The Irish Times view on Government appointments: a basic political error

The circumstances of Tony Holohan’s move demanded careful political handling

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly says there are lessons to be learned from the botched appointment of Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan to a State-funded professorship at Trinity College Dublin. An external expert is to be tasked with identifying what those lessons are. Judging by a briefing note on the controversy by Robert Watt, the secretary general at the Department of Health, the only lessons to be drawn are relatively narrow ones. "Elements of this were not communicated well," he writes.

Watt’s note offers a strong defence of the appointment and the rationale behind it. Yet no serious observer disputes the idea itself. Holohan has amassed huge experience in an important and specialised field. Having him work on public health research, and on improving Irish links to the lead international agencies in the field, makes eminent sense. It is also perfectly reasonable for the State to fund specific academic posts, a common occurrence.

Yet the circumstances of this move demanded careful political handling, especially from a Government that has tripped itself up repeatedly over controversial high-level appointments – including, as it happens, Watt’s own appointment to his current role.

Holohan’s professorship was to be funded entirely by the State and was to be accompanied by a €2 million research grant whose specific source, even at the time of the deal being struck with Trinity College, was not yet established. Even if the money was not to come from the Department of Health vote, it’s a very significant allocation. As Watt, a former secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure, will be aware, Cabinet debates have taken place over smaller sums. Donnelly was aware of the appointment before it was to be announced, but he was not told about “the precise details of the secondment arrangement”.

It was those “details” that made the move controversial. And the failure to anticipate that was a rather basic political error.