Government has effectively left Tony O’Brien in political limbo

No one will express confidence in HSE head, but main players will not move against him

HSE director-general Tony O’Brien: Minister for Health Simon Harris told his colleagues that, operationally, he believes it is best for O’Brien to see out his term to deal with the ongoing fallout from the CervicalCheck scandal. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

HSE director-general Tony O’Brien: Minister for Health Simon Harris told his colleagues that, operationally, he believes it is best for O’Brien to see out his term to deal with the ongoing fallout from the CervicalCheck scandal. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Nobody is willing to express confidence in Tony O’Brien, but most are willing to allow him see out his term as director-general of the HSE until it effectively ends in July.

Despite repeated calls for O’Brien to stand aside now, the two major political events of yesterday passed without his position coming under immediate threat.

The Cabinet meeting heard three Ministers say he should leave his post, but there was no decisive move to oust him.

Then Leaders’ Questions saw Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin strike a conciliatory tone in his exchanges with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, choosing to focus on the women who have been affected by the CervicalCheck scandal rather than the head of the HSE.

Mary Lou McDonald maintained her party’s attack on O’Brien, and a motion of no confidence in him will be tabled by Sinn Féin next week.

Sinn Féin’s attempt to table a confidence move as an amendment to a separate Private Members’ motion from rural Independents on the HSE and the Sláintecare reform was ruled out of order, but a substantive motion is expected next week.

It will be rejected by the Government, and is highly unlikely to be supported by Fianna Fáil. When threats of no confidence motions were made in the past against former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, Martin’s party said the Oireachtas should not seek to fire public sector workers. Its opinion is unlikely to change by next week.

Debate

Yet the motion itself will ensure O’Brien’s position remains at the centre of political debate. The prospect of the Government having to repeatedly defend him in the weeks ahead was one of the motivations for some of the three Ministers who yesterday told Cabinet he should stand aside.

It was argued that, even if the Government was to remove O’Brien, such a process would drag on past his July departure date

The opinions voiced against O’Brien did not amount to a concerted move by one branch of the Government. Katherine Zappone, a non-aligned Independent, Finian McGrath of the Independent Alliance and Michael Ring of Fine Gael each represent one of the stools of the minority coalition. Ring is also understood to have made a similar call at the weekly pre-Cabinet meeting of the Fine Gael Ministers.

Minister for Health Simon Harris faced down such calls, however, by using a number of arguments. Harris told his colleagues that, operationally, he believes it is best for O’Brien to see out his term to deal with the ongoing fallout from the CervicalCheck scandal.

Drag on

Sources also said it was argued that, even if the Government was to remove O’Brien, such a process would drag on past his July departure date. This could involve a series of written warnings and a notice period of around three months.

Furthermore, there could be legal and financial consequences, such as a controversial payoff and the prospect of a constructive dismissal case. The scoping inquiry now under way in advance of a commission of investigation could also find that O’Brien did nothing wrong.

The various explanations were understood to have been enough for McGrath and others.

But even after Cabinet, neither Harris nor Varadkar’s spokesman could express confidence in O’Brien, who is now in political limbo.

Nobody will express confidence in him but the two main actors in the Dáil – the Government and Fianna Fáil – will not move against him. That will remain the case until he departs in July.

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