Emily O’Reilly interview: ‘I wasn’t going to park 20 years of my life’s experience at the door of the office’

Ombudsman leaves office with its reputation intact and a higher profile


An apocryphal tale has it that a former Canadian ombudsman deliberately avoided reading the piece of law establishing his office; that way he never knew when he was steering beyond his remit. Emily O’Reilly read her legislation and knew the boundaries of her office, she says, but when the former journalist took the job at the suggestion of then finance minister Charlie McCreevy in 2003, she had no intention of denying her past life.

“I wasn’t going to park 20 years of my life’s experience and my way of seeing things at the door of the office, even though I was reasonably careful in what I said,” she remarks, sitting in a leather armchair amid the packed boxes of her airy, soon-to-be-vacated office on Leeson Street in Dublin.

Lively debate
One of the features of O’Reilly’s decade in office has been her public profile – enhanced not least by a series of state-of-the-nation speeches that drew on but reached far beyond the work of her office.

In 2004, she set off a lively debate when she recoiled at “the vulgar fest that is much of modern Ireland”, decrying the “the debasement of our civic life, the growing disdain of the wealthy towards the poor”.

This summer, she told the MacGill Summer School that the Republic that rose from the ashes of the Easter Rising was “a perversion of the human rights ideals of 1916”.

Going public
Neither was she averse to going public as a tactical gambit in her disputes with State bodies. “I felt it was important sometimes to conceptualise these things and not just have them as dry complaint-handling statistics. I am a citizen, I’m raising five children, so therefore I’m interacting with every system – education, health and so on – on a personal level. On occasions, every few years, I would reflect some of this.”

Reactions varied.

“I do remember there was somebody, who was a former member of a government, who rang the office very crossly and said, ‘Who the f*** does she think she is? Does she think she is running the country?’”

Yet every speech also seemed to fuel speculation that she was preparing the ground for a tilt at the presidency.

O’Reilly admits she was approached informally – by whom she will not say – before the 2011 election, but insists she dismissed it immediately. “I didn’t think I had done enough in my life to justify becoming president . . .
I think Michael D Higgins absolutely deserved the presidency.

He had laboured for so many decades in so many areas. Another reason of course was that it would have meant leaving this job.”

Having served two terms, O’Reilly is fulfilling her last engagements this week before taking up her new role as European Ombudsman in Strasbourg, where she will be the first woman to hold the office.

The transition will be swift – her final annual report will be published today, and next Monday she will take her oath of independence at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Social shifts
O’Reilly’s tenure spanned a time of huge upheaval, and the nature of the work reflected those wider social shifts. In her early years, a huge volume of complaints related to planning, but after 2008, when the crisis hit, the focus moved towards social protection and health.

Any ombudsman has a delicate balancing act to perform, deciding on complaints against public bodies in such a way that doesn’t alienate either of her two constituencies – the people or the State. “Unless you have the trust of both the administration and the people, then you’re screwed,” O’Reilly says.

Fraught relations
She enjoyed good relations with most arms of the State – she reserves particular praise for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform – but her dealings with the Department of Health have been notoriously fraught. Ten years on, she cites as one of her biggest regrets that a “grown-up relationship” never developed between her office and Hawkins House.

The most recent dispute centres on the long-term
illness card, under which medication for prescribed illnesses is provided free of charge to under-16s with a mental illness.

The practice in many parts of the country has long been that ADHD is recognised as a mental illness under the scheme, but when the Ombudsman recently received complaints from individuals who were denied the card on these grounds, her office wrote to
the department to ask it to implement the scheme consistently.

‘Rationing by stealth’
The HSE said it didn’t have the money to extend the scheme to everyone with these conditions. So instead it proposes to refuse the card to everyone with ADHD, including those who were already receiving it. “What would have happened before would be that the flaw would have been ironed out in ways that were positive for the recipients. Now it’s not. I call it rationing by stealth,” O’Reilly says.

“What people are doing now is applying the regulations very strictly. It is a form of rationing. What disturbs me is that the Ombudsman’s Office is being used as cover to do this,” she says. “It seems to me there’s a lot of ducking and diving going on.”

‘Shock to the system’
When O’Reilly was appointed in 2003 (despite opposition from two ministers, she has been told), the Fianna Fáil-led government of the day had just decided to curtail severely the Freedom of Information Act. She believes the act came as “a huge shock to the system” for the Civil Service, and that while overall the culture has changed enormously over the past decade, “pockets of secrecy” remain.

“Certainly the Department of Justice, for its own cultural and historical reasons, remains very secretive, very closed. If there is one thing I regret, it is that asylum, immigration and prisons are still outside any independent complaint-handling watchdog.”

But the office’s reach is extending in other areas. An extra 180 bodies will soon come under its remit, and a reform of the FOI regime by Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin will lift some of the restrictions introduced 10 years ago.

These changes leave the Ombudsman’s Office stronger than ever, O’Reilly believes, and will give her successor a firm platform from which to bring it to “another level”.

“The office had a very good reputation and profile when I came in. I think now, 10 years later, it perhaps has a higher profile.

“And the reputation, hopefully, is still intact.
Given the drubbing that so many public bodies have had over the last few years, I think that is something to be proud of.”