John Callinan: A long apprenticeship leads to top Civil Service role

Diplomacy, decency and fairness will help Fraser replacement tackle challenges ahead

John Callinan, who has been selected by the Government as the country's most senior civil servant, is a different type of beast to his predecessor, Martin Fraser.

While Fraser’s writ has ranged across all the operations of the Civil Service for more than a decade, with senior officials describing him as feared as well as respected, Callinan’s style is more low-key and less muscular. The practice of Fraserology is not uncommon in the Mandarin classes, while there is no – as yet, anyway – similar school of study and observation of the man who will replace him.

“I wouldn’t underestimate him either,” says one senior official. “You’d want to have your homework done.” “A bit more diplomatic than Fraser,” says another, “but tenacious all the same.” Another adds: “He gets sent off to do difficult work all the time.” That is the clearest sign of the high regard in which he has been held by his political masters.

A “solid operator, generally decent and fair” is the assessment of one person who has worked closely with Callinan. There is universal agreement among politicians, officials and observers that he has “handled Brexit well”, one source says. “A pal, but not a lackey of Fraser’s.”

Trusted by Taoiseach

The most important factor in Callinan's selection was that he is completely trusted by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, insiders say. There is no closer or more important relationship in the machine of government that between the taoiseach and his top civil servant. Since the days of Dermot McCarthy – the predecessor of Fraser who held the top job from 2000 until 2011 – the two roles of secretary general to the Government and secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach have been combined, giving the holder enormous sway across not just the Cabinet decision-making process but the quotidian operations of the Government.

Just as Bertie Ahern relied on McCarthy, so Enda Kenny and, later, Leo Varadkar came to rely on Fraser as problem-solver, fixer, strategic counsellor and political sounding board. Callinan has had a ringside seat and a supporting role in all that for a decade. But now he's in the hot seat himself.

It has been a lengthy apprenticeship. He joined the Department of the Taoiseach in 1998, after stints in the Revenue Commissioners, and took time out to work for Media Lab Europe – an ill-fated collaboration between the Government and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – and also at the European Commission. He became an assistant secretary in the department in 2007, and second secretary general in 2016.

Difficulties looming

Although his responsibility has been for EU, international and Northern Ireland affairs in the Department of the Taoiseach, Callinan’s remit has expanded in recent times and he has become more involved in work across the department. It is hard now not to see this as being in anticipation of his succession to the top job.

The Taoiseach confirmed the appointment following Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting. The salary for the job is €215,998 and the position was filled following a request for expressions of interest from all suitable officers in the civil service, the department said. It added the post does not come within the remit of the Top Level Appointments Committee, and the same process was followed on previous occasions, most recently in 2011.

Callinan will serve a government that faces enormous challenges in the coming months and years, as the unsettled international environment, unrest in Northern Ireland, Dublin’s disrupted relationship with London and the legacy of Covid vie with domestic challenges like housing and health for its attention and resources.

Later this year will come another challenge that no Irish Government has managed before – the transition of its leadership from one party to another. Callinan has already worked closely with Varadkar on EU and Brexit matters. But the transition, the political uncertainty that surrounds it between and within the two big parties of government and the run-in to the next general election when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will be coalition partners but electoral rivals – these will all make for quite the cocktail in Government Buildings. He has his work cut out.