About six months ago, Dr Tony Holohan sat down with Robert Watt, the Department of Health secretary general, and Martin Fraser, the State’s top civil servant.
The chief medical officer had a simple message: he felt he was coming to the end of his time in the role but that work still needed to be done on the future of public health in Ireland. A post in academia would enable him to do both.
That meeting ultimately set in train a process which became a fast-moving controversy, now grounded to a halt after the Taoiseach paused it with a few words on Friday. It risks significant damage to all parties.
Holohan, it is understood, was supported by both Watt and Fraser, and he quietly began exploratory talks with third-level institutions – Trinity College Dublin, where he ultimately agreed to transfer, and University College Dublin. The matter went off the boil for a while as Covid-19 roared back.
However, Holohan returned to Watt in recent weeks with a proposal – that he would move to Trinity and develop a research programme. He began formal discussions in February at a senior level in the university.
At that stage, Fraser became less involved and only recently did the idea of a secondment emerge. Sources indicated that Holohan was in favour of the secondment, which was viewed in the department as a fail-safe mechanism in case he was needed back; while the intention was always that he would not return, and certainly not to his current role.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was made aware in the run-up to the announcement on March 25th. Word began to filter around senior levels of Government that week but as rumour rather than fact.
The issue of who pays Holohan’s salary has caused a backlash. Trinity said in a statement this week that it would be funded by the department. But two senior sources in the department pushed back on this on Friday, saying that it intends not to pay the entirety of his salary and the matter will be the subject of further discussions. The university, it is understood, has not considered funding the post and has not discussed it with the department.
Perhaps more troublesome than the salary question is how the job was decided, and its designation as a secondment – an arrangement that is usually time-bound, and funded at least in part by the receiving organisation. It is clear the move was in the works for months, and the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Public Expenditure have all cried foul although Donnelly has remained silent since giving the secondment a full-throated endorsement on RTÉ radio on Wednesday.
Handling of appointments
It is hard to find anyone in the political system who objects to the concept of Holohan heading up research on pandemic preparedness, but it is also hard to find someone who does not have a problem with how it was handled.
For Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan, it joins a line of recent appointments that do not feel right.
“A number of recent appointments at the higher levels of the public sector suggest that jobs are arranged for individuals rather than being open to public competition,” he said.
“It also appears that many of these jobs are organised without the involvement of Ministers and are signed off by officials in the Civil Service. ”
Much of the fallout has focused on Watt, who ultimately runs staffing arrangements and came in with a reputation as someone who could break down barriers. But he can also rub people up the wrong way. Contemporaries believe the criticism of his salary in particular has unsettled him, while his manner at recent Oireachtas committees has exasperated some in Government.
The Opposition has trained their fire on Donnelly, accusing him of being behind the curve on the appointment. But one of the Department of Health’s Ministers has pointed the finger at the secretary general.
Anne Rabbitte, Minister of State for Disabilities, told The Irish Times: “I don’t believe that Robert Watt should have taken it upon himself to have made such an executive decision.”
With pressure rising, more than one insider remarked this week that there are no good options available to the Government when it comes to this crisis.