Taoiseach says HSE chief’s contract allows him directorships

Mary Lou McDonald calls for removal of ‘that incompetent man’ Tony O’Brien

HSE director general  Tony O’Brien arriving at Leinster House on Wednesday ahead of  a hearing of the Oireachtas  Committee on Health. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

HSE director general Tony O’Brien arriving at Leinster House on Wednesday ahead of a hearing of the Oireachtas Committee on Health. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


The contract of HSE director general Tony O’Brien allows him to serve on boards if there is no conflict of interest and he has ministerial consent, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

He was responding in the Dáil to the revelation in The Irish Times that Minister for Health Simon Harris gave written consent to Mr O’Brien to become a board member of the San Diego company, the contraceptive manufacturer, Evofem Biosciences, on January 17th, almost two months before publicly announcing he would leave the HSE in August.

Amid heated exchanges, Mr Varadkar rejected Opposition claims there was a conflict of interest.

“Also, the Minister, in approving it, was aware Mr O’Brien was coming to the end of his term,’’ he added.

He said it was on that basis the Minister had approved it and he had no reason to question the validity of the decision.

He said Mr O’Brien would work five hours a month for the company, in his own time, and attendance at board meetings would be during his annual leave.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he believed the Minister had made a serious error in consenting to it, because if there was not a conflict of interest, there was a potential one.


He said the chairman of Evofem was Thomas Lynch, who chaired the board of Ireland East hospital group and the Mater hospital. “Does the Taoiseach believe both positions are reconcilable?’’ he asked.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said Mr O’Brien had presided over “negligence, concealment and misinformation, with the most serious consequences for women and their families’’.

He could not remain as director general of the HSE, she said, adding that what happened could not be dismissed as a communications mess-up.

“This was a deliberate and devastating concealment of vital information to protect the management of the HSE and, ultimately, the State in court,’’ Ms McDonald added.

Women had a medical test read incorrectly and, although known to the HSE, the women were deliberately kept in the dark for years, she added.

“This organisational mindset does not develop by accident; it is the product of toxic leadership,’’ she said.

Mr Varadkar said the inquiry would be able to establish whether the allegations made by Ms McDonald were true.

He said Mr O’Brien’s term would end in 12 weeks time and the Government was already in the process of finding a replacement.

The Government had also indicated it would re-establish to the HSE board to enhance accountability.

‘Sail off into the sunset’

Ms McDonald said it was a scandal Mr O’Brien would be left in his post for the remaining weeks and then sail off into the sunset with a large pension and a hefty gratuity, leaving a scene of devastation, upset and trauma behind him.

“If the Taoiseach is serious about providing leadership on this matter, and reassuring women across the State, he would do the first thing that needed to happen and remove that incompetent man from the position he holds,’’ she added.

Pressed further by Mr Martin, the Taoiseach read the “relevant paragraph’’ in the letter to Mr O’Brien permitting him to join the board had stated that approval in principle was conveyed by the Minister in June 2017 on the basis that the company was based outside the State and was neither competitive with, nor engaging in, any business with the HSE.

Normal director fees would be payable and the functions would be performed in his own times without any detriment to his work as HSE director general, he added.