Daniel McConnell: Another embarrassing week in the Department of Health

The cost of the weakness of our politicians compared to our civil service was this week laid bare for all to see
Daniel McConnell: Another embarrassing week in the Department of Health

Dr Tony Holohan is a household name, for many reasons good and bad.

Tony Holohan is not a saint. He is human like everyone else. He has made mistakes and does not get everything right.

He himself, I am sure, would concede to that. To many in this country, he steered us through the Covid-19 pandemic while he himself endured great personal tragedy.

His fights with the government almost became a battle of good versus evil and near sainthood was conferred on “the boss”, as he likes to be known by many.

But by the way several Cabinet ministers have gone on this week, amid the controversy of his “open-ended” secondment to Trinity College Dublin, he is somehow infallible.

A god-like figure who has descended down from on high to walk among us and we are so very lucky that he has decided to remain in the public sector on his measly €187,000-a-year salary plus gold-plated pension.

Cheap at the price, says you, and certainly when you consider the rate of pay for the chap who approved this arrangement — Department of Health secretary-general Robert Watt. Yes, that Robert Watt, who simply can’t help making news headlines these days.

Yes, he of the €300,000 salary from the L’Oreal school of Secretaries-General, where they all think they are worth it. Once it emerged on Tuesday that Dr Tony’s salary would remain at his current level and would be paid by the department and not by Trinity, eyebrows were raised and questions were asked.

Political reaction

Very quickly, the plot thickened. In the Dáil, Taoiseach Micheál Martin emphatically made clear he had “no hand, act or part” in the arrangement. It became clear that senior officials in Minister Stephen Donnelly’s health department went on a “solo run”.

Trinity College Dublin was forced to confirm that the role was created with "Dr Holohan in mind" and that it is a secondment from the Department, an admission that has caused no end of ire among academics in Ireland’s oldest university.

On Wednesday, it emerged that neither of the country’s money ministers – Michael McGrath or Paschal Donohoe – knew anything about it.

“I know Minister McGrath, the minister for public expenditure, is not satisfied with how this has been done and he is engaging with the Department of Health on that at the moment,” commented Leo Varadkar in the Dáil on the matter.

Speaking to reporters, McGrath said the process “could have been handled better”. He said he would be seeking answers as to why Trinity was not being asked to pay anything for Dr Tony’s services when they would be deriving the benefit of his talents.

McGrath did stress that it was a good thing that Dr Tony was staying on the State’s payroll given his exceptional experience. Stephen Donnelly also defended the appointment, saying it was “a positive move”. He said that it doesn't matter who is fitting the bill as "it's all public money".

He said what Dr Tony is going to be doing now is leading up research in Trinity on what in healthcare is going to be one of the most important areas of research we have for years to come.

Then Heather Humphreys, the Social Protection Minister, added to the chorus saying it is better to see Dr Tony remain in the public sector than to be lost to a private company and that the issue of who pays his TCD salary "doesn't really matter to me".

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney chimed in saying the country is “fortunate” that Dr Tony is choosing to stay as an asset for the State. Who wouldn’t get a big head after all of that?

Appointment process

This is not personal to Dr Tony but the process of how this came about is highly dubious.

The plot thickened again when it emerged on Thursday morning that Donnelly himself was blindsided by the secondment, leaving only one obvious conclusion.

After several days of refusing to answer simple questions about how all this came about, it was eventually confirmed to my colleague, the dogged Paul Hosford, that it was Watt and Watt alone who signed off on this deal.

That morning, Dr Tony himself addressed the Oireachtas Health Committee in what was his first public utterances on the situation and said that he did not intend to return to the Department in his capacity as CMO or any other role.

So why, if he is not returning to the department and will not be CMO anymore, retain his services? Why grant him this open-ended secondment?

This whole affair stinks to high heaven.

If all of this was kosher, why not flag it as a virtue on March 26 when the initial announcement was made of Dr Tony’s departure from the CMO’s position.

Why not sell it as a meaningful example of Ireland investing in the academic development of the public health sphere drawing on Dr Tony’s experience during Covid-19 at the time.

By not disclosing it at the time, Watt’s “innovation” as belatedly heralded by the department this week has descended into predictable controversy. It has led to legitimate questions as to who is really running the Department of Health, the minister or his top official.


But to that point, I heard one radio interviewer say no one questions Dr Tony’s expertise, suitability, and pedigree for this position.

Well actually, this humble scribe would raise a couple of points about our outgoing CMO.

Firstly, before discussing anything Covid-19 related, his copybook was blotted in relation to his advice to the then-health minister against setting up a review into the CervicalCheck scandal in the wake of Vicky Phelan’s seminal court case. 

He also appeared to oppose the introduction of mandatory disclosure rules for doctors after it emerged many women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal were not told by their doctors of the errors made in their scans.

And on Covid, he is open to criticism for his deep-rooted and single-minded opposition to antigen testing for many months despite clear evidence of its value.

He, at times, showed naivety and arrogance in his dealings with government and the messaging of proposed restrictions, no more so than in October 2020 when he demanded a level 5 lockdown less than 72 hours after his own body had stated no such restrictions were needed.

These are professional criticisms, not personalised attacks on Dr Tony but please, let’s stop with the ‘Saint Tony’ mantra. If Trinity thinks he is the man they want, that is fine. Let them pay for him.

Civil service power

Donnelly wanted Watt as his top official to help put manners on the runaway train that is the health service and was willing to break the bank to pay for him.

That process has been dogged in controversy since it first emerged in January 2021 and this latest episode involving Dr Tony brings Watt again into the firing line.

News from Helsinki that the Taoiseach has ordered the process paused pending the furnishing of a report from Donnelly and Watt is appropriate and is an attempt to draw a line in what has been a deeply embarrassing episode.

It would appear that little, if anything, has been learned from the Katherine Zappone affair when the Taoiseach was kept in the dark about her name being put forward for a newly-created special envoy role.

The truth of the matter is that since the financial crash, the permanent government in the civil service has grown in power and influence in this country at the expense of their political masters, who were chastened by the public over their role in the country’s demise. 

The system has remained out of balance since then, with weak politicians being dominated by their officials. The cost of that imbalance was this week laid bare for all to see.


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