Top civil servant aware of Holohan move in October

CMO flagged intention to step down to secretary general of Department of the Taoiseach

The State’s top civil servant was aware that Dr Tony Holohan was considering leaving the Department of Health for months before it became public or Ministers were told, The Irish Times has learned.

The chief medical officer raised a possible move into academia as long as six months ago with Robert Watt, the secretary general of the Department of Health, and Martin Fraser, the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach.

The Department of the Taoiseach confirmed on Friday that Mr Fraser had “a number of confidential conversations with the CMO about his future plan” in the context of their working relationship during the pandemic.

“The CMO indicated that he was thinking of stepping down from his current role and was considering a possible role in the university sector that could make a continuing contribution to improving public health capacity in Ireland. The Secretary General was supportive,” the department said, adding that the detailed arrangements were dealt with by the Department of Health.

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The appointment has sparked controversy since it emerged that it was intended that Dr Holohan leave on an open-ended secondment, an arrangement which is usually time bound in the civil service.

Dr Holohan had been due to take up a role as professor of public health strategy and leadership at Trinity College Dublin in July. Sources on Friday said the secondment element was agreed recently.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin paused the process on Friday in advance of a report being compiled by Mr Watt on the sequence of events leading up to the appointment.

The nature and funding for the role have caused a backlash, with the Taoiseach, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and other senior politicians critical of the process underpinning the appointment. The question of who will fund the role has caused controversy with Trinity saying last week the post would be funded by the Department of Health. However, two sources in the department disputed this, saying it does not intend to pay the entirety of the salary, which will be the subject of further discussions with the university.

Minister of State Anne Rabbitte criticised the handling of the appointment process by Mr Watt, telling The Irish Times: “I don’t believe that Robert Watt should have taken it upon himself to have made such an executive decision,” she said, adding that there hadn’t been “proper openness and transparency” and an absence of “clear dialogue between all involved”.

Elsewhere, it has emerged that two other senior civil servants have departed for taxpayer-funded roles in academia.

The Department of Education confirmed that Séan Ó Foghlú, its former secretary general, is on secondment with Maynooth University until 2026, working on public policy and public service reform.

He is on the payroll of the university and funding is provided by the exchequer. The Department of Education does not provide the funding, it is understood.

Fergal Lynch, former secretary general of the Department of Children, has taken up a public policy role at NUI Galway, funded by the exchequer through the Department of Higher Education.

Both departments said a 2011 decision on retirement and severance terms of secretary generals allowed that they be offered an alternative position in the civil or public service at the same salary until they reached pension age, if they did not retire before then. Both appointments were made following Government decisions in November.

The Department of Health did not respond to a series of detailed questions on the matter on Friday.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times