Kelly a well-respected head who had to roll

IF MICHAEL KELLY did not already know how precarious his position as secretary general of the Department of Health was before the Travers Report was completed, it would have become painfully clear by the time he got just a third of the way through the damning document.

The failures of the department to acknowledge or act upon concerns about nursing home charges over three decades were a failure that “rests primarily with the management of the department”, the report says.

As its most senior manager Kelly cannot have been surprised that his head would have to roll.

The loss of his high-profile job, however, will have come as a personal blow to the respected and well-liked official, regarded as one of the most forward-thinking heads the department had.

Kelly began his career in the civil service 33 years ago, serving in posts in the

Departments of Finance and Justice before moving to Health, where he worked his way up to assistant secretary general before taking the top seat in 2000.

That was a few months after Micheál Martin took over the health portfolio and the minister clicked with his new top man.

Martin had big plans for health and Kelly had a big appetite for the challenge.

Martin also liked Kelly’s style. During his spell in Justice, he visited every prison and detention centre under the department’s control and he wanted to bring the same hands-on approach to Health.

Martin put Kelly on the national steering committee in charge of the massive task of reforming the health service from top to bottom.

Kelly was also given key roles in the Waiting List Initiative, preparations for the smoking ban and everything from the junior doctors’ working-time directive to the expert group on Sars.

Along with the political firestorms that were the A&E and waiting list crises, he handled controversies over the drug refund scheme (when patients were underpaid), the medical card scheme (when GPs were overpaid) and delays in rolling out cancer services.

He was the public face of the private bureaucracy within the department, often speaking about the work of Hawkins House at medical conferences.

Considered a man of vision, there is nonetheless the view that he got so caught up with trying to design a new health service, that he took his eye off the old model.

The Travers report is reasonably kind to him, but the chronicle of confusion over what happened or was meant to happen to concerns about nursing home charges speaks for itself.

Kelly “with admirable speed” set up a group in December 2003 to compile a background document on the issue, to be sent to the Attorney General for legal advice. Yet, though he received the file the next month and told Travers he believed he would have sent it on to Martin, he could not recall doing so.

Martin told Travers he did not remember receiving any such file. Kelly recalled discussing the issue with Martin a few months later but the file, and the plan to ask the AG for advice, did not come to mind.

Not even a parliamentary question by Roisin Shortall in May 2004 prompted Kelly to remember the file or that it was supposed to have been sent to the AG. Travers reported that when he queried why nobody who was involved in the document or its progress wondered what happened to it, the general reaction was “it was assumed that the matter was in process”.

In his statement to Travers, Kelly began by pleading: “The year 2004 was, even by normal standards in the Department of Health and Children, a period of intense and persistent pressure.”

His statement defended the reputation of staff, their work record and dedication, although he admitted the “high standard” he set for himself “on this occasion ... has not been met”.

It was a strong opening statement and, as it turns out, a memorable farewell speech. He is not disappearing, however, but will take over as chairman of the Higher Education Authority in April.

The new job is in part a reward for his readiness to fall on his sword without undignified protests and in part recognition that he is far too capable an employee to waste on early retirement.

A family man with a low-key lifestyle, the new job should also give him more time to spend in his beloved Co Wexford, which had become his weekend retreat from the Hawkins House of Horror.

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