“Same reply,” said Leo Varadkar, as Gino Kenny desperately pleaded with the Taoiseach to give hope to those waiting for access to medicinal cannabis. Barney Doherty investigates the background to this scandal, talking to those directly impacted by the Taoiseach’s indifference.
Just when you thought the smarmy politicians who run this country could not annoy you anymore, they come along and outdo themselves once again.
Worse still, it was a simple question to the Taoiseach that revealed the disturbing levels of arrogance among the political establishment here. On Wednesday, People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny pleaded with the Taoiseach to give hope to those awaiting the status of a compassionate access programme for medicinal cannabis, which was recommended by the Health Products Regulatory Authority over two years ago. Without such a programme families who have been granted licenses have been forced to travel overseas, at great cost and difficulty.
The need for such an access programme is clear as day. Take the case of one family in Waterford, who had been granted a licence for their daughter at the end of last year. The family have no choice but to travel to the Netherlands, at a €9,000 per year expenses that will not be reimbursed by the HSE.
Deputy Kenny informed the Taoiseach that by August the family would be unable to afford the medication which “according to their words and the clinical notes, we have learned that the product has made a dramatic difference to their daughter’s life.”
Kenny ended with the simple question; “I have been banging this drum for the past three years. I am so frustrated. My frustration does not compare with the frustration of the families. Is there a commencement date for the cannabis access programme?”
And the response of Varadkar to this harrowing, and unnecessary predicament faced by families? A simple two-worded answer; “same reply”. Varadkar’s response was widely condemned across social media and indeed was commented on in some traditional media. Varadkar gave this two-worded response without even standing or even looking up. He had to be prompted by the Ceann Comhairle to even give an assurance that the ‘same reply’ would be provided in writing to Deputy Kenny by the Minister of Health. His attitude, by any measure of human decency, was utterly appalling.
Leo the Tory
While large sums of money have been spent constructing an image of Varadkar as a progressive and forward thinking leader, there have been regular glimpses of the kind of old style snobbish conservatism that has marked Fine Gael since its inception.
Varadkar is an ideologue. He entered Young Fine Gael as a proud Tory, committed to the project of a ‘centre-driven’ neoliberalism, despite his pretences to reform.
Indeed, his record would give anyone cause for concern about his true intentions. When he was first elected to Dáil Éireann, Varadkar proposed paying unemployed migrants to leave the country, for example, and during early debates on civil partnership he insisted ‘every child has the right to a mother and father’. Hardly the paragon of liberal virtue, therefore.
Clearly Varadkar has learned to soften his tone and pick his battles but his right-wing beliefs are still evident. Infamously declaring himself a leader ‘for those who get out of bed early’ and spearheading a ‘welfare cheats’ witch hunt campaign.
The existence of radical left-wing TD’s within the Dáil chambers is an obvious irritant for the Taoiseach. It is the pot-shots he takes at socialist representatives that often hint at his underlying ideology.
He managed to stop himself mid-sentence when debating public housing before accusing socialists of presumably standing for a working class who pay for nothing and qualify for everything.
‘What the socialists want is something different. They want segregation, to divide people and to have people living in council estates in one area and private estates in the other. They want to divide our society into people who live in different areas, with some people paying for everything but qualifying for nothing. And those who…’
Left-wing bills while passed by Dáil majorities are procedurally killed or left in limbo by a Fine Gael government seemingly determined to prevent the radical left opposition from claiming victories. Bills like the Climate Emergency Bill to keep fossil fuels in the ground; the Sex Education bill for objective and inclusive education; the anti-eviction bill; and the Medicinal Cannabis bill, have all been passed by parliament only to be halted in backrooms or committees.
Lack of Compassion
Behind Varadkar’s ideological jibes at the left is a total disregard for the issues that concern the impoverished communities that socialist TDs often represent. A compassionate access programme for medicinal cannabis would be life changing for thousands of families. From those living with drug-resistant epilepsy, to those struggling through chemotherapy and various types of chronic pain.
One prominent campaigner on the issue is Vera Twomey, whose daughter Ava has a drug-resistant form of epilepsy. Vera has been campaigning for access to medicinal cannabis since 2015. She is acutely aware of the stress and struggles of families trying to obtain medicine for their loved ones.
I spoke with her today, and she was quite rightly incensed by Varadkar’s flagrant disregard for the importance of this matter; “I feel that it was extraordinarily disrespectful to a family who had the courage and bravery to ask a deputy of the Dáil to highlight a very personal and private issue regarding their daughter.”
Vera has spent three years trying privately and publicly to get information on how to obtain medicinal cannabis for Ava. “We got our licence, but two years later we are still in a situation where we cannot get access to the medication that is keeping Ava safe within our own country.”
Whatever the reasoning behind the governments stalling, be it political pressure or the influence of large stakeholders in the pharmaceutical companies in Ireland, it remains the case that it is the patients on the ground who suffer. Vera explains the conditions those waiting for this treatment often face; “[They] do not have a life, they have an existence. An hourly venture from one seizure to the next, from one dose of medication to another. From home to the ambulance to the hospital, back to home and on and on. It has a devastating effect on the person who is suffering, and the care required from carers is all consuming.”
In the grand scheme of things, the antics of the Dáil and Varadkar’s behaviour is far removed from the reality of families in these situations. Even Vera, a formidable activist in her own right, admits her frustration; “I’m not interested in politics, I don’t have time and neither do the families caring for their loved ones.” Her message to Varadkar, however, is as defiant as ever; “We are going to get access in this country. They might as well accept the facts and move the issue forward. We have waited long enough.”
A compassionate access programme will not solve every hurdle faced by these patients, but it will grant a bit of breathing space and the chance to access medicine without leaving the state. As Vera explained to me, it is very little to ask for; “When medicinal cannabis is introduced you have the space to have some kind of freedom to do things together and have something related to a normal family life.”
An update on the progress of this legislation would offer much needed hope to thousands of families like Vera’s. Varadkar’s indifference is cruel, but should we be surprised? The impact of Fine Gael’s neoliberal policies and Varadkar’s leadership is consistent cruelty, as they shift the burden from the rich to the rest of us.
Varadkar’s pithy disregard for the lives of ordinary people should not deter those struggling for basic human rights. While Leo Varadkar makes his swipes at the left in the Dáil and stalls important legislation, the most vulnerable in our society will continue to suffer from Fine Gael’s inaction and disregard.
Socialist TD’s like Gino Kenny will ensure, at least, that their voices will be heard by the Oireachtas. It is our job outside of that chamber, to ensure that they are not alone.