Tony O’Brien should be sacked if he does not resign, says McDonald

Varadkar says HSE chief is entitled to fair hearing over cervical cancer controversy

The position of director-general of the HSE Tony O’Brien is untenable and he needs to go, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has told the Dáil.

"And if he won't go, you should sack him," she told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during Leaders' Questions.

“Do you have confidence in him, because I must say I don’t,” she said, referring to the cervical cancer screening controversy which dominated Leaders’ Questions.

But the Taoiseach told her “the basis on which you call for the dismissal of Tony O’Brien is based on an assertion that a decision to outsource these tests to the US has somehow cost lives”.


He said: “This is not yet supported by the facts and I think everyone, even Tony O’Brien deserves a fair hearing before they are condemned. And we need to assess whether it was a wrong decision and it may not turn out to be.”

Ms McDonald said women “were kept in the dark because of a toxic culture of concealment and refusal to take responsibility in the HSE, a culture in which women are literally allowed to die before responsibility is taken”.

Ms McDonald also said there were warnings that the testing should not be outsourced and members of the quality assurance committee resigned after highlighting the dangers of outsourcing the screening but “their words fell on deaf ears”.

They fell on the deaf ear of Mr O’Brien, formerly of CervicalCheck and now the head of the HSE.

“He knew this information but he did nothing.”

Mr O’Brien indicated in March he intended to step down from his position when his contract expired in August.

The Taoiseach said “there are different views as to whether that was the right decision”, to outsource the testing.

Three labs

He said that half of smears were read in Ireland and half in the US. Three labs are used, two in the US and one in Ireland in the Coombe hospital.

Mr Varadkar said legislation would be brought forward for mandatory disclosure in health issues.

He said he was saddened to hear of the case of Vicky Whelan and he felt for her and her family.

He paid tribute to her bravery. He said he was very angry on behalf of the 160 or so women who were not told of the results of the audit.

He said the issue was about women’s health and lives and many women were feeling vulnerable and worried.

He said the Government wanted to establish the facts and he urged people not to jump to conclusions before that was done.

“I am determined to restore confidence in the cancer screening, and I want to ensure this does not happen again,’’ he added.

He said the Minister for Health Simon Harris had only been informed of the case in the week before it was settled.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said Ms Whelan was treated appallingly, forced all the way into the High Court before the case was settled.

He said the failure to anticipate the “earth-shattering nature’’ of the cervical screening case by the Department of Health, and the Minister for Health latterly when he was informed, was very worrying.

“The frenzied reaction since and the appalling communications has created genuine worry and shock across the country,’’ he added.

Mr Martin said mandatory disclosure was to be legislated for three years ago.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times

Michael O'Regan

Michael O'Regan

Michael O’Regan is a former parliamentary correspondent of The Irish Times