Key figures in Holohan secondment to be invited before health committee

Pursuit of Robert Watt has touch of ‘witch hunt’ about it, warns Taoiseach

The Oireachtas Committee on Health is to invite Stephen Donnelly, Robert Watt and Dr Tony Holohan before it to discuss the chief medical officer's botched move to Trinity College.

The committee met in private session on Tuesday and agreed to offer two potential dates for the three men to appear - one next week and another the week after.

The timetable potentially puts the committee on a collision course with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, who has said he will appear before the committee but not until an external review into the episode is completed.

Dr Holohan had been due to join TCD as professor of public health but the appointment fell apart after the Taoiseach called for a pause to the process once details of how it was to function as a secondment emerged.


Since then, Opposition politicians have raised questions over how the post and associated research funding to the value of €2 million annually would be funded.

The Oireachtas Committee on Finance is set to hear from Martin Fraser, the State’s top civil servant, on the proposed appointment on Wednesday.

However, a request for Mr Donnelly and Mr Watt to appear was rejected by the Minister, who has indicated he would be prepared to meet with the health rather than the finance committee. Additionally, his spokesman said on Monday he would only do so once an external review of the process is completed. That is expected to take several weeks.

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said the health committee would aim to probe the nature of discussions between the principles, the internal deliberations in the Department of Health and the wider civil service, thediscussions with TCD and the role of the Minister for Health.

Separately, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he doesn’t like the “witch hunt nature” approach being taken in relation to Mr Watt appearing before Oireachtas committees on the proposed secondment.

‘Needs to be watched’

Mr Martin said such an approach "needs to be watched" and he said his understanding was that Mr Donnelly will appear before "any Oireachtas committee" that asks him to once the external review into the secondment is completed.

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 had requested an extensive list of documents be supplied to it by midday on Tuesday on the proposed appointment of Dr Holohan to the role with TCD.

In a letter sent to Mr 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.

Speaking in the Dáil on Tuesday, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said this was “unacceptable behaviour” and asked would the Taoiseach ensure “the highest paid civil servant in the land is not allowed to frustrate the work of the finance committee”.

“I want confirmation of that from the Taoiseach and that he will if necessary intervene,” she said.

In response, Mr Martin said the Minister had already confirmed “there was no question” that he would go before the finance committee or “any committee that asks him to go before it” when the review was completed and that “better conversations” could be had at such committees.

“In terms of a public servant, I don’t like the witch hunt nature of the approach that’s been adopted, there certainly has a ring about it. I just think that needs to be watched as well,” Mr Martin added.

“In relation to Mr Watt, I’m not aware of who has written to him or who has written to him separately but I will pursue that issue.”

Earlier, during Leader's Questions, Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy asked who was running the country, the Government or the "permanent government" [CIVIL SERVICE].

‘His pay grade is above yours’

“We know the Secretary General for the Department of Health Robert Watt is in a rarefied position, not least, because his pay grade is above yours, but does that mean that he can snub his nose at attending Oireachtas committees, and decline to be held accountable for decisions he takes,” Ms Murphy asked Mr Martin.

“The same Secretary General thinks so little of the Oireachtas Committee on Finance, that he didn’t even bother responding to the request for a meeting tomorrow to discuss the botched appointment of Tony Holohan to Trinity College.

“There was a significant €20 million sum associated with this proposed secondment and the finance committee are tasked with investigating state spending so why won’t the Secretary General and indeed the Health Minister appear before that committee?”

Ms Murphy asked “how on earth” could Dáil committees be expected to convince those in the semi State sector or those in the private sector to appear before them “if civil servants on very high salaries refused to do so”.

The Kildare North TD asked "who exactly is calling the shots?" and pointed to a report in The Irish Examiner that the HSE has continuously blocked Disabilities Minister Anne Rabbitte from getting "on-the-ground" updates from staff amid serious concerns about services for children with disabilities.

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times