Fraser supportive of Holohan secondment but ‘not involved in detailed arrangements’

Country’s top civil servant also indicates he did not discuss the proposal with Taoiseach

Martin Fraser is secretary general of the Government. Photograph: GIS

The country's most senior civil servant has said he was supportive of the now-abandoned secondment of Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Tony Holohan to a research post at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) but he was not involved in the detailed arrangements for the role.

In a letter to the Oireachtas Finance Committee, Martin Fraser, secretary general of the Government, confirmed he became aware of the proposed secondment in February.

He did not raise the matter with Taoiseach Micheál Martin prior to media reports on the secondment at the end of March, indicating in the letter the only people he discussed it with at that point were the CMO and the secretary general of the Department of Health Robert Watt.

Mr Watt last week in a briefing note for the Government responded to suggestions Mr Martin and other members of the Government were "kept in the dark", saying Mr Fraser was aware of the proposed secondment in late February.


In the briefing Mr Watt said he assumed “key decision-makers were aware of the proposal”.

He said that Mr Fraser had asked him in early March to confirm he was working on the details. And he wrote: “I inferred from this that this had political support in Government Buildings.”

The planned secondment became the subject of controversy after it emerged Dr Holohan would still be paid his €187,000 salary by the Department of Health.

The proposed appointment of Dr Holohan as professor of public health strategy at TCD was to come with an annual ring-fenced allocation of €2 million for the duration of the secondment to support the research to be carried out.

Dr Holohan said in a recent statement, after controversy blew up, he would not proceed with the secondment and will retire in July instead.

The Taoiseach has ordered an external review of the matter which is due to be completed in June.

The Finance Committee, chaired by Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness, is also examining the matter.

In his letter dated April 21st to Mr McGuinness, Mr Fraser said he had a number of confidential conversations with the CMO about his future plans and adds: “this was in the context of our working relationship during the pandemic”.

Mr Fraser wrote that Dr Holohan indicated to him in late February he was thinking of stepping down from the CMO job and was “considering a possible role in the university sector that could make a continuing contribution to improving public health capacity in Ireland”.

"He proposed a secondment from the civil service to an academic post in a university, which would enable him to use his knowledge and experience to help strengthen public health leadership in Ireland and to deepen relationships between the university sector, State agencies and international organisations".

Mr Fraser’s letter added: “As is common practice in the university sector, he envisaged that some research funding would be made available to support this work.

“I was supportive of this proposal as the Covid-19 pandemic clearly illustrated the need for strengthened public health capacity, not just here in Ireland but globally, and I believed that Dr Holohan could make a significant contribution in that regard.”

He said he contacted Mr Watt who told him he was dealing with the matter and added: “I had no further role as the detailed arrangements were a matter for the Department of Health”.

Mr Fraser said the Department of the Taoiseach had "no other involvement, nor did I discuss the proposal with anyone expect the Chief Medical Officer and the Secretary General of the Department of Health until there were media reports about the matter towards the end of March".

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times