Miriam Lord: Holohan and Watt Show blew into town but only one got a grilling

Tony, medic of the pandemic, was given the kid glove treatment. Robert, bureaucratic big cheese, got roasted

Secretary General of the Department of Health Robert Watt arriving at Leinster House for the Joint Committee on Health meeting. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Please don’t leave us, Dr Tony.

This was never about you.

It was always about the other guy. The celebrity civil servant with the eye-watering salary.

Maybe it’s not too late. Can you forgive us? Will you reconsider? Could we persuade you to stay Doctor, sorry, Professor Tony…


The Holohan and Watt Show blew into town on Wednesday morning and the Oireachtas health committee couldn’t wait to get stuck in – but only to one of their two witnesses.

Tony Holohan, medic of the pandemic, was given the kid glove treatment. Robert Watt, bureaucratic big cheese, got roasted.

I absolutely reject being referred to as 'you people',' bridled Watt, in the funniest line of the morning

There may have been a pair of them in the botched arrangement to see our outgoing chief medical officer nicely settled in a pre-retirement gig befitting a man of his stature and emoluments, but it was the secretary general of the Department of Health who was marked out by the politicians as the man with most questions to answer.

Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane, an unnervingly focused interrogator, set the tone with his opening remarks.

“Can I, first of all, wish you well in your retirement, Dr Holohan,” he began sweetly, publicly echoing the warm sentiments expressed by the committee when he was before them recently in a private session.

The use of the word “retirement” was somewhat loaded, given that everyone in the room knew Tony had no intention of swanning off gracefully into his golden years any time soon.

Then Cullinane switched his smile off and his gaze on to the other witness. “Mr Watt, my questions are actually going to be for you.”

Translation: “Mr Watt, I am now going to wipe the floor with you.”

Which he almost did, except he had to leave some behind for the likes of a clinical Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats, an understatedly forensic Colm Burke of Fine Gael and a full on crazy-horse Marc MacSharry, who broke ranks and went in with studs up on the sainted Tony as well.

“I’m a democracy purist,” he cried, before berating both witnesses for the way a new job for one was arranged by the other, bemoaning the way “you people” operate.

“This to me is corruption by any objective analysis. This was retro-engineering for somebody and seeking to blame the Government on it.”

“I absolutely reject being referred to as ‘you people’,” bridled Watt, in the funniest line of the morning. He forgot about the corruption bit, but some committee members asked to be disassociated from the comment.

“It will be struck from the record,” pronounced the chair, Sinn Féin’s Seán Crowe. (It’s there forever in the video.)

Marc then proceeded to flounce out in high dudgeon, as he does.

Fine Gael Senator Sean Kyne started with an odd, but decidedly waspish, dig about the secretary general’s significant national profile.

“You’re becoming somewhat of a celebrity Mr Watt, whether by intent or not. I’m not sure if you’d consider a position on Dancing with the Stars come next January, because I think you’re the best-known public servant at this stage and not always for the right reasons, unfortunately.”

It is not known for mandarins to be well known. Robert Watt appears to be the exception.

The committee was examining the circumstances around the proposed “secondment” of the CMO to a research professorship in Trinity College Dublin at an estimated cost of €2 million a year for 10 years.

Watt agreed with People Before Profit-Solidarity’s Gino Kenny that this role was “tailor-made” for Holohan, who wanted a new challenge after his time guiding health policy during the pandemic.

And so it was that Tony would go to Trinity as professor of public health strategy and leadership, with the option to engage in some private work too. A statement announcing the good news was released in March and it was welcomed by Government and Opposition alike. The outgoing CMO would bring a wealth of knowledge and first-hand experience to academia.

What they didn’t know was that Tony Holohan would continue to be paid by the Department of Health for the duration of what was an “open-ended” secondment (same pay, increases and pension level) until his retirement or that Robert Watt wrote a letter to the Provost of the college giving a commitment to fund the €2 million annual research costs.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was left in the dark about these details and suffered the indignity of going on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland to defend the appointment without being in possession of the full facts.

“With the benefit of hindsight we should have done it differently. We should have socialised it differently,” Watt told the committee. But “the Minister knew the generalities of it”.

Really? All the details in that letter?

“I’m not sure he knew the exact modalities of how…”

“Breathtaking arrogance,” declared Cullinane, astonished that “a general secretary would sign off on a spend of €20 million without seeking approval”.

The familiar feisty gen sec wasn’t much on display at this meeting. He was subdued, almost humble. “In future we will have to think about how we manage these things and how we socialise them.”

Clearly, we were now at the “learnings” stage of this particular controversy.

In the meantime, the outgoing CMO told the TDs and Senators that as soon as the controversy blew up he didn’t want any suggestion of impropriety to taint the Government or Trinity, so he walked away from the opportunity.

Such a pity this had to happen, sighed Shortall and all because of a “serious mishandling” of the situation by the secretary general. “I believe you went beyond your authority and your power,” she said.

There was nothing much Watt could do but absorb the punches, every so often glancing to Tony Holohan for moral support.

“You’ve lost the run of yourself,” Cullinane told the highest paid civil servant in the land. “We can’t have civil servants committing taxpayers’ money. You failed in your duty.” It seemed to him that the witness had planned to get “retrospective approval” after pledging the money.

But in Watt’s book, there had been no commitment made to Trinity, only “a letter of intent”. And anyway the expenditure would be sorted out once the details of the job were finalised and sure wasn’t it only €2 million out of an annual budget of €964 million?

So did his boss, the Minister, have words with him when he discovered he was left in the dark? For an excruciating few moments, the civil servant mumbled and stuttered and didn’t really recall until, finally, he said Donnelly didn’t.

But it’s very, very hard to imagine any Minister not tearing strips off his top official for leaving him in the lurch.

“Myself and the Minister are allowed to have private conversations,” Watt sniffed, sounding rather sorry for himself.

Colm Burke, a solicitor, set him straight on the legal niceties. Nowhere in his letter of intent to the Provost, which committed to making an annual ringfenced allocation, was it stipulated that the payment was contingent on the approval of the Minister. This was a letter of agreement.

“I disagree,” argued Watt. “I don’t accept that characterisation.”

“But sure legally, I’m telling you that you sent an offer out – that’s a contract.”

There was talk of hauling in the Attorney General for a ruling.

Some, including Fine Gael’s Bernard Durkan and Fianna Fáil’s John Lahart, asked Tony Holohan if he might reconsider taking the job, now that all the unpleasantness has been cleared up.

“Would you be persuaded to think again?” wheedled Lahart.

The departing CMO (pay and conditions intact) said nobody has asked him. But if they should, he isn’t saying no.