Updated: 12/07/12 : 05:11:08
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Call For Cancer Chief To Quit - Speech Torn Up

A Special Report

SLIGO SENATOR Marc MacSharry tore up a speech delivered by a Labour Party junior Minister on behalf of a Fine Gael Cabinet member in the Senate last night (Wednesday).

He also called for the resignation of the head of the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) whom he didn't name on the Seanad record.

A second Labour Party junior Minister exchanged words, outside the official Seanad record, with Senator MacSharry, while he was waiting to cast his vote after the debate.

A statement issued by the Fianna Fail Press Office later last night (Wednesday) on behalf of its Health spokesman Senator MacSharry said: "It was alleged by the Government during the debate that the Director of the National Cancer Control Programme proofed and approved the script, which is very concerning when considering the contempt with which the speech treated genuine efforts to provide for patients, not least vulnerable cancer sufferers.

"If this is in fact the case, the capabilities of this person to continue in their role must be questioned."

'Door Still Open'

That NCCP post is held by Dr Susan O'Reilly, who caused controversy last February when she declared in an online interview withirishhealth.com that cancer services would not be restored at Sligo General Hospital: ''It is not going to happen.''

Her remarks contradicted assurances in early 2012 from local Government Party TDs and Senators and it muddied statements by the Minister for Health, Dr James O'Reilly, who had suggested ''the door was still open.''

Arguments raged throughout last night's 90 minute debate on Senator MacSharry's Access to Cancer Treatment Bill, which was co-sponsored by leading Irish oncologist, Senator John Crown.
See SligoToday.ie 10/7/12

The main speech by Kathleen Lynch, Labour, the junior Minister at the Department of Health, was widely criticised by the Bill's supporters. It was delivered on behalf of Dr James Reilly, the Minister for Health.

Minister Lynch later told the Senate she had been heckled by Professor Crown during her speech.

Rosisín Shortall, pictured left, a second Government junior Minister who deputised in the Senate last night exchanged words off the record with Senator MacSharry, while he was waitng to vote, it has been confirmed by SligoToday.ie this morning (Thursday).

Sligo/Leitrim's Fine Gael Senators, Imelda Henry and Michael Comiskey, voted against the Bill. Labour Senator Susan OKeeffe did not vote. It remains unclear if she was absent or paired.

In summary, the Bill introduced last night attempted to put the onus on the Government to have to 'opt out' of the provision of a European Medicines Agency-approved drug for cancer patients rather than the current scenario where they have the choice to 'opt in.'

"The attitude adopted by the Government," said Senator MacSharry, "was dismissive  and ignorant in its treatment of families all over the country." He especially highlighted those who did not have VHI cover.

The Minister Kathleen Lynch, was firmly not in the affirmative when she declared starkly, in effect: ''We reject this Bill.'' There were no issues with current availabilty of cancer drugs in Ireland, said the Minister.

Cancer treatments approved by the EMA did not, said Minister Lynch, "take into account the wider range of factors and constraints that influence national priority."

Speech Proofed

However, Labour Senator John Gilroy -- in attempting to rebut early criticism of his fellow Corkonian -- merely ignited the inferno; the Minister's speech had been ''proofed'' by Dr Susan O'Reilly, he told colleagues.

This prompted Senator MacSharry to conclude the debate by stating that he was shocked in the extreme; in his ten years in the Senate he had never heard such a speech as made by the Minister.

''It's a disgrace this speech and if the head of the National Cancer Control Programme ''proofed'' it I am calling for her resignation. She is incapable of carrying out the duties of that organisation,'' Senator MacSharry told the Seanad.

Littered With Insults

MacSharry added: ''It's a sad day for patient advocacy groups. Shame on you.''

Senator Darragh Brien,FF, said he queried who wrote the script: ''It's nothing short of condescending -- littered with insults -- absolute rubbish,'' he said.

The Bill was being rejected in erroneous terms and was ''nothing short of disgraceful,'' said Senator O'Brien.

Leitrim's Senator Paschal Mooney,FF, said he knew the Minister well. ''I have rarely seen her so uncomfortable with a script.''

He suggested the Minister had even set aside the script but she interjected to say she was responding to Senator John Crown whom, Minister Lynch said, had ''heckled'' her.

The speech was ''a gratuitous insult,'' said Senator Mooney, who also pointed out that Standing Orders in the Seanad ruled out the use of scripts!

Unnecessary Rancour

Senator David Cullinane, Sinn Fein, said it was regrettable there was so much unnecessary rancour. He criticised poor auditing structures within the HSE and -- in the context of Senator MacSharry's Bill -- he said there was no hospice unit in the south-east.

The furious row erupted amid claim and counter claim about who had written the speech read by junior Health MInister,

Senator Brian O Domhnaill, FF, said he was flabbergasted at the attitude adopted by the Minister.

Light Hearted Note

Senator Marie Moloney, Labour, brought the only light hearted note to a sometimes bitter debate when she said not only did she want to know who wrote the Minister's speech but also who had typed speech: ''It's so small I can't read it.'' She said the intentions of those behind the Bill were ''absolutely honourable.''

Senator John Gilroy said the aims of the Bill were very difficult to disagree with. He criticised its drafting; ''the Bill is not too well thought out,'' he said.

He also rejected criticism of the Minister's script -- ''it was 'proofed' by one Susan O'Reilly,'' declared Senator Gilroy.

Other contributors to the debate included Professor Sean Barrett of Trinity College, who backed the Bill and Senator Cait Keane, who spoke against.

The subsequent electronic vote was never in doubt. After one minute had elapsed any hopes of a Second Stage reading -- which would have permitted amendments -- for Senator MacSharry's Bill was aborted in a vote of 28-17.

This means 15 Senators -- that is, a quarter of all members  -- did not participate in last night's vote, which took place at 7.30pm.

Footnote: Senator Brian O Domhnaill said that yesterday (Wednesday) at 12.15pm the driver of a bus taking cancer patients from Donegal to Dublin had been informed the service was being stopped as the cost was €100,000 per year.

N.B. Senator Susan O'Keeffe has advised SligoToday.ie that she was, for medical reasons, attending Sligo General Hospital.