Tony O’Brien, the embattled director general of the Health Service Executive last night bowed to mounting political pressure over the smear test scandal and resigned.
In a bid to contain the escalating cancer crisis, the Government cancelled a scheduled Cabinet meeting in Monaghan today and will instead gather in Dublin with under fire Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris.
Following the release of three explosive memos from 2016 and a harrowing radio with terminally ill mother of five Emma Mhic Mhathúna, Mr O’Brien was facing a Dáil motion of no confidence next week and decided to jump before he was pushed.
It is understood Mr O’Brien will depart with his full terms of his contract being honoured and will not suffer adversely financially by leaving prematurely.
The three memos confirmed Mr O’Brien knew about the smear test errors as far back as March 2016 but also showed the HSE prioritised its legal position and the potential media fallout, while it neglected to consider the impact on the women affected.
Following their publication, Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party said they would be backing a Sinn Féin motion which meant Mr O’Brien’s position was no longer tenable.
Mr Harris met with Mr O’Brien, who informed him of his decision to step down now as opposed to in June as previously planned. He will leave at the close of business today.
In a statement, Mr O’Brien said he was stepping down “in order to avoid any further impact to the delivery of health and social care services, and in particular the cancer screening services that have become the focus of intense political debate in recent days”.
The departure of Mr O’Brien will see attention shift to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr Harris about what they knew of the scandal, and when.
Mr Varadkar was health minister in 2016 when the first memos were sent to Mr O’Brien, but his spokesman insisted last night he and Mr Harris were never aware of them.
The memos emerged in a confrontational showdown at the PAC between angry TDs and Mr O’Brien.
He said that while he was aware of the 2016 memo, it did not “ring alarm bells”, adding he was never told about the number of women affected and that the memo specifically said they would all be contacted.
However, after the HSE provided the PAC with a copy of the memo — after Mr O Brien had left — it emerged the 2016 document made no reference whatsoever to contacting women.
Instead, it focused on limiting the damage a headline saying “screening did not diagnose my cancer” would cause, said the HSE should “pause all letters” and urged officials to “await the advice of solicitors”.
The memos’ publication led two ministers who sit at Cabinet — Katherine Zappone and Finian McGrath — to restate their calls for Mr O’Brien to resign immediately.
Childrens’ Minister Katherine Zappone described the 2016 memo to Mr O’Brien as a “game-changer”.
Independent Alliance Disability Minister Finian McGrath also called for Mr O’Brien to stand aside.
Furious PAC members lashed out at the fact the memo was the “complete opposite” to what Mr O Brien had said earlier in the day.
Labour’s Alan Kelly telling Department of Health and HSE officials the “devastating document sums up where we are today”.
The PAC had earlier demanded Mr O Brien — who will be forced to attend an emergency PAC meeting on Tuesday over the memo — be sacked in response to the heart-breaking Emma Mhic Mhathúna interview with Morning Ireland yesterday.
However, in a series of confrontational exchanges which at one point saw Mr O’ Brien tell TDs to “step back, step back” and accuse them of “hysteria”, the HSE director general insisted he had no reason to resign.
The developments occurred on another fast-moving day in the cervical cancer tests scandal, during which President Michael D Higgins took the unprecedented step of intervening in the cervical cancer case, saying he will meet Ms Mhic Mhathúna next week.
Meanwhile, the State Claims Agency confirmed four women are also suing the State’s Breast Check system over “alleged misdiagnosis”.
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