Think Twice Before Imitating the Irish Miracle

Susie Long couldn't believe it. Sitting in the clinic, waiting for her dose of chemotherapy, she'd been making small talk with the wife of a fellow patient. The man's doctor had recommended a colonoscopy, and just three days later, he was having the procedure. That day, Susie finished her own treatment, went home and turned on the TV. The first commercial was from the Ministry of Health: Beat colon cancer with a timely colonoscopy! And that's when Susie Long lost it. She had waited seven months for her colonoscopy, and it came too late. Now she was 39 years old, and she was dying of colon cancer.

Susie sat down at the computer and wrote an e-mail to a popular radio host, a plainly eloquent rant about her health care odyssey. It immediately catapulted her onto the national stage, and for good reason.

The man who had waited three days for his procedure had private insurance, and Susie was a patient of the public system. "When I heard that a very nice man who was in the same, if not worse condition, than me ... is going to live because he had private health insurance and I'm going to die because I didn't, I had to bite my tongue," Susie wrote. "I'm happy he's going to live. He deserves to live. But so do I." It was a dying woman's manifesto against two-tier health care.

One month ago, Susie Long died, giving her already moving words a new poignancy. The funeral sparked not just national mourning but collective soul-searching about the dark side of the so-called Irish economic miracle. Irish citizens began asking themselves how they came to live in a country where the ability to pay could seal the fate of this brave woman.

I arrived in Dublin last week and had the opportunity to eavesdrop on this extraordinary public dialogue. As a Canadian, I couldn't help thinking that our country also needs to hear the words - and the warning - of Susie Long.

The health care debate in our two countries has much in common. Like us, Irish voters never endorsed two-tier health care, and no politician was ever honest enough to propose it. Instead, the slide into health care atavism took place under cover of an economic boom - in fact, it was a predictable result of the very policies that generated that spectacular growth.

The Celtic Tiger formula - rock-bottom corporate taxes, hyper-liberalized investment laws, and a "flexible" labour force - has been feted since the 1990s as a hi-tech short cut that turned an economic basket case into a European powerhouse. And there's no denying that the country has been transformed, from the bleak days of 17 per cent unemployment in 1985 to the impressive 4.7 per cent today. Even the busker I met on Grafton Street boasts about the booming Celtic Tiger on his MySpace page.

But there was always a harsh flip side to the muchtouted economic recipe, found in two of the least-advertised elements of the "miracle": wage increases that have remained below inflation for a generation, and the lowest spending on public services in Europe, requiring round after round of cuts. The end result is a ruptured public sphere, the one that failed Susie Long.

Canada is no Ireland, much as some financial columnists might wish it were. But we could be on our way. Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty's $60-billion in tax cuts - including corporate rates to rival Ireland's by 2012 - will complete the work started by Paul Martin's $100-billion tax cuts in 1995. That is the drastic constriction of government's capacity to mitigate inequality through social spending.

Before Canada further imitates the Irish Miracle it's time for a closer look at the real costs. In Ireland today, the bloom is coming off the boom. The Finance Minister recently warned of slowing growth, rising unemployment, and "a turning point for the Irish economy." Seagate, one of the companies representative of the hi-tech economy, just announced 900 layoffs at a hard-drive factory in the Northern Irish town of Limavady - possibly doubling the local unemployment rate in a single blow. All of a sudden, inequality is becoming an issue (just like it is in Canada) and people are wondering what they're left with - apart from wildly inflated housing prices - after all these years of stellar growth. When you factor out the value of people's homes, the top 1 per cent of the population holds more than a third of the nation's wealth.

Then came Susie Long. In her now-famous e-mail, Ms. Long, a mother of two teenagers and herself no passive victim, raged at the government for presiding over the privatization of the public health-care system. But she also had a message for society that should stop us in our tracks in Canada. "I'm also angry at every single voter who voted for Fianna Fail and the PDs [the winning coalition parties] because they thought they'd get a few more shillings in their pockets. ... We all knew before the last election what their health policies were and the majority of people ignored this and voted for them anyway. Maybe they thought this would never happen to them. Or maybe because so many have private health insurance they just didn't care because they were alright, Jack."

At Susie Long's funeral, a family friend thanked her for sparking a debate about "where we're going as a society." Canada shouldn't wait for a tragedy like hers to do the same thing.

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