Robert Watt criticised over ‘lack of engagement’ on Holohan secondment

Finance committee asks top civil servant for documents relating to TCD appointment

The Oireachtas Committee on Finance has criticised the "lack of engagement" and "apparent unwillingness" of the top civil servant in the Department of Health to engage with the committee on matters of "significant public concern".

It has also requested an extensive list of documents be supplied to it by midday on Tuesday on the proposed appointment of chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan to a role with Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

In a letter sent to secretary general Robert Watt on Monday, chair John McGuinness said the committee was disappointed that no response had been received in relation to matters it raised on the proposed appointment.

The letter says no response was received from Mr Watt despite “extensive efforts to follow up” on correspondence sent last week.

“The committee notes your lack of engagement and apparent unwillingness to discuss and clarify matters of significant public concern.”

A letter from Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to the committee last week ruled out either him or his officials attending the finance committee. He told Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane on Monday that he would be open to attending a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Health – but only once an external review was completed.

The letter to Mr Watt outlines how the finance committee will continue with its planned session this Wednesday, and resubmits requests for a range of documents before midday on Tuesday.

These include the details of the terms of the secondment, correspondence between the parties involved, notes of meetings of senior officials, a full report on the proposed secondment, and any information given to Cabinet on the matter.

Mr Donnelly said on Tuesday that he will not appear at the health committee until an external review into the process is completed – which is expected to take several weeks.

The health committee is set to invite Mr Donnelly and Mr Watt to discuss the appointment – which was projected to cost the taxpayer in the region of €2 million, and collapsed after details of the secondment arrangement underpinning it emerged.

“I spoke to Minister Donnelly this morning,” Mr Cullinane said. “He informed me that he would attend a meeting of an Oireachtas committee but not more than one.”

A spokesman for Mr Donnelly said the external review will be published upon completion. “The Minister and his officials will be happy to engage with an Oireachtas committee once this process is completed.”

However, Mr Cullinane said it was his firm view that the two men should appear before the finance committee and the health committee, as there were different issues that needed to be examined which fell within their respective remits.

"The health committee has a duty to address issues around process and the authority of the Minister for Health," said the Waterford TD. "This is all a distraction and adds to the lack of transparency already lacking on this issue. It would be in the interests of all concerned if Mr Watt and Minister Donnelly came before both committees."

Issues

His view is shared by Government backbencher Neasa Hourigan, the Green Party TD who is a member of both committees. "I do think it's completely relevant for the finance committee to follow up, how was that considerable funding allocation lined up," she said.

“I got the distinct impression that none of the Ministers were aware, meaning it was made in the department and I think it’s completely valid for elected reps to hold civil servants to account.”

The health committee is to meet in private on Tuesday and members are expect to sign off on an invitation – with a slot next week under consideration. “It’s in everyone’s interest, including Stephen Donnelly and Robert Watt, that we get clarification on the process, what went wrong and why was the appointment done without the oversight of the Minister,” People Before Profit-Solidarity TD Gino Kenny said.

Cork North Central TD for Fine Gael Colm Burke also indicated he would support an invitation being sent. Fine Gael Senator Seán Kyne said there were "clearly" issues that need to be addressed "by a range of people from the secretary general to the Minister".

Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan said the push to have Mr Donnelly and Mr Watt appear before both the health and finance committees amounted to an “unseemly ambulance-chasing type scramble by Oireachtas committees” and that such behaviour was “demeaning”.

“We need strict protocols where multiple committees compete with each other to examine the same facts in circumstances where the range of options or findings available to the committees is most circumspect in any event,” said Mr Flanagan, who is himself chair of an Oireachtas committee covering foreign affairs and defence.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

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

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent

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