Tapes show policy matters ‘waved’ through rather than sent to Minister

Officials urged to ‘make damn sure’ that Donnelly had approved any measures

Civil servants feared important policy matters were being "waved through" by advisers "struggling to cope" with the volume of work they faced, rather than being sent to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, secret recordings show.

The discussion on the matter was “not to be minuted”, according to a tape of frank exchanges between officials who did not know they were being recorded and which have been shared with The Irish Times.

The tapes also show that Mr Donnelly himself was unknowingly recorded at one point in 2020.

The emergence of more audio tapes made in the Department of Health comes amid ongoing scrutiny of the department by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) after a series of leaked recordings were made public in recent weeks.

Shane Corr, an official in the department, has made a number of disclosures to the PAC in recent weeks and months, the content of which has appeared in the media.

The new tapes show that during a briefing for the department’s finance unit, held in December 2020, an official outlined concerns expressed at a recent meeting of senior officials. They noted how “the Minister and his advisers have been inundated with submissions and letters and position papers” and there was a “sense that they’re struggling to cope with the volume of what’s there”.

The finance unit was told that “just for our own internal discussion – not to be minuted – that things may be getting signed off by the advisers without coming near the Minister. And if it’s in any of our areas, a particularly sensitive topic, to make damn sure it is actually the Minister who has approved it.” The officials said this could be done by requesting a signature from Mr Donnelly or a position paper he would sign off on, amid a “sense that sometimes [the advisers] might be waving things through that it might be wiser to actually have the Minister have a view on himself”.

A spokeswoman for the department said the Minister’s office was the busiest of all Government departments. “Not every single issue needs to be raised directly with the Minister and it is the job of his advisers to ensure that the most urgent and time-sensitive issues reached him at the appropriate time.”

IMO talks

The tapes also show how, during another conversation, there was reference made to an effort to "keep the Minister out of the room" during talks with the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) on a consultant contract for public health doctors. The spokeswoman said the Minister worked together with officials to create 84 public health consultancy posts.

Another taped recording features Mr Donnelly himself, congratulating the finance team for their work on the biggest health budget in the history of the State – which he said was the largest ever “even if you took out the gazillion euro for Covid”. He told the team that new services funded by the budget was “not all going to work” straight away. “You can’t do this much new stuff and get everything right, so we’ll adjust as we need to.”

A department spokeswoman said Mr Donnelly’s view was that the department needed to be agile and that his comments “reinforce his understanding of the challenges facing the health service”.

In response to queries, the Department of Health said 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”.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

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