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‘Who’s running the country?’: Sec Gen ‘snub’ of Oireachtas committee raised with Taoiseach

26th April 2022

THE CHAIR OF the Oireachtas Finance Committee has written to the Secretary General of the Department of Health Robert Watt to convey “disappointment” at the lack of response from Watt to an invitation to appear at a meeting tomorrow.

The Oireachtas Finance Committee will tomorrow discuss the botched appointment of the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan to a role in Trinity College

Following controversy over the secondment, Holohan announced earlier this month that he would not be taking up the position as Professor of Public Health Strategy and Leadership at Trinity College.

Holohan is still set to stand down as Chief Medical Officer in July.

The controversy was caused over the “open-ended” secondment, which was to be funded by the Department of Health, while Holohan was not expected to return to the role of CMO.

‘Disappointment’ 

The chair of the Finance Committee, John McGuinness, wrote in his letter to Watt that: 

“The Committee is disappointed that, despite extensive efforts to follow up on this correspondence by the Committee’s Secretariat, no response has been provided by you to date to the requests for information or its invitation to you to attend a meeting of this Committee this week.

“The Committee notes your lack of engagement and apparent unwillingness to discuss and clarify matters of significant public concern. The Committee wishes to advise you, however, that it intends to continue its consideration of this matter and reiterates its request that you provide the information sought and attend its public meeting.”

The Secretary of the Department of An Taoiseach Martin Fraser has accepted the invitation to appear before the committee tomorrow. 

In a letter to the committee last week, he said that he had not involvement in the details of the secondment arrangement of Dr Holohan’s move to Trinity College.

He also stated that he had no conversations with the Taoiseach or anyone in the Department of An Taoiseach about the proposed move prior to the information making it into the public domain last month.

The issue of civil servants snubbing Oireachtas committees was raised with the Taoiseach during Leaders’ Questions today.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy asked the Taoiseach: “who is running the country?”.

“We know the Secretary General of the Department of Health, Mr Robert Watt, is in a rarefied position, not least because his pay grade is above the Taoiseach’s. Does that mean he can snub or thumb his nose at attending Oireachtas committees and decline to be held accountable for decisions he takes?

“The same Secretary General thinks so little of the Oireachtas finance committee that he did not even bother responding to its request for a meeting tomorrow to discuss the botched appointment of Dr Tony Holohan to a position in Trinity College Dublin,” she said.

“There was a significant €20 million sum associated with this proposed secondment and the finance committee is tasked with investigating State spending so why will the Secretary General and the Minister for Health not appear before that committee?

“How on Earth does the Taoiseach expect Dáil committees to have any authority in their functions and, for example, convince people in semi-State sectors or the private sector to appear before them if civil servants on very high salaries refuse to do so? Who exactly is calling the shots? It is certainly not the Ministers,” she said.

The Taoiseach said the the health minister has no issue with appearing before Oireachtas committees. He said an external review into the process is underway, and should be ready shortly.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald also raised concerns about the lack of communication from Watt to the committee today.

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