Three of 23 candidates for top health job came from abroad

Taoiseach defends Watt appointment after claim it amounts to a ‘stroke’

Taoiseach Micheál Martin defended the appointment of Robert Watt as Department of Health secretary general . Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Taoiseach Micheál Martin defended the appointment of Robert Watt as Department of Health secretary general . Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Just three of the 23 candidates who applied for the position of secretary general of the Department of Health, were international applicants, the Dáil has been told.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath gave details of the recruitment process and said that the job was openly advertised online and in international media.

He said 10 candidates were women, 17 came from the private sector and six from the public sector and three candidates were shortlisted, all of them Irish, before Robert Watt was appointed to the position.

Sinn Féin public expenditure and reform spokeswoman Mairéad Farrell said the Opposition was told an €81,000 salary increase was necessary to attract international talent but only three were international candidates and the best candidate “was right under our noses”.

“Now we know the person is happy to waive that [salary increase] on a temporary basis. So why was it needed at all?” she asked.

Mr McGrath said, however, that “you never know who’s going to apply and the fact of the matter was it was open to any person around the world to apply.

“I don’t think we should discount the international experience of the 20 candidates” who were Irish.

Earlier, Mr Martin defended the appointment of Mr Watt after claims from Sinn Féin it amounted to a “stroke” and a “try-on”.

Mr Martin said the appointment came after an “independent process” and he spoke of Mr Watt’s experience and the Government’s goal of bringing “transformative” change to the health service.

He was responding to remarks by Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald who argued that the appointment was a “kick in the teeth” to other workers and called for pay increase that brings the salary on offer for the role to €292,000 to be “cancelled”.

Mr Watt, who up until recently was secretary general at the Department of Public Expenditure and is currently paid the €211,000 salary attached to that post, said he would not be accepting the higher rate, for the present.

He has worked as interim secretary general at the Department of Health since January before the Cabinet decided on Tuesday to appoint him to the permanent job.

Open competition

The decision came after an open competition carried out by the Top Level Appointments Committee (TLAC).

After his appointment Mr Watt said: “The proposed salary for this role is higher than my current salary. I don’t think it is appropriate to take such an increase in pay given the current difficult economic conditions the country faces.

”It had always been my intention that, if I were to be appointed to this role, I would waive this increase until the economy begins to recover and unemployment falls,” he added.

Speaking in the Dáil Ms McDonald accused the Government of signing off on an “obscene” €81,000 pay increase and said the €292,000 on offer is “ten times the salary of a nurse starting out at the frontline fighting Covid.”

She claimed: “There was no process, no rationale for this obscene pay hike”.

The Sinn Féin leader said that at the time the Government said it was necessary to “attract the best and the brightest to apply for this post.”

She added: “But lo and behold, the best and brightest were there all along, under your very noses.”

She claimed: “This is a stroke. It’s a try-on, and it’s a kick in the teeth to workers right across the public and private sector.”

Ms McDonald said: “The incoming secretary general now says that he will temporarily waive this €81,000 pay hike but the truth is that this should not be waived. It should be cancelled.

“The pay hike is wrong... and I’m challenging you Taoiseach now to withdraw it and to do so immediately.”

Mr Martin said the appointment was an “independent process” carried out by the TLAC.

He said it was “open as an international competition for anybody to apply and quite a number of people applied.”

Mr Martin said Mr Watt has served in various capacities in the public service and “would be regarded as a senior, experienced, public servant.”

He reiterated: “It was an independent selection process” and told Ms McDonald: “You shouldn’t cast aspersions on the individual implicitly as you do”.

Mr Martin said that salary increases have previously occurred for the roles of Garda Commissioner and HSE chief executive.

He said: “one thing we are determined to do is to make a change in health that will be of a transformative kind in terms of our health service for the future”.