Miriam Lord: Why did the secretary general cross the road? Because he’s worth it

Forget the Fitbit – this short stroll is bringing one public servant a very healthy salary boost

Robert Watt is moving from Merrion Street to Baggot Street to take up his new job as secretary general of the Department of Health. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Robert Watt is moving from Merrion Street to Baggot Street to take up his new job as secretary general of the Department of Health. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Monopoly money is not just for Christmas, you know. So here are some sums.

Cross the road outside Government Buildings on Merrion Street and turn left onto Fitzwilliam Lane. Pass the side of the Merrion Hotel and along by Dan McGrattan’s public house. Keep on down the lane until you reach the junction with Lower Fitzwilliam Street. Take a swift right, then swing a left onto Lower Baggot Street. Miesian Plaza is a short way up to the left.

Two minutes by car, not much more than five if you’re walking.

A journey of 550 metres. Less than half a mile in old money.

So how much does it cost to toddle around the corner in Dublin these days?

We consult a newly published ready reckoner called Watt’s Walking Around Money: from Sec Gen to Sec Gen in a Few Easy Steps.

It’s already being hailed in senior public service circles as “the new bible”.

The answer is €81,000, which is the pay increase the former secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will receive if, as expected, he is confirmed as secretary general of the Department of Health.

This works out at €147 a metre for top civil servant Robert Watt to move from Merrion Street to Baggot Street.

That’s €112 per step.

Which is nice. The Dáil Public Accounts Committee isn’t too happy about this, but Paschal Donohoe says you have to pay the big bucks to get good staff these days.

“It is appropriate in order to ensure that we have the right level of skill leading a department like this. We do have a compensation package that reflects that,” said the Minister for Finance this week, who is clearly expecting blood everywhere by the time his favourite number-cruncher has gone through the books in Baggot Street.

The Government recently appointed straight-talking Watt as its top official in Health on an interim basis, but he is tipped to take over the post permanently. Until the start of the year, he ruled the roost in Public Expenditure with not so much an iron fist as a tight fist. Just ask the fuming public health specialists, who say Watt successfully persuaded Donohoe to remove a promise from the Programme for Government to put them on the same pay and contracts as consultants.

They must be delighted to see him coming. “For years, Robert’s biggest bete noire in Public Expenditure has been the Department of Health, which is the supreme irony here,” said one official of the controversial transfer.

In Merrion Street, he had to make ends meet on €211,000 a year. Assuming he gets the full-time call-up in Baggot Street, it will jump to €292,000.

Watt is a forceful character. Labour’s Brendan Howlin, who also has a strong personality, handpicked him to head up the new Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in 2011. Their offices were not close together in Government Buildings and they would regularly stand at opposite ends of the long corridor roaring at each other, much to the alarm of junior staffers.

Howlin, who reportedly got on famously with his top civil servant, used to joke he had to take his seal of office down from the shelf on occasions to remind Watt who was the actual minister.

One observer described his appearances this week at Holohan’s briefings as 'a tanks on lawn situation'

The interim sec gen’s pugnacious reputation has preceded him to his new offices in Miesian Plaza. There was much raising of eyebrows on Monday when he strolled onto Tony Holohan’s turf – the daily Nphet press conference – and watched proceedings from the back of the room. It’s no secret that the two men wouldn’t exactly see eye-to-eye on certain matters; among other things, Watt was in favour of opening the country up when the chief medical officer (CMO) was warning against it.

One observer described his appearances this week at Holohan’s briefings as “a tanks on lawn situation”.

Mind you, the CMO is no shrinking violet either. And the Minister for Health isn’t short of a welcome for himself either.

Stephen Donnelly, annoyed at being told to keep to the speaking time in the Dáil on Wednesday evening, argued back at Leas-Cheann Comhairle Catherine Connolly, pointing at her and holding up his hand in a classic “don’t interrupt me when I’m speaking” gesture. Connolly, already the hero of the hour for her superb speech to the House earlier on the mother and baby homes report, put him in his place.

Highly affronted, the Minister for Health sat down, muttering an epithet under his breath.

That’s some line-up now at the top in the Department of Health. There’s definitely a thrilling miniseries in the coming intrigue and power struggles between Watt, Holohan and Donnelly.

Possible titles: Watt’s Up Doc?

The Egos Have Landed.

At €112 a step, in the secretary general’s case.

“Unf***inbelievable.”

As the Minister might say.

There’s one born there every century

In a difficult Dáil week there was a happier mother and baby-themed exchange on Thursday evening between Neasa Hourigan and Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl on the subject of Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital.

The Green Party TD for Dublin Central was making the case during Topical Issues for the urgent provision of a critical care wing for the maternity hospital, which is the busiest maternity hospital in Europe and also in her constituency. While the Rotunda has won many awards for its innovative practices, it is housed in a building complex which dates back to 1757.

“The hospital is trying to provide 21st-century medical care in an 18th-century infrastructural set-up. The situation is now very serious,” she said, imploring the HSE and Minister for Health to address the serious overcrowding in the hospital, particularly in the neonatal intensive care unit.

In the long term (15 to 20 years) the facility will be moved to Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown but, in the meantime, “there is a significant business and medical case for the immediate development of a critical care wing on Parnell Square, which could mitigate current risks in the medium term”.

Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan: Fond of the Rotunda. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan: Fond of the Rotunda. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
I am particularly pleased to hear her raising this issue, because I was born in that same hospital, though a little bit after 1757

Perhaps with an eye to the finance-focused incoming secretary general of the Department of Health, she said such an investment represented an efficient use of public money as the inner city would have a high-quality medical building for use in perpetuity.

The Ceann Comhairle, a dyed-in-the-wool Kildare man, thanked her for bringing up such an important matter. “I can be forgiven for saying that I am particularly pleased to hear her raising this issue, because I was born in that same hospital, though a little bit after 1757.” After a long day listening to TDs in Dublin’s Convention Centre, who could blame Ó Fearghaíl for feeling his age.

Hourigan said she shared his fondness for the place. “All three of my children were born there, one with only seconds to spare. It is a place which is very special to many of us.”

Laying it on with a trowel and digging up the memory of Seán Lemass

Simon Harris, the Minister for Higher Education, would want to watch his back. Fianna Fáil’s John Lahart is after his job.

Dublin West TD Lahart was speaking during Thursday’s debate on Covid-19 and its impact on the Higher Education sector. He harked back to a speech by his leader, Micheál Martin, to the heads of the universities last year when he “outlined his vision” for higher education, research and innovation in Ireland. In that address he said he would establish the country’s first dedicated minister for higher education if he became taoiseach.

Given the critical importance he attaches to the sector, it “can’t have been easy” for him when “Cabinet allocations dictated that political oversight and leadership of that department would have to be ceded to a member of a rival party”.

Because, as John pointed out in some detail, Fianna Fáil has done the divil and all for education in Ireland – positive, enduring, groundbreaking and the rest.

“I would love to be minister for higher education” said John. But he was sure Simon Harris would do a good job and he wished him well.

“I know that the Minister will agree that the period which was ushered in by Seán Lemass remains unmatched to this day. The bar was set high but we and all associated with this Government must aspire to surpass it.”

Minister for Further Education Simon Harris: Holding firmly but politely onto his job. Photograph: Colin Keegan/ Collins
Minister for Further Education Simon Harris: Holding firmly but politely onto his job. Photograph: Colin Keegan/ Collins
And so Simon Harris took out an even bigger trowel and larded on the smarm in his reply

Deputy Lahart was laying on the graciousness with a trowel.

“As the Minister is aware, this Government arrangement was not my first choice but it was the choice of the majority of my colleagues, and for that reason I support the Minister in the challenges that he faces.”

And so Simon Harris took out an even bigger trowel and larded on the smarm in his reply.

He said he read Micheál’s address to the Irish Universities Association. “It is a very fine speech.”

And furthermore, when deputy Lahart “rightly refers to the tremendously positive contribution that Seán Lemass made to this country”, what struck him most from that speech was the mention for Patrick Hillery and the assertion that not enough has been “spoken about the positive contribution that Paddy Hillery made during his period as minister for education because he indeed went on to do so many other wonderful things, including serving as our president”.

Empty seats – empty words?

The Convention Centre is far from an ideal venue for Dáil sittings, but it fits the bill in terms of the strict health and safety requirements now in place for large group meetings. The auditorium has been fitted out at considerable expense so all 160 TDs can attend sessions while observing social distancing rules.

In reality, they only turn up if they are due to speak or have to vote. It’s easier for them to follow the proceedings on TV from their offices in Leinster House, and easier to see and hear what is being said.

But the decision by the vast majority of deputies to stay away from the Convention Centre on Wednesday when they knew the Taoiseach was to deliver a public apology to the survivors of mother and baby homes was very disappointing. They should have been there. That auditorium should have been as full as was possible under the circumstances.

Instead, survivors tuning in to hear their Taoiseach apologising on behalf of their State were treated to banks of empty seats. It was disrespectful. In the same way it was disrespectful to insist that the victims’ voices and wishes are paramount in advance of the publication of the report on the homes and then ignore their mounting requests to delay the apology until they had time to read it.

It was disgracefully leaked. Then copies of the 3,000-page doorstopper were distributed to TDs and selected media outlets while the people who most deserved first delivery were told to download it from the web. Journalists had no reason to disbelieve Government sources when told it would also be given to the survivors first.

Meanwhile, the political correspondents lobby has contacted the Government press secretary Paul Clarkson seeking an explanation after a number of national media organisations were not sent embargoed copies of the report, citing “significant frustration and anger” among political correspondents and their organisations over the Government’s decision to exclude them from receiving an advance copy . They are mainly what might be termed “the redtops” or “the lesser orders”, as one disgusted reporter put it. As of Friday night, he was still waiting to hear back.

Very strange carry-on indeed.

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