Why I coined the phrase ‘’Angola’’ when describing the Department of Health
I recall a time when, in the heat of yet another scandal in Ireland’s Department of Health, then Minister for Health Brian Cowen came out with a bizarre statement, that he had no interest in his department as it was like working in Angola.
In fact, Brian never said it, I made it up.
With the passage of time, the quote has been enshrined into the lexicon of Irish political language and soundbites.
This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the famous quote about the Department of Health, and recent events prove that it is, tragically, still a troubled and dysfunctional entity.
On reflection, I think the Republic of Angola has performed much better in the last 20 years than the Department of Health.
The year was 1998 and a damaging report by the accountancy firm Deloitte and Touche pointed to serious issues at Tallaght Children’s Hospital, which had only recently opened. Additionally, the hospital was running out of money and was in debt to the tune of €3 million. As a result, the mandarins in the Department of Health tried to close the Tallaght Children’s Hospital and align its services with Crumlin.
This decision sparked an immediate campaign from the local community. Our firm was working with three entities; the Tallaght Action Group headed up by local campaigner Richie O’Reilly, the Board of Management at the hospital led by Professor David McConnell and leukaemia advocacy group CHILD, led by parent of leukaemia victim Liz Pearson-Evans.
I came up with the line as it summed up the toxic mood in the room and Cowen’s poor body language and interaction at the meeting, particularly with his senior officials in the Department. A tense meeting between the Action Group and Cowen took place in Hawkins House in 1998. At that time, it was clear to me that he was misinformed by his officials on every step he took and they were clearly trying to trip him up as he sought to embrace the future of the hospital.
Thinking on Princess Diana and her work with landmines in Angola, I said to the waiting media that Cowen had told the group that he wasn’t interested in his department and that ‘’it was like working in Angola’’. With every step you took there could be a landmine under your foot.
Since then, the phrase has continued to aptly describe the functionality of the Department.
Since Brian Cowen, six other warlords came to power in Angola and each has been overthrown without a hint of success. The tragic display of chilling dysfunctionality and downright incompetence in the HSE and Department of Health this week reminds me that things have not changed too much in the last 20 years and unless radical change we will still be talking about more scandals in another 20 years.