Saturday, March 03, 2007

Miriam Lord - An Irish journalist of distinction

Miriam Lord in Cube Hotel in Tokyo - - I slept in a big washing machine on Saturday night.

Never again. On Sunday morning, I tumbled out into the Tokyo sunlight, washed out and half dead, with a bump on my head and a thumping hangover.

You'd have to be drunk to stay in a Japanese capsule hotel.

As it turns out, most of the people who book into these bizarre little sleeping pods are, indeed, half cut. Hotels are very expensive in the city, and the super efficient train system shuts down around midnight, so the capsule hotel offers a relatively inexpensive way of overnighting when the witching hour strikes and you turn into a pumpkin - from the Irish Independent June 2002 - Photo: Irish Independent

Last year, when columnist Kevin Myers moved from the Irish Times to the Irish Independent, Miriam Lord moved across the River Liffey to the Irish Times. It was an inspired choice by the IT editor Geraldine Kennedy.

Miriam Lord has the rare talent of effectively using humour to drive home a serious point.

On Thursday's Irish Times, Lord wrote in her Dáil Sketch about Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's support for Health Minister Harney's plan to give developers tax incentives to build private hospitals on public land. Unlike Labour leader Pat Rabbitte, she said that he doesn't think the plan will lead to a worsening of our two-tier health service.

Bertie Ahern had told the Dáil that : "Joe or Mary Bloggs, who have little other than welfare, or Mr X or Y, who are millionaires and billionaires, can be seen by the same consultant. It happens every day in our hospitals. And it happens very successfully."

Miriam Lord wrote that Bertie says that eminent consultants "look after Joe and Mary Bloggs, day in, day out," thanks to the miracle of "co-location," but this is management-speak for being able to nip across the car park from the building with deep-pile carpets to the building with rampant MRSA.

Everyman Bertie is sold on the idea. "That is my view, having been on both sides of the argument, as an administrator, as an accountant, as a practising politician and Joe Public, as well as being Taoiseach."

"Hang your head in shame," is Pat Rabbitte's reaction. The plan will lead to the "cherry-picking" of simple profitable procedures, leaving complex medical work to the public hospitals.

They will bear the cost of training doctors, who will then leave for the private sector. Meanwhile, private patients, when the need arises, will still be entitled to a public bed.

Bertie was deeply frustrated by his attitude. "You are ignorant of not understanding what the system is."

He pointed to lucky "Joe and Mary Bloggs", the welfare benefits couple who share their consultant with millionaires and billionaires.

"What parallel universe are you in?" came a voice from the Fine Gael backbenches.

Ah yes, Bertie's parallel medical universe.

What fun we had that day in the overcrowded waiting room. I told Sir Anthony about my little dog and he showed me a picture of his horse.

Then my mobile phone ran out of credit, so Denis O'Brien, sitting to my right, loaned me his.

Mary Bloggs unwrapped her sandwiches and handed them around. Two surgery dates cancelled and the hip giving her awful gyp, but still thinking of others.

A familiar moustachioed face appeared around the door.

"Howyis lads!" drawled Dermot Desmond. Cement Czar Seán Quinn shoved up to make a bit of space for Kaiser Dermot.

God, but it was hot and smelly in that waiting room. We'd been hanging on for hours waiting to see a consultant.

At least the Bailey brothers kept us entertained with hearty renditions of The West's Awake.

The consultant's door opened again. A radiant Michael Smurfit danced out, waving his appointment card.

"There's been a cancellation. I'll only be waiting 18 months for the surgery now," he beamed.

Joe Bloggs may get his heart operation in seven months. Never complains.

"Thank God for the Harney plan. Under the new plan, giving developers tax incentives to build private hospitals on public lands, we're all equal!" he rasped, waving his crutch for joy.

In Late September 2006, Miriam Lord was one of the media pack that was on Bertie Ahern's trail as the news was dominated by a revelation in the Irish Times, that sums of between €50,000-€100,000, including cash payments, were being investigated by the Mahon tribunal, which had been told had been used to pay Ahern's legal bills.

It was later disclosed that "friends" of the then Minister for Finance in 1993, had organised a "dig-out" to defray expenses related to a separation agreement.

Bertie had an appointment at Dublin Zoo where it had been earlier reported that two elephants there, were pregnant.

Miriam wrote: It's a very rare occasion when Bertie Ahern has nothing to say to the media.

People began to mutter about ostriches and sand.

On his way out, he was asked about comments made by the Tánaiste a few hours earlier. "She says she expects you to clarify the matter," he was told.

"The Tánaiste is a man," riposted Bertie with grim satisfaction.

That is a matter for some debate, as Michael McDowell has been uncharacteristically quiet on the subject of Bertie's benefactors. Is he a man or is he a mouse?

The day got worse for the tight-lipped Taoiseach. His next engagement was at Griffith College, where he got trapped in the lift for five minutes.

It was a small lift, packed with big men. He couldn't have felt more uncomfortable had the two pregnant elephants been inside as well. Then again, maybe he was hoping the doors wouldn't open until everyone went away.

More talk of pregnancy at the next stop, when he visited the Trinity College School of Nursing to mark the 10th anniversary of its nursing and midwifery course.

At this stage, Bertie seemed tired and subdued. He posed for photographs with three nursing students at the foot of the stairs, hunched over and clinging to the banisters, which was understandable after his nasty experience in the elevator.

The location of the nursing college might also have contributed to his unease. It's in D'Olier Street, across the road from the Irish Times building. He was probably feeling a little vulnerable, what with the accursed Irish Times responsible for breaking the story of his bizarre Drumcondra dig-out.

He wasn't given an easy time by the student nurses either.

Damaris Noble from Booterstown, Niamh Murphy from Enniskerry and David Wallace from Celbridge took the opportunity to lobby for better pay for nurses. Second-year student David thought the Taoiseach looked like "a man under stress".

He asked Bertie if he was going to support the Irish Nurses Organisation's pay claim. "We'll have to try our best," came the reply. David pressed his case. "Maybe by the time you're qualified, things might be better," sighed the Taoiseach.

Could they get any worse? Putting on his best bedside manner, the student nurse inquired how things are in government. "Oh fine," whispered the sickly patient.

It was Damaris's and Niamh's first day in college when they met Bertie. They couldn't have expected to be doing work experience so early on, but there they were, face to face with a serious case of political accident and emergency, howling all day for the privacy of the screens.

The distinguished guest didn't hang around D'Olier Street for long. Instead, he took off for yet another gig. This time, he was scheduled to open the refurbished Ulster Bank premises across the Liffey in Dorset Street. Just as well he had a driver, because Bertie doesn't seem to know very much about banks.

If only he went to one in 1993 and asked for a loan - it's what ordinary people do when they need an injection of funds - he would have been a much happier man yesterday.

Still. At least there was good news on the elephant front. "I look forward to the elephants coming," he declared.

In September 2002, the planning corruption tribunal that was then headed Mr Justice Feargus Flood, issued an interim report.

Bertie Ahern had famously said in 1997 that he had been "up every tree in Dublin" investigating the rumours and finding them groundless before appointing his friend Ray Burke as Minister for Foreign affairs. He decried "the persistent hounding of an honourable man". The tribunal hearings were marked by claims of amnesia from many of those involved as well as much obvious blustering, obfuscation and concealment.

The then Irish Independent journalist Miriam Lord, who attended many of the tribunals, wrote: "Flood has well and truly nailed the lying toads who sat smugly in the witness box telling barefaced untruths as they arrogantly played their audience for fools. They came in with good suits and expensive lawyers and came out with a pack of lies, making a mockery of the tribunal. Their clumsy efforts are dismissed briskly in the Flood report."