIV highlighting their own stories. After the intensive campaign, we did eventually get a meeting with then Health Minister Rory O’Hanlon. His attitude was dismissive. The campaign continued. We then managed to get a private members’ motion put before the Dáil. We worked hard to ensure that this motion was supported by Fine Gael, Labour and all of the Independent TDs. It must be remembered that we needed all of these to vote for the motion if it was to have any chance of succeeding as it was minority Government. During the week leading up to the vote on the motion in the Dáil, I had many meetings in the Dáil with TDs, with opposition health spokesperson and with Government TDs to see if this issue could be resolved before a vote. The Government were inflexible and unwilling to move. Finally, the day of the vote arrived, and Taoiseach Charles Haughey arrived back from a visit to Japan. He then threatened an election if the Government were defeated on this as he saw it as an important financial issue. Fortunately, the opposition TDs held their nerve, the motion was carried in the Dáil and the Government lost. Charles Haughey then called a general election, went to the country and in the subsequent election, Fianna Fáil lost seats and had to enter a coalition with the Progressive Democrats. During the negotiations for the coalition between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, I was involved in relation to specifying again what our requirements were. Following a lot of further meetings and difficult negotiations the Haemophilia HIV Trust (HHT) was set up with the Society involved, Chaired by Judge Mella Carroll and a sum of £1,000,000 was awarded to assist people with haemophilia with HIV. That fund set up in 1989 was a tremendous practical help and support to people with haemophilia in their darkest hours. It provided regular payments, paid for the items set out in the submission to Government, and others items such as funeral grants. This gave a financial cushion to people with haemophilia in their hours of greatest need. The HHT is still running effectively, providing assistance and support to people with haemophilia with HIV, and is now Chaired by Justice Roderick Murphy.

What was commented on by the article in the Irish Times was that the American Ambassador was greatly surprised that the Government went to the country on this issue. She was not the only person surprised at that time. This of course was a vital and major issue for the Irish Haemophilia Society, but this was not a huge national issue which you would normally think of in terms of causing a General Election. I do not for a minute believe that the Government went to the country because they had lost the Dáil vote which would have committed them to spend £400,000 a year for three years. This, in financial terms, was a very minor issue. In my view, the Government went to the country for a mixture of two reasons. Firstly, given their relative popularity at the time I believe they felt they could achieve an overall majority. Secondly, it was during that infamous election campaign in 1989 that, (as we now know from subsequent Tribunals of Inquiry), that builders and developers gave or were exhorted to give, large sums of money to people like Charles Haughey, Padraig Flynn and Ray Burke. The deep cynicism of a Government bringing the country on a path of austerity, going to the country ostensibly to preserve the financial integrity of the system, by denying assistance to a small number of people with haemophilia and in reality using the cover of an election to line their pockets was a grotesque example of political behaviour at its worst. I believed then, and I continue to believe, that our work and perseverance to success on this issue which was so vital to so many of our members was a fundamentally ethical and moral act which has set the tone for the Society in the 24 years since those fateful days in 1989.

Brian O’Mahony                                                                                                              August 2013