Senior civil servants query Donnelly’s comments that secret recordings were ‘in the public interest’

Minister’s comment said to have caused ‘considerable upset’ and raised fears about working conditions across the public service

The union representing the country’s most senior civil servants has demanded a clarification from Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly following his comments that the publication of a series of articles based on secret recordings of Department of Health officials - the so called ‘health tapes’ - was “ultimately in the public interest”

In a strongly worded letter to the Minister seen by The Irish Times, the general secretary of the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants (AHCPS) Ciaran Rohan asks Mr Donnelly to “reflect on and clarify your recent comments, considering the impact they have had on the morale, confidence and working conditions of our members”.

He adds that the union is “extremely concerned that your comments may be used out of context to legitimise other significant breaches of privacy”.

The Minister’s comments were published recently by the Business Post which ran a number of articles earlier this year based on the secret recordings.

READ MORE

In an interview with the former director general of the HSE Tony O’Brien, now a columnist with the newspaper, Mr Donnelly was asked about the articles run earlier this year based on recordings made secretly by a Department of Health official of senior colleagues discussing in frank terms the management of various aspects of health services.

Reports of the recordings, which contained references to the setting of fake targets, officials struggling to cope with their workload and a lack of financial information coming back to the department from the HSE, attracted a good deal of political attention.

The Department of Health said at the time that publishing details of meetings between officials in the ordinary course of their work was a “direct violation of individual privacy” and “only serves to limit constructive debate and dialogue across the Civil Service and this is damaging to the public interest”.

In the interview with Mr O’Brien this month, however, Mr Donnelly said that while he was “very uncomfortable” with the way the recordings had been made, he believed publication of the contents was ultimately in the public interest.

In his letter to the Minister Mr Rohan is critical of this assertion, saying the union is “deeply concerned” by it.

“We believe that this lends credence to the inappropriate and unethical practice of surreptitiously recording work colleagues and as such has caused considerable upset among our members in the Department of Health,” he writes. “It also has significant implications for the working conditions of our members across the public service who would be open to having their private conversations recorded and published without recourse.”

He says the manner in which the recordings were obtained and their subsequent publication caused “considerable distress” to AHCPS members who “have ongoing concerns as to what protections are in place to ensure that they can carry out their official duties safely and with due regard to their personal and professional reputations”.

Mr Rohan suggests that an internal investigation into the recordings by the department has not progressed at the rate expected and that there is a lack of clarity “regarding the Department’s duty of care to its employees”.

He calls on the Minister to respond to the issues raised in the letter, which is copied to the Taoiseach.

A representative for Mr Donnelly was contacted for a comment.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Industry and Employment Correspondent at The Irish Times