Simon Harris rebuffs Tony O'Brien's 'frightened little boy' criticism

Health Minister Simon Harris has hit back at criticisms levelled at him by the former HSE chief, saying Tony O’Brien took the “right decision” to step down.

File photo of Tony O'Brien and Simon Harris

Mr Harris was responding to an interview Mr O’Brien gave to the Sunday Business Post in which he describes the minister as a “frightened little boy”. 

In the interview, Mr O’Brien is reported as describing Mr Harris as a weak minister, who is obsessed with media coverage and “runs scared of headlines”. He said Harris behaved “like a frightened little boy” during the recent CervicalCheck controversy.

“I would have hoped he’d have been able to show more courage in the face of a difficult political and media onslaught,” Mr O’Brien said.

A spokesperson for Mr Harris said: “The Minister doesn’t believe in engaging in the politics of personalised attacks.”

The spokesperson added that it was Mr O’Brien’s own decision to step down and that “The Minister believes that was the right decision. He wishes him well”.

Last night Taoiseach Leo Varadkar defended his health minister, saying Simon Harris had handled his department with “ability, empathy and maturity.”

Mr O’Brien stepped down in May, ahead of schedule, after six years in charge of the HSE, at the height of the CervicalCheck controversy. He accepts that mistakes were made by the HSE, describing his organisation’s initial response to the crisis as “a trainwreck”.

Yesterday Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene died in July last year, after two false negative smear tests in 2010 and 2013, asked in a tweet "Who was the leader of this trainwreck?".

He described Mr O'Brien's interview as a "bitter response" to his fall from grace as head of the HSE.

"Where are the questions on his poor leadership skills?" Mr Teap asked.

Mr O'Brien said in the interview that he believed leadership was his legacy to the HSE.

Mr Harris' spokesperson said he was "working very closely with officials in his department" to ensure women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal were supported and on eradicating cervical cancer through “the best possible screening and vaccination programme”.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan defended his Cabinet colleague on RTÉ radio yesterday, and criticised Mr O’Brien’s no-holds-barred interview.

“I think it was totally out of order on the part of Tony O’Brien," Mr Flanagan said.

He said the ex-HSE boss had done himself “no favours by descending into personal attacks”.

“This is Tony who stepped down after a pretty rapid fall from grace himself,” Mr Flanagan said.

The CervicalCheck controversy came to light during a court case taken by Limerick woman Vicky Phelan when it emerged  she was one of a number of women who had not been told their screening history was part of a retrospective audit by CervicalCheck, following a cancer diagnosis. 

It has since emerged that at least 221 women with cervical cancer could have potentially benefited from more timely/more appropriate intervention if their smears had been correctly read.

To date, at least 20 women caught up in the CervicalCheck controversy have died.

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