A little bit of contrition would have been wiser: Robert Watt and the row that wont go away

A bit of contrition would have been wiser: Robert Watt and the row that wont go away

Coverage and politics signifies that civil servants and politicians struggle with one another, and between themselves. However it’s normally behind the scenes. This week, everybody acquired to see when such relationships misfire.

The publication of a report on the botched secondment of former Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan to a Trinity Faculty Dublin submit reveals a finely balanced try and plan the secondment, its breakneck collapse, and the bitter recriminations which adopted.

Quinns report

The report makes clear that the concept was originated by Holohan, and developed by him together with Robert Watt, the Secretary Basic of the Division of Well being, and with the high-level data of Martin Fraser, the then secretary to the federal government.

The Covid-19 pandemic examined relationships. Holohans profile reached stratospheric ranges throughout it. He would at all times be the particular person he was throughout the pandemic, observes one up to date. They (the Authorities) had been most likely completely happy to see him go.

After the information was confirmed in late March, particulars started to emerge in regards to the secondment most controversially, the obvious 2 million annual dedication by the State in the direction of supporting the general public well being technique function.

The report captures the escalating considerations, with requests for data for Minister for Well being Stephen Donnelly on April fifth; then for the Taoiseach Michel Martin on April sixth, the identical day Donnelly turned conscious of the two million invoice.

The funding strategy as laid out … is problematic, Donnelly advised Watt two days later, following a gathering a day earlier than with the Taoiseach, the place they mentioned a letter of intent outlining the proposal despatched to TCD.

One of many worst issues in politics is the shock, mentioned one veteran. Politicians don’t like being shocked. They usually had been. Issues grew about how a lot the politicians knew, and about how the cash can be spent.

Gillane is extensively considered somebody to not be trifled with and proved as a lot along with her eviscerating response to Watt

On April eighth, Martin advised journalists on a visit to Helsinki that he wished to pause issues. The following day, Holohan known as the entire thing off. Watt produced a report, however under-pressure politicians sought area, commissioning an unbiased one.

Such stories are dreaded by civil servants. Regardless of how a lot you costume it up as a lesson-learning train, no person believes it, says a senior mandarin. They see it as a fault-finding expedition.

Maura Quinns report was circulated in June to these named prompting responses and requests for changes, together with from Holohan and Watt. Watt excoriated elements of the report.

Quinns work urged that the Authorities had not been stored knowledgeable. Not correct, mentioned Watt, who mentioned Fraser knew all of the vital particulars. Fraser had advised the Taoiseachs Chief of Employees, Deirdre Gillane, he mentioned.

All of the findings and conclusions concerning folks/Authorities not being knowledgeable ought to be eliminated out of your report, demanded the ever-combative Watt. It was true that Fraser had advised Gillane of Holohans intention.

Gillane contacted Fraser following a media question in late March, but it surely was the primary she knew of it. After Watts intervention, Quinn was requested to seek the advice of Fraser and Gillane. Fraser distanced himself, however Gillane got here out with weapons blazing.

Watts feedback had been wholly with out basis, she wrote. I need to be completely clear. The assertions made by the Secretary Basic … are, in phrases, grossly inaccurate and unwarranted. It’s unimaginable to grasp how he could make the broad assertions that he does.

Bridling at Watts reference to the Taoiseach as her principal, she continued: For the avoidance of any doubt and opposite to what’s clearly insinuated, I didn’t, and will by no means have, knowledgeable the Taoiseach of issues of which I used to be unaware.

He was most likely one of many cleverest, and admittedly one of many brashest, of his technology

A straight-talking former union official, Gillane is a commanding presence in her occasion and the Coalition, a veteran of Fianna Fil governments on either side of the financial crash and Martins most trusted lieutenant.

She is extensively considered somebody to not be trifled with and proved as a lot along with her eviscerating response, which was accepted by Watt this week.

The suggestions of the report have been despatched over to the Division of Public Expenditure and Reform for examination on how they is likely to be put into motion.

Nevertheless, the conclusions are stinging, outlining the shortage of formal session; criticising the extent of Holohans involvement; and saying that the funding commitments bypassed the entire accepted protocols for analysis funding, had been linked atypically to at least one named particular person and weren’t primarily based on any scope nor costings however had been as a substitute arrived at by Watt and Holohan with out consulting the Well being Analysis Board. The mechanism and lack of element don’t meet accepted norms of scrutiny, transparency and accountability.

Rejecting lots of the stories conclusions, Watt introduced renewed consideration onto the controversy and onto himself to the exasperation of ministers

When Quinn sought correspondence between the Division and TCD, she was advised the discussions had been carried out by the Chief Medical Officer with TCD via his private e mail handle, which is exterior to the Division of Well being.


The Taoiseach mentioned the method was mishandled, however the Authorities has backed all the principle gamers, saying all acted in good religion, amid a transparent effort to attract a line below proceedings. However the controversy isn’t going away.

Whereas it’s arduous to search out anybody who’s vital of the precept of Holohan transferring right into a professorship of public well being technique function in TCD, the design of the method particularly the funding was, within the phrases of Fianna Fil TD Jim OCallaghan, informal. Watt retrospectively defended it, arguing it could have been totally regular and correctly accounted for if the secondment had gone forward.

Holohan has largely stored his personal counsel, however is claimed to really feel bruised. In a press release to The Irish Instances, he welcomed declarations from the politicians this week concerning the great religion of the hassle, and hoped that classes can be realized to supply improved readability and competence in any future initiatives of this sort.

Gillane and Fraser have been silent. However Watt has not. On Wednesday, he was concerned in an awfully bad-tempered tangle with the Oireachtas finance committee which noticed its chair, John McGuinness, label him as arrogantly dismissive.

Rejecting lots of the stories conclusions, Watt introduced renewed consideration to the controversy and to himself to the exasperation of ministers. This was over. This was completed, says one authorities supply.

Besides it’s not. Watt and the committee confronted off earlier than on the problem. For ages, he refused to look earlier than them. The committee sought powers to compel him. On Wednesday, he ditched the conference of supplying a gap assertion.

His trenchant strategy is acquainted to colleagues. Private and non-private are not any totally different, says one such particular person. His type is extremely clipped, brusque. He doesnt undergo fools gladly, and that features most politicians. Behind the scenes, he is similar, however with extra dangerous language.

Civil servants are cautious earlier than Oireachtas committees: bobbing and weaving, attempting to keep away from controversy. Officers who’ve beforehand discovered themselves on the defensive say it leaves deep scars.

Nevertheless, there’s sympathy amongst present and former officers for Watts place if not for a way he has prosecuted his trigger. (Individuals) cant count on to get the knives out for particular person civil servants, but not count on targets to struggle again, says one veteran.

A little bit of contrition would have been wiser, groused one senior political supply. One other skilled in coping with committees says upping the ante runs the chance of making a closely politicised slugfest which is what occurred.

It’s important to be deferential and never get right into a state of affairs the place youre matching fireplace with fireplace. As a result of they need to win the battle, so that you attempt to keep away from having the battle, says the official. Even colleagues who help Watt say he misplaced due to how he engaged.

Off the rails

On the controversys coronary heart is the connection between politicians and officers, and what occurs when issues go off the rails.

Mockingly, a part of the rationale why Watt was drafted into the Division of Well being was to handle comparable issues throughout the pandemic as relations deteriorated into rows. There, he was a key cog in a system that functioned infinitely higher in 2021.

The transfer to Well being made sense for Watt, who was coming to the tip of his time in Public Expenditure and Reform. There, he had solid a formidable status throughout the financial disaster, a key hyperlink between politicians, officers and the Worldwide Financial Fund.

He was crucial civil servant in all of that, says a veteran, describing day-to-day, hand-to-hand battles. However his method made enemies in addition to mates, particularly throughout austerity finances talks.

Watt grew up in Drumcondra on Dublins northside, the son of a milkman turned taxi driver, throughout the Eighties. Becoming a member of the Labour Occasion as a younger man, he later did an MA in Economics and joined the Division of Finance within the early Nineties.

There, he was most likely one of many cleverest, and admittedly one of many brashest, of his technology, mentioned a supply who noticed him on the time. He left for the personal sector within the 2000s, working in financial consultancy and flirting with journalism in The Irish Instances and The Sunday Enterprise Publish. His leaving prompted soul-searching inside the Division together with, satirically, a way that he ought to have been allowed to go on secondment, which he had sought.

Individuals cant count on to get the knives out for particular person civil servants, but not count on targets to struggle again

On his return, Watt was considered one of a small group of officers together with former Division of Finance Secretary Basic Derek Moran, who crafted the financial restoration plan after the 2008 crash.

Ultimately, he turned the primary Secretary Basic of the newly-minted DPER. Contemporaries say his strategy there turned extra deeply ingrained, saying no, having arguments and profitable. The worth of that shouldnt be underestimated, but it surely does set the context for a way he does his enterprise, says an official.

In time, Watt set himself in opposition to gestating concepts together with the three billion Nationwide Broadband Plan, even when the Authorities lastly agreed to it.

Twice, he wished to be made Governor of the Central Financial institution. By the point the highest emptiness in Well being got here up, the transfer made sense for all events. There, his defenders say he has been efficient, and Tnaiste Michel Martin backed him once more within the Dil on Thursday.

However he has attracted controversy, along with his 300,000-a-year wage turning into a lightning rod for political and media criticism an issue that led to a pub row with Darragh OBrien, the Minister for Housing.

The occasions of this week led Michael McDowell, the previous Tnaiste and Minister for Justice, to inform the Seanad that he had no confidence within the Division of Well being inspecting its personal function throughout Covid, given Watts show of breathtaking impunity and vanity.

Regardless of how a lot you costume it up as a lesson-learning train, no person believes it. They see it as a fault-finding expedition

Watt could be sensible, however has three flaws, say supporters. He’s outspoken, can present a scarcity of give attention to element, and fails to grasp the boundaries that exist. Every alleged failing has been on show throughout the newest controversy.

The place to from right here?

John McGuinness and different committee members have already indicated they’re contemplating their very own report, and holding additional public classes, even when the Tnaiste has mentioned he accepts the Quinn report in full.

The Division of Well being mentioned on Thursday that Donnelly accepts its suggestions, that are much less racy than its conclusions, but it surely didn’t instantly handle whether or not he accepts the latter when questioned.

Watt, in the meantime, has indicated he’ll implement the elements of the report accepted by the federal government as he’s obliged to do. There’s much less obligation on him to personally settle for Quinns conclusions, even when his noisy disputation causes political complications.

Nevertheless, there isn’t a urge for food for Watts head, even when there’s consensus that he’s broken. Moreover the rest, it could possible beget additional rows.

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