Catherine Shanahan speaks to Paul Reid about working through pressure during Covid-19 as head of the HSE and the steps he took to get there.
Paul Reid is tough and grounded, two traits he traces to his working-class roots in Finglas, where his mother “pretty much reared six of us” and from where very few people went on to third-level education.
“I didn’t do a Leaving Certificate. I left school at 16 with an Inter Cert, as it was called at the time: A very good Inter Cert, mind you. I was quite good at school,” Paul says.
So why did he leave school?
“I suppose first of all, where I lived in Finglas, very few people in my class would have gone on to Leaving Cert. And I’d say probably one person in my class would have gone on to college,” he says.
“I would have seen a lot of my own friends in school go the wrong way: Drugs, alcohol, suicide, mental health issues.
He says college wasn’t an option for him because the money simply wasn’t there. (Later in life, he returned to education and obtained a degree and a masters).
With six children in the family — three boys and three girls — it was really about getting out to work, he says.
They were reared mainly by their mother in a somewhat difficult family environment. “My Dad may not have been around for all of it. So my Mam did raise most of us for a long time on her own.
“But thankfully, we did all, kind of, reconcile at a later stage and my Dad made a lot up by looking after his grandchildren. He died at age 66 many, many years ago now.”
Paul is good at keeping things in perspective, which he largely attributes to the death of his brother, Noel, 14 years ago, as a result of heart failure, at age 49.
“He was very healthy and he never smoked or indeed drank much. He passed away while working In Malaysia, on a foreign contract with Ericson,” Paul says.
Noel's family was living with him when he died suddenly. “He was on a treadmill in their apartment block in Kuala Lumpur. His wife was in the gym when he collapsed.
This sense of perspective has been invaluable to him throughout the Covid-19 crisis. His lowest point has been losing healthcare workers.
Two directly employed HSE staff died, but there were others, who were contractors or working in non-HSE care homes.
“I found that really emotional, very tough,” Paul says. “Particularly talking to the next of kin of HSE staff. I found that really hard.”
Has he always felt under enormous pressure?
“I genuinely have always had pressurised jobs,” Paul says. “But I tend not to get too intense.”
Those jobs included a long career with Eircom, starting as a trainee installer and working his way up to director or networks and operations; head of corporate affairs with Trócaire; chief operations officer at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER), chief executive of Fingal County Council and since May last year, CEO of the HSE.
“Crisis seems to follow me wherever I go,” he says, ranging from storm damage at Eircom to extracting people from tricky situations overseas with Trócaire, to the economic crash and pay negotiations at DPER.
“But everything is relative to the situation you are in at the time. I think it’s about how you manage the pressure rather than how it is publicly perceived.
“I just focus on the issue and not get personally immersed, so I generally stay objective through a crisis situation.
“Just keep things in perspective, particularly when you have a public profile — I never get lost in it. It’s probably true to say I’m totally grounded. At the end of the day, it’s about family, about how you live your life.”
Paul’s son, Glynn, 33, works for Facebook in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his Texan wife, Lindsay, and their infant daughter, Aisling.
Aisling was born eight weeks premature, last November, and Paul is extremely thankful that he and his wife, Margaret, got to spend Christmas in Texas, before everything shut down.
“So it’s all about FaceTime now, lots of FaceTime, which is great and particularly during this [crisis]. It’s what keeps me going,” Paul says.
“Fifteen minutes of FaceTime; it could be anytime. I just get a text from my son and I take a FaceTime call and it’s just brilliant.”
Glynn is very active in Black Lives Matter, Paul says. “He is a prominent supporter.” Paul’s daughter, Ciara, 29, lives in Dublin and has “been out of work completely” since Covid-19 arrived, as she works with children with special needs. She is due to get married next year, so Paul is hopeful the crisis will have passed by then.
Margaret, Paul’s wife of 35 years (they met at age 16 and married at 21), has been “great through my whole career”, he says.
“I’ve generally worked very hard, wherever I’ve been, and she’s been hugely supportive. I just couldn’t have done it without her.
“She’d be very tolerant, but good at checkpoints, making sure that if I’m looking exhausted or tired that I realise it.”
Margaret, who worked with the Dublin Airport Authority (Aer Rianta) until 2010, had her own health issues in the past. She suffered a heart attack at age 33 and another aged 43. Heart disease is in her family. Fortunately, she’s been in great health “for many years” since having stents fitted.
Margaret is happy to be on lockdown in Co Leitrim, where they were when the travel restrictions were announced.
Neither of them has a direct connection with the county, but they bought the house in Carrick-on-Shannon about 16 years ago “to escape the intensity of work in Dublin”, Paul says.
“At the time, I was with Eircom. It was a summer house. I always said it was as much a process as a place; a process to help me switch off from the intensity of working,” Paul says.
“We love it and I’ve been very active down there with the local golf club and community. I’d be reasonably well known down there, but not for my HSE role.”
Paul is up at 5.30am every day. When based in his Dublin home, in Finglas, he heads to the gym. In Leitrim, it’s a case of running through “open areas and fields” with no face mask.
When required, he travels to Dublin by car for meetings with government officials and for press briefings, but a lot of his work is done via Zoom or Microsoft teams from his Leitrim base.
He’s hoping to be back on the golf course in Leitrim this weekend. His home is 6.7km from the course. That’s tantalisingly close, but until last week, just outside the 5km limit. He didn’t risk it.
“There are too many people watching out for that one,” he says.
What does Paul do to switch off?
He’s not into television, but listens to radio from dawn ’til dusk. He’s not a big reader, although he does like Leitrim writer Michael Harding and enjoyed reading, Harding’s memoir.
Cooking is his way of de-stressing.
“I find that very relaxing. My wife would say I’m a better cook than she is and that’s why she keeps asking me to cook,” he says, laughing.
“I do a good beef bourguignon.”
His favourite tipple is a pint of Guinness. Pre Covid-19, he enjoyed a few late pints on a Friday night in Leitrim, after driving down from Dublin.
He also likes wine. “I enjoy wine tours. I did a wine course many years ago to learn how to talk about it.”
Could that be his post-HSE gig?
“That could be dangerous — too much time on your hands,” he says.
Could he be persuaded to stay on with the HSE? (He’s one year into a five-year contract).
No, he’s never been interested in a job for life, he says.
Having a contract makes his position “less personally constrained”.
As he is 56, will he retire when his contract expires?
“I don’t know. I certainly can’t see myself just completely stopping. I have plenty of energy still,” Paul says.
Would he ever run for elected office? “No, no. I nearly did, many years back. I was quite active at the time with the Workers’ Party. I would have had a nomination and just pulled out at the last minute,” Paul says.
Why? “I was probably 21, 22 years of age, with a young baby, a family, a mortgage. But not now. It’s just not me.”
I tend not to get too intense. I just focus on the issue and not get personally immersed