Autism Blood Test and the Media – Anatomy of a media squall

Earlier today (19th February 2018) the University of Warwick put out a press release about what one of the authors, Paul Thornalley, described as a ‘small biomarker discovery study’ in autism. The paper has the, perhaps, not very sexy title “Advanced glycation endproducts, dityrosine, and arginine transporter dysfunction in autism—a source of biomarkers for clinical diagnosis”. It was a study using complex proteomics techniques of blood, and urine samples taken from 38 Italian children, aged between 5 and 12, all severely affected by autism, and only 9 recorded as having a normal IQ, and 31 age and sex matched community controls. The press release made three points, that the test believed to be the first of its kind (which is not true); that a link found between autism and damage to proteins in blood plasma (which is a stretch, but might be right); and that this could lead to earlier diagnosis of the condition (which is not even considered in the paper). It finished with the lines ‘The outcome was a diagnostic test better than any method currently available. The next steps are to repeat the study with further groups of children to confirm the good diagnostic performance and to assess if the test can identify ASD at very early stages and assess if treatments are working.’.

The media went crazy. As I write, at 10pm that day, the paper has been on all the main radio news programs in Ireland, and is prominently covered by the Irish Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph,  the BBC website, the Nursing Times, and many many more. Most of these sites, with a few honourable exceptions, including the Irish Times, and the Huffington Post, repeat the press release, and add a few lines about how wonderful it all is.

So, what went wrong? First, of all, I do not criticize the researchers. I spoke with one of them, Peter Thornalley, on the Matt Cooper show earlier this evening. He and his colleagues did a fairly typical biomarker discovery study, looking at a  series of markers, in a very small group of children. I am about as competent to judge their chemistry as my cat, but they have a good reputation, and all the right words, apparently in the right order. They looked for particular proteins and protein fragments in the blood and urine of children with ASD, and control children. There are many tens of thousands of proteins and fragments, any of which could have been examined. They used reasonable methods of data analysis too, which is less common. They make one serious mistake, which is that they do not seem to realize that the study is too small, and the result, most likely, is a false-positive. However, Peter Thornalley said that he saw this as a preliminary study, which might form the basis for further applications for funding.

Warwick are mostly to blame, for a very overwritten press release, but reporters must take some responsibility too. After all, the goal of a press release is to get the client talked about, and this one has certainly hit the spot. So, what was wrong, and what could a journalist have spotted, without a detailed technical knowledge of this area?

Matt Cooper, the Irish radio journalist who interviewed me, and Paul Thornalley, this evening, put his finger straight on two key points. First of all, this is a small study, and small studies have a well known bias – in a study like this you will look at many markers, and report the ones which show a positive result. This is normal. The problem is that in a small study, and especially in a small high-throughput study like this one, it is overwhelmingly likely that the interesting result, that the researchers dutifully write up, is a false-positive result. This means, that although this experiment gave a positive result, future experiments will not confirm these findings. This is a well known and much discussed problem in science.

The second point that Matt spotted was that while the press release talked about early diagnosis of ASD, most kids with ASD are diagnosed before the age of 5, that is before the age of the youngest child in the study. This means that the study only recruited kids with a well-established diagnosis of ASD, and only measured them well after the time you might expect a diagnosis to be made. In other words, it has nothing to do with early diagnosis of ASD.

Another issue is that to be useful a test like this has to be better than existing tests. Showing this is really hard to do. As Max Davie points out in the Huffington Post, such a test would have to either predict future autism at an early age, or improve upon existing clinical methods of assessment. Doing this would require big studies, lasting several years, and costing a million euro or more. It’s really hard to see a place for such a test in ASD.

What is the value of this work? Very simply, it points to a possible difference between the biochemistry of people affected by ASD, and those not affected. Such work is a necessary part of exploring the biology of ASD. At the moment, very little is known about any such differences. This paper is of interest, but to other researchers, and not to the general public. No-one has been served by the massive publicity given to this work. Parents will be confused, clinicians will be quizzed about this work, and no child with ASD will benefit. Editors and reporters can, and should, do better.

Trolley numbers in Ireland

One of the regular features of the Irish healthcare system is a series of ‘Trolley numbers’ – this refers to numbers of patients who have been assessed as requiring admission, but who are waiting for a hospital bed. Some wait on chairs, some on trolleys scattered around our Emergency Departments (ED’s) and some in extra beds or trolleys on hospital wards.

This matters for a number of reasons.

First, there are significant patient safety, and dignity, issues – it is impossible to provide adequate monitoring for an ill patients sitting in an ED corridor, perhaps tucked in behind another patient, perhaps in a side room. It is also very hard to provide patients in this situation with privacy, not to mention food, access to toilet facilities and washing. Speaking from personal experience of spending time on a trolley in a busy ED, it is very hard to rest, impossible to sleep, and generally a miserably uncomfortable way to pass a day, or two, or three.

Second it causes blocks further back the chain. At worst patients may be left sitting in ambulances in the ED car park. This removes an ambulance and crew from service, which is itself dangerous, and puts the lives of others at risk too.

Finally it makes it very hard to work in ED, especially for nurses, and the patient care staff, such as catering staff, nurses aides, and porters. All do their best, often going well beyond their usual jobs to help patients, but it is far harder than it ought to be.

This is, of course, a scandal. It would not be unreasonable for a few patients to be on trolleys, for a day or so, if there were some major incident, but this is now a regular feature of Irish hospital life. In most hospitals in Ireland, there are always a few patients on trolleys, and there are often twenty or thirty patients. This is not on, but it is now part of the normal operation of the Irish hospital system.

As can be imagined, this attracts huge public attention. We have just had a new record, of 612 patients on trolleys, and the media have focussed on the topic. The Minister, Simon Harris, a Fine Gael TD from Wicklow, has been quizzed about this, and about his response. To summarize, he blames a serious influenza outbreak, and a lack of preparedness in hospitals, despite an extra €40m in extra winter funds given this winter.

There is some truth in both explanations, although I notice that there were 600 patients on trolleys this time last year, with a very mild flu season. I am also aware of the huge effort that the acute hospitals have put into reducing trolley numbers. Irish hospitals have a broad range of in-hospital responses, including medical admission units, seven day discharge ward rounds, senior medical staff in ED, active bed management, and community liaison. They could do more, but honestly it isn’t working, and if I’m right, it won’t work.

I think that what we are trying to do, is a bit like treating a patient who presents with a pain in their left elbow for a sprain, when their real problem is a heart attack. Unless we can assess the cause of the trolley waits, we are not going to be able to fix them.

The main public response from my colleagues both in hospitals, and in general practice goes like this. OECD data show that Ireland has 2.4 acute hospital beds per 1,000 population, amongst the lowest in the OECD. The average is about 4.3. If we could increase our hospital beds to the OECD average, all would be well. I respectfully disagree.


A more considered analysis goes like this.

OECD countries have very different health care systems, and very different histories. Ireland is one of a group of countries, including the UK, Spain and Sweden with relatively few acute hospital beds. Belgium, Germany, Austria and Lithuania top the EU table with three times as many beds as we have. This, in itself, is not a good measure of health system performance. Ireland has got one of the most expensive health care systems in the EU, but it would be hard to argue that it is one of the best. What really distinguishes us from our peers is the very low investment in primary care.

I believe that we do not use our hospital beds effectively. We certainly use them a lot, with bed occupancy rates well over 95% for most hospitals, which is far too high. There are plans, for at least the last 10 years, to do a bed capacity review, and Minister Harris now tells us that this will be done by the first quarter of 2017. This ought to provide a clearer answer to the question – how many beds do we need, and how should they be divided, between, say , ICU beds, HDU beds, emergency beds, elective beds, and so on.

As it is at any given time we have the equivalent of one of our large teaching hospitals, in beds, full of patients awaiting discharge to community support, but that support is not there. We have grossly excessive waiting times for appointments, and for outpatient investigations. Capacity for doing such work outside acute hospitals is almost non-existent, unless the patient has health insurance.

In other countries there is a more strategic approach. This starts with an analysis of costs. Most health care spending is used by a small number of patients. These are, largely, patients with multiple illnesses, and often, other non-health problems. There is now good data, form several countries, showing that active case management and integrated care for this group of patients reduces costs, and improves the quality of their lives. To do this, resources are provided in the community to do the case management, and to work with the patients to keep them healthy.

This requires integrated care between hospital and primary care, and between health and social care services. Ireland, unlike many other countries, has health and social care provided by the same organizations, but we derive no benefit from this, because we do not provide for integration between them. There is, of course, good practice on the ground, but this has never been scaled up and rolled out across the system.

A key element if we are to do this is to properly fund primary care. Irish GP’s have their own crisis coming down the line, with an ageing workforce, limited investment in services, premises, and staff, and a 40 year old contract which was out of date when it started, and now represents a major obstacle to progress. The Department is finally negotiating a new contract, and there is some hope that whatever emerges will be fit for purpose. There isn’t a lot of time to get it right though.

What might a new system look like? My own idea is a service centred on patients and their needs, in which, for most people, most care will, as at present, be delivered in the community, at home, or in their local practice. Practices will be better staffed, and offer a wider range of services to their patients. To make all this work we need integrated care – this is sharing of care, information, and resources between the patient, and all those involved in their care, GP, hospital clinic, social care, and others.

For most patients this poses few challenges. However, there is an important subgroup of patient, a group of people with more complex health care needs, and often more complex social care needs, who need more. For this group, who are less than 5% of the population, but who are responsible for more than half of all health care expenditures, there is now good evidence from studies in many countries, that effective integrated care can cut costs, reduce hospital admissions, and improve their quality of life.

To make this possible, we will need skills and investment. We will need to draw on good ideas from within Irish health care, and further afield, but given that, we can train people and develop the skills to make this happen. To pay for this we will need to shift resources from acute hospital care to community care and general practice. This will require significant extra investment to cover the costs on both sides as we make these changes. In 2017 Primary care is due to get an extra €30 million from the HSE service plan. This isn’t nearly enough. It’s hard to estimate what is needed, but a rough figure would be about €600 million a year extra in primary care. This would be reached over a few years, and would be counterbalanced, to an extent, by smaller increases in hospital care costs, as services and staff were transferred across.

More fundamentally we need a direction of travel. One of the reasons why the Irish services are so expensive and work so poorly is that there is no agreed vision for the future of Irish health care. Most of those involved are fighting their own corners. This is quite understandable, but it’s not getting us anywhere. There is an Oireachtas committee on the future of healthcare, whose report has been postponed until April. If the Irish state, and the Irish health services can get behind a credible vision for the future, and work towards it over 5 to 10 years, then there is some hope that we could end up with a sustainable health service. If we don’t know where we are going, we’ll get nowhere. This is the real challenge for Minister Harris, and for Ireland.

Futures for post-school education to STEM or not to STEM

This is based on a presentation I made to the Future of Work conference, November 29th, in  Santry..

The problem

Ireland has a problem in education, which restricts our economy, and imposes heavy costs on us all. There is a large group of people who are disengaged from work, and who will need help, including educational help, to reconnect. Many of these are in two groups, unemployed young people with limited skills, and older people in long-term unemployment.

  • Ireland has had, for many years, a high proportion of our young people who are Neither in Education, Employment, nor Training – so-called NEET’s. Of our 15 to 29 year old’s 17% now fall into this group. There is considerable inequity, with much higher risks for those living in poor areas, and among those from poorer families. During of the recession the size of this group rose steeply, and thankfully it has now fallen, but it is still much higher than the EU average.


  • There are roughly 90,000 people aged 25 to 54, in long-term unemployment, 2 in every 3 of whom are men. The number of young people (20 to 24) affected has fallen steadily, due both to emigration, and to job creation, but there are stubbornly high rates of long-term unemployment in those older than 25.

This costs all of us. There are the obvious costs, easy to calculate, such as loss of income, and economic output, and social welfare costs. The less obvious costs are higher, with high risks of ill-health, poor mental health, and death, the loss of a sense of value, and heavy costs to the families of those affected, especially as unemployment drags on.

The response

One response to this is education. We have a complicated further education (FE), and higher education (HE) system. Much of it is full time courses for school leavers. These have a role, both as an opportunity for development, and in providing socialisation, foundation knowledge, and relevant skills, for their future careers.

There are also many more flexible courses, often part-time, designed for those who choose it, or who have commitments which make full-time study impossible. These courses are more flexible, and can adapt to the student, or to the local economy. Life-long learning is part of the system, although Irish data show that most of this is done by younger people, with third level qualifications.

Another response is helping people get back to work. There are many ‘labour market activation programs’. Some of these work, and some likely don’t, but there have been benefits. The education sector has also contributed, with an expansion of apprenticeships, and better access to many courses. Overall Ireland has a well educated workforce, and this is a key part of our international competitiveness.

Future skills

No-one knows what skills and education people will need in the future. To quote an employer interviewed for the National Skills Strategy ‘The skill of learning to learn; employers across the globe cannot predict the skills they will need for jobs that do not yet exist, but those who have proven to be adaptable, curious and know their own learning style have succeeded in rapidly changing industries’. There is much written about changes in employment, education, and training, often as if these were new, and unheard of, happenings.

The truth, of course, is that Ireland has had continual changes in work, lived with global competition, and often had high levels of political uncertainty, since at least 1800. One difference now, and a very welcome difference, is that whose who lose out, have votes. There were huge job losses, and minimal investment, in very specific parts of the US and the UK, over the last forty years. All of these areas have recently voted for Mr. Trump and Brexit, respectively. The Irish equivalent, both rural, and urban, seems to have led to a less dramatic political change. There is a political, an economic, and a moral mandate to address the needs of those who lose out.


A key part of the official and media rhetoric in response to these problems has been to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, as the solution. Almost all the examples, although not all the actions, given in the recent National Skills Strategy have to do with STEM. There is extensive media coverage of STEM deficiencies, and proposals for improving STEM teaching at every level of Irish education. Most of the new money expected in education in 2017 is related to STEM.

I acknowledge that the post-school education sector has changed, and is notably more flexible, more accessible, and more responsive than a decade ago. Looking at some of the key problems which remain, I don’t believe that a focus on STEM alone is enough. FE and HE are still designed for school leavers and full-time students. Students with limited academic skills are still not well catered for. Our system remains too restrictive.

I believe that we need to move further, to a more flexible student centred system, more closely tied to its local economy. I fear that we don’t produce graduates with the flexibility and imagination to cope with the ‘wicked problems’ that face us all. These are things like global warming, mass migration, cultural inclusiveness, or controlling corporations, which don’t possess a simple, manageable answer. They are the true grand challenges of our times. These aren’t STEM problems, but political, social, or philosophical problems.

STEM plus

Of course we still need STEM skills, but I argue for ‘STEM plus’. Everyone won’t do, nor wish to do a STEM subject. We need a balance of skills, training, and education, covering STEM topics, but also topics like critical thinking, philosophy, social science, languages, art and more. We must support flexibility and creativity, from pre-school to retirement and beyond.

How can this be done? There’s certainly no quick fix. I believe that if we put students at the centre our post-school education system; if we choose to provide opportunities for education by many routes, to support both better access, and different learning styles; if we provide accessible eduction to a very high standard; if we work more closely to serve, and develop local communities, and local businesses; if we decide to ‘think globally and act locally’; then I think Ireland could make very useful progress over the next five years.

Still no resolution on James’ site for NPH

I’ve been reading the submission from Connolly for Kids to the Oireachtas Health Committee. The submission is here, and the covering letter is here. My own views on the location of the NPH have changed little over the last few years. I wrote about Colocation, colocation, colocation in 2012, and I think the analysis there is still sound. For me, (a former paediatrics trainee, before going to public health), the most important feature is a maternity hospital adjoining the children’s hospital. Adjoining means accessible by corridor without going outside. Colocation with an adult hospital is not useless, but is much less useful than the Department of Health have suggested.

Given this perspective, I always thought the Mater site was complete non-starter. It was never going to be possible to fit the maternity service, nor a reasonably sized children’s hospital onto that site. After this decision was reversed on planning grounds, there was a challenging site selection process. I was involved, working on the proposal to locate the NPH beside the Coombe hospital, however, in the end the St James’ site was chosen. This was a much better choice than the Mater. It is a bigger site, more open, with better public transport, and a bit less traffic.

Unfortunately, as time has gone by, the weaknesses of that site are becoming more obvious. There is no immediate plan to bring in a maternity service, and it looks as if the NPH will, quite effectively, prevent any future major site developments for the adult hospital. St James’ is one of the biggest, and most important acute hospitals in the country, but large parts of it need to be rebuilt to meet modern service needs. Losing this opportunity would be a very high price for the NPH.

The other big issue is parking. Acute paediatric hospitals require much more parking that adult hospitals of the same size, because most of their patients arrive by car. This will not change. There is no prospect of parents of sick children bringing them in on the Luas, not by rail to Heuston station. It is already hard to park on the James’ site, and indeed the NPH build has already significantly reduced the number of parking spaces there.

It is true that Connolly does not have anything like the range of specialist services on the St James’ site, but this is not of great practical importance. The old model, under which some very hard-working adult specialists also did a bit of paediatric work on the side, is gone – almost all care is provided by fully trained paediatric specialists. Connolly could very rapidly be developed to meet a wider range of clinical needs, and this is probably necessary whether or not the NPH goes there. For example, if we ever do decide to build a national trauma centre, Connolly would be a far better choice than either James’ or Beaumont.

All in all, I agree with Connolly for Kids that Connolly would be a better site than James’ and would provide for a better and more affordable NPH. I hope the Oireachtas Health Committee will consider reviewing this decision.

Sitting as an Independent in the Seanad

Sean Melly, one of my respected rivals for the Seanad, has made two appearances in the Irish Times recently. One is an attack on me and three of the candidates running for the NUI panel. The attack is on the basis that we are all associated with Fine Gael, in different ways, and hence unable to serve as ‘independent’ candidates. This is reported by Miriam Lord, under the heading ‘Seanad university seats and a different independence‘. Lord, one of our more acute journalists, writes ‘Melly, who is an independent Independent, is deeply unimpressed. “Candidates need to be honest and political parties should not compromise the integrity of the Seanad,” he says. “The independence of the Upper House must be maintained and its original function rescued and preserved.”’

I agree, though I think reform, rather than restoration, is required. The Seanad does pretty much what Fianna Fail designed it to do – as little as possible. This is no longer acceptable.

I am a Fine Gael member, though not exactly a well-hidden one, see my Twitter account, Facebook Page, or my LinkedIn profile, if you doubt this. It seems odd to suggest that aspiring politicians ought not be interested in politics, and one legitimate way of showing this is to be a member of a party. Being a senator is a political position and having some experience of politics might well be an asset. Certainly, knowing how to work with politicians, and civil servants is essential, if you hope to get anything done.

So why am I  member of Fine Gael, rather than any other party? I am, like most Irish people, fairly centrist. I believe that States have a big role in providing good quality services, and high levels of personal protection to all residents. These include, health care, education, transport, housing, and direct protection (Gardaí etc.). This has to be paid for. I support progressive taxes, where people, like me, on high incomes pay much more than those on lower incomes. I believe that social solidarity matters, and that we need a more equal, and more just society. Fine Gael is not a perfect party, nor are our leadership perfect, but, for me, it tries to go in the right direction.

I agree with Sean that it is important for the Seanad to build on the independence of its members. I do not think that it would help me to work effectively in the Seanad, were I to join a parliamentary party, and I believe it might hinder me. If you know me personally, you may think that I am not well suited to taking a party whip!

There are more impediments to independence than party membership. I have fully declared all my personal and family financial interests, as well as my values, and my religious, and political views. including my latest P60, and my SIPO declarations. Anyone who wishes may inspect these, and draw whatever conclusions you wish.

I mentioned that Sean had appeared twice in the Irish Times recently. The second time was a story here, on February 15th of this year, which I suggest you read, and then consider what else independence might mean, and what else might affect the independence of a politician.

PSEU questions for Seanad candidates

The PSEU have asked three questions of each Seanad candidate.

It was a good opportunity to think carefully about my own values and priorities. My background is that I am a medical doctor, trained in child heath, and a public health specialist. I am a political and a social activist. My key values are equity, social justice and transparency. I have worked for many years with communities affected by environmental problems, and with people with autism or intellectual disability. I am a member of FG, but, if elected, I will be an independent, and will not take the party whip,

1) What will you do to restore the cuts to Public Servants’ pay?

Public sector workers salaries (including mine) were sharply reduced as a result of our economic collapse. While the reported recent growth rates may well not be sustained, there is little doubt that our economy is improving. I feel that Ireland could and should begin to restore these cuts. For me, the priority ought to be restoring cuts to those in lower salaries first, as this will have the greatest economic impact for any given investment.

2) What are your priorities for investment in public services?

In order these are :-

Housing. Ireland has a crisis of homelessness. The health, social, educational and economic consequences of this are very well known, and we cannot afford them. We need a rapid program of social housung cobstruction.

Education. We spend too little on education, especially in deprived and marginalised communities. This has life long bad effects. Education is our best investment in the future. We need a focused strategy of investment, and reform, in education all the way from pre-school, to third level or apprenticeship.

Health. We have a very costly health service (public and private). Our health service is not what it could be, nor is it very responsive. I think we need to reorient our services in three ways. First to a patient centred service; second to a GP/primary care focused service; third to an integrated care service for people with chronic disease. This change will require investment, but it will be worth it if we do it right.

Older people. The number of older people in Ireland will rise rapidly over the next decade. This is, of course, cause for celebration. At the same time, it is a challenge which we need to meet. Our goal should be healthy, active and productive aging. There is a lot of knowledge and good practice in Ireland. This needs to be spread and implemented better.

3) Why should members of the PSEU vote for you?

I will be an effective and accessible voice in the Seanad if elected. I know how the Irish political system, civil service and HSE work, and how to work with them. I also understand how to work with community groups.

I feel that Ireland should have more universally accessible services, including education, health care, and social care. These will need to be paid for if that is what we want. I have a record of working and achieving change, both in higher education and in health care. I will bring this experience to the Seanad.

I am a life-long trade union member, and have served as a branch official, and an executive member, at various times. I was one of the leaders of the 1987 doctors strike in Ireland. I strongly support union rights, including a right, where necessary, to industrial action. I know a fair bit about industrial relations, and the importance of maintaining good communication between management and staff.




Governments doing their jobs are not ‘nanny states’

The IEA, under the guise of the European Policy Information Centre, which operates from the IEA offices in London, has published the first Nanny State Index, described as ‘a league table of the worst places in the European Union to eat, drink, smoke and vape‘.

As you might expect, if you know the IEA, good (low scores) means unregulated, and bad (high scores) means regulated. The highest scores go to Finland, Sweden the UK, and Ireland, in that order. I’m quite proud of that. I believe that states have a role in protecting their citizens from the damage caused by unrestricted marketing of unhealthy behaviours and lifestyles. As many of the costs fall back on the state, there is a perfectly respectable economic argument for this as well.

There is a press campaign, so that journalists, and sub-editors, across Anglophone Europe at least, can cut and paste headlines. Oddly enough, for a project reportedly produced with six partners, and seven collaborators, in other countries, only one, the Visio Institute in Slovenia, now has a report of the index on their website that I can see.

Countries do well on this index by not regulating and not taxing alcohol, tobacco, e-cigarettes, and soft-drinks. The details of the scoring are complex, but quite well explained on the site. The overall scores are plotted against life expectancy, on a page headed ‘analysis‘, and no obvious correlation is shown. No statistics are shown either, and there is no account taken of wealth, the dominant factor in life expectancy, nor of changes over time. This isn’t a very credible analysis. As for references, apparently real men ‘don’t need no stinking references’. Frank de Vocht has done a proper analysis of this, and finds a modest effect, of about five weeks of life per person for every one point increase in the alcohol and tobacco components of the index.

Moving on, what is all this about? EPICENTRE, the coordinating body for the initiative, provides no  information on its funding on its own site. A spokesperson has confirmed that EPICENTRE, is 100% funded by the IEA. In turn, the IEA are coy about their funding, in fact a spokesperson today said they did not disclose the names of their private donors, and would neither confirm nor deny that they still received funding from the tobacco industry. It’s known that they did in the past, and in an index of transparency for leading UK think tanks, the IEA comes out close to the bottom.

My belief, subject to refutation, is that the IEA acts to support the interests of those who pay for it, by arguing against regulation on health grounds. The price of accepting their advice would be many extra deaths, many ruined lives, and higher profits for their corporate funders. This would be another good example of private profits and public costs. I do not think we should pay this.

My own interests, as an academic, and an aspiring politician, are a matter of public record, I fail to see why the IEA should be allowed to hide its conflicts of interest behind a veil of obscurity.

Incidentally it is reported that the UK Charity Commission is now reviewing the IEA, specifically asking ‘whether IEA is sufficiently transparent about the sources of funding for key political activities, and whether some of its controversial political activities are within its charitable objects’, which I would commend.

V0011830 An old wet nurse; symbolising France as nanny-state and publ Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images An old wet nurse; symbolising France as nanny-state and public health provider. Colour photomechanical reproduction of a lithograph by N. Dorville, 1901. 1901 By: Noël DorvillePublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Remembering all the dead of 1916

The photograph below may baffle at first, because it is both familiar and unfamiliar. It is, of course, the First Dáil, meeting in the Mansion House in 1919, but it is not the usual photograph, reproduced many times since, it is one belonging to my late grandmother, Julia. Many of the faces will be familiar, deValera, sitting in centre of the front row, Arthur Griffith beside him, and many others. The man standing behind Dev, to the right as you look at it, in a natty coat with a velvet collar will not be so familiar, but it is my grandfather, Michael Staines.


Here’s another photograph of him, from a few years earlier.




The uniform may look strange too, I believe it to be his Irish volunteers uniform. We don’t know when this was taken, but it may well have been only a few weeks before the rising of Easter 1916.

It’s now the vigil of Easter Sunday and in a few hours I will stand outside the GPO to commemorate his actions and those of the other, but of course the word matters – the other what? Heroes, terrorists, freedom-fighters, murderers, patriots, an endless spiral of antonyms, which may say more about the writers than the reality. The rising happened and I think it changed the path of our history both for good and for ill.

In 1916 my grandfather fought in the GPO. Among other actions he brought weapons, cut the telegraph lines, shot at people, raised a flag, and eventually carried the wounded James Conolly out. Three of his brothers fought with him. A fourth died fighting in the Royal Navy later in World War 1. In 2016, in a world he would hardly have recognized, I will stand and watch a parade go by. In many ways he contributed to the world I live in, as a fighter both in the War of Independence and the Civil War (Free State), as a TD, as the founder of the guards, as an alderman, and as a senator.

I think we need to remember what happened as truly as we can. When I went to Trinity in 1978, I found one item that intrigued me, tucked away on a wall insude the Nassau strret side of Trinity. It was a memorial plaque to a young man, a liitle older than I who had died there in 1916. Such plaques were and are common around Dublin. What made this one different was that this young man was a British soldier Pte. Arthur Smith a Hussar from Hexham. I felt then, and still feel that this was the right thing to do. Would my grandfather have approved? I have no idea, but he died sixty years ago.

There is an association, called the Relatives of 1916, who have taken umbrage at the proposal to list all of those who died in the Rising and afterwards in Glasnevin cemetery. Leaving aside the question of how this group can speak for all of us, without asking us first, I think they are wrong, just as the activists from Misneach who scribbled on John Redmond’s banner  in College Green were wrong.

No one owns the Easter rising. No one owns the dead. There were no first class and second class deaths in 1916, so let us remember them all equally.

Repeal the 8th?

I’ve been approached by two groups, the Pro-Life campaign, and the RepealEight campaign. Both requested me to indicate my views on the 8th amendment, specifically whether I am for it or against it, from the pro-life campaign, and whether I would support a referendum on the amendment, from RepealEight. This is a key issue for many people.

My own views, which  may not be popular with either side, are not simple, in that I favour repealing the 8th amendment, but oppose unrestricted abortion. I do not claim that I am right, but this is where I am starting from.

Some background first. I’m a doctor, and started my working life as a paediatrician. I spent several years working in the Coombe hospital, mostly caring for very sick premature babies, and a range of babies with congenital anomalies and chromosomal problems. I’m a man, I’ve never been, and never will be pregnant, so I don’t have that experience, but I have seen many mothers with critically ill and dying babies. I have a bit more experience than most people of both the tragedies and the joys of birth. I now work in public health, and a good deal of my recent work has been on intellectual disability, specifically my work with Special Olympics Ireland, and on autism.

In 1983, I was in my final year in medical school, when the 8th amendment was brought in. The purpose of this amendment was to prohibit any legislation regulating abortion in Ireland. Abortion, was, and is, illegal under the 1861 Offences against the Person Act. At the time, my father, a solicitor, and many other lawyers, including Alan Shatter, argued that the effect of the amendment would be to bring in a right to abortion, under the constitution. This subsequently turned out to be correct. Truthfully, I cannot now remember how I voted in 1983. I do remember watching SPUC in action, and later their trying to use the courts to muzzle people. At the time, I disliked them, – they did little to protect any child, born or unborn.

So, now, I think the 8th amendment was a bad idea. Abortion ought to be the subject of legislation, not an item in the constitution. Placing it in the constitution let the Oireacthas off the hook. There will be, almost certainly, be a vote to repeal it, and it will almost certainly fall. Both of these I support.

The hard question is what ought to replace it. At the moment, in the UK, abortion is available on demand. My view is that once a woman is pregnant there are two sets of rights involved – hers, and the baby’s. I also believe that rights impose duties, both on individuals and on the wider society. If they do not, they are vacuous. I do not believe that any right, of anyone, trumps all others in every circumstance. Managing rights, and the conflict of rights, is hard. I also appreciate, very clearly, that I am not ever going to be in the situation of being pregnant and not wanting to be.

What about unwanted pregnancy? I said earlier that I disliked SPUC. This was because for all their rhetoric about protecting babies, they did little to support women who found pregnancy difficult. Women can and do find themselves in bad situations, often because of poverty, which are made much worse by pregnancy. For me, the right social response is to support the woman, not terminate the pregnancy. I accept that others disagree, but having cared for a baby born at 22 weeks, and seen her parents interacting with a child who was going to live for less than an hour, I believe strongly that babies have rights, both in-utero, and after delivery. As a country, we have obligations to vindicate these rights, but also to balance these with the rights of the mother. This may not be easy, but there is no guarantee that a serious rights based approach will be easy.

In other countries, many babies affected by congenital anomalies, and chromosomal anomalies are terminated, purely because of their condition. I am unalterably opposed to selective termination based on gender, race, anatomy, or chromosome count. I take a firm rights based approach to disability, and this includes a right to live. Please try to imagine what people with Down syndrome think of quasi-routine termination of babies with trisomy 21, or better yet, ask someone.

What about fatal foetal anomalies? By far the commonest of these is anencephaly. This is a condition in which the brain fails to form. Such babies miscarry, or die  very shortly after birth, and are now usually diagnosed on the first routine ultrasound in pregnancy. I do not see any realistic objection to termination in such a case if that is the mother’s choice. Other conditions are proposed, as ‘fatal foetal anomalies’, for example Edward’s syndrome (trisomy 18) and Patau’s syndrome (trisomy 13). Many children affected by these two disorders die within the first year of life, but some do not. I do not believe that these, and the many similar disorders, are in the same category as anencephaly.

Are there difficult cases? Of course. The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar is a good example. I said earlier that it is hard to balance the rights of mother and baby. This may show what can happen when you fail to do do the work of finding the correct balance (there were several distinct issues in her care, besides her pregnancy). For me, (bearing in mind that I am not an obstetrician), a reasonable treatment for a woman in her condition might have been a termination. What about another tragedy – a woman raped, and pregnant, as in the X case? I try not be a hypocrite. If my daughter were in that situation, I would ensure that, if she so chose, she could have a termination. I’m well-paid, well-educated, and well-connected. I would have no difficulty arranging for this. I don’t see that I can argue that other women should be denied this.

I think we need comprehensive, but quite restrictive, legislation on abortion. I respect most of those who disagree with me, on both sides. I admire the courage of James Reilly and the Fine Gael/Labour government bringing in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. This Act is, literally, tied in knots by the constitution. It needs to be un-knotted.  If the Oireachtas does not do it, I think the courts will, perhaps following the very recent judgement in Northern Ireland.

Evictions in Tyrrelstown

Listening to Morning Ireland this morning, and reading Kitty Holland’s excellent article in the Irish Times made my blood boil. Briefly 60 or more families in Tyrrelstown are going to be legally evicted over the next four months by Goldman Sachs. The reason is that a Goldman Sachs linked investment fund, Beltany Property Finance, wishes to sell the houses. As many as 208 families in total may be evicted in this one estate. All of this is legal.

I’m no lawyer, but the relevant Act is the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. The relevant bit is Section 34 ‘Grounds for termination by landlord’. Under this landlords may terminate tenancies on several grounds. One, Ground 3 i the table in that section is this :-

‘The landlord intends, within 3 months after the termination of the tenancy under this section, to enter into an enforceable agreement for the transfer to another, for full consideration, of the whole of his or her interest in the dwelling or the property containing the dwelling’.

I assume this is the basis for the termination of tenancies here (but again, I am no lawyer, so if you know better, let me know).

There is little rental property available in Dublin. This morning on there were 2 properties to rent in Tyrrelstown,and only 400 properties anywhere in Dublin at under €1,500 a month. The odds are that most of these families will have to move, and many will not be able to find accommodation at a price they can pay. The effect of these lawful actions will be to render a large number of families homeless.

The scandal of homelessness in Dublin has been obvious for three years. The roots go back a lot longer, to the crash, to a poor quality, and corrupt, planning system, to greedy and feckless developers, to the decision of local authorities not to bother with social housing, and to our appallingly lax laws on tenancy rights.  The response from the Department of the Environment today, that the tenants should use the PRTB to delay eviction,  is best described as embarrassing. Clearly the civil service, Minister Kelly, and the Department will continue to sit on their hands, and close their eyes tightly. It is time to act.

Although we have yet to form a Government, the Oireahctas is still there. If our politicians could focus on something other than Irish Water, and various combinations of coalitions, they could pass a quick amendment to the Act, giving tenants the right to continue a tenancy even if a property is sold. This is already the norm in commercial property here, and it is usual in residential property lettings in most other developed countries. Anyone up for this? It would be a very constructive way to commemorate 1916.