The Ministry of Health is afflicted with a serious illness. He may have stepped down from his plum-new role after a week of controversy, but the chief medical officer’s “detachment” is now vacated Tony Holohan to a professorship Trinity College Dublin is a symptom of a widespread disease in the land of mandarins. The Ministry of Health is an independent republic that has allowed them to leave the reservation. The normal rules do not apply.
Suddenly, on Friday morning, as details of the appointment raised concerns, Micheál Martin seemed to realize his eye had been royally wiped by his loyal official service.
It wasn’t the first time mandarins have cheated on their masters.
The Taoiseach was belatedly startled. He popped over the airwaves on a visit to Finland to discuss the war, only to demand that Holohan’s appointment be “suspended”. There had been—again—a major scheduling error. Micheál wanted a report from Health Secretary Stephen Donnelly on how in God’s name the last stroke happened. Despite yesterday afternoon’s dramatic news, this report is needed more than ever.
Donnelly had been vocal in applauding the appointment in the media and in the Seanad, saying he “fully supported” it. He described the maneuver as a “really positive move”. Anyway, it was all “public money”.
Until it wasn’t. Tony will now earn his living in the private sector. There will be no shortage of offers. Perhaps he will find an even more generous employer than the state to which he has rendered many services.
Back to last week’s rubble. It wasn’t Donnelly’s finest hour, but it wasn’t entirely his fault. He sounded like a man who hadn’t been told the whole story. Now he looks like a minister who was briefed by his mandarins and did their bidding. He’s not the play’s villain, although he should have asked for more detail from his Machiavellian mandarins.
On Wednesday, the most controversial lightning rod in the civil service, Secretary General of the Ministry of Health Robert Watts, appeared before the Oireachtas Health Committee. He dodged questions about Holohan’s appointment and refused to say who signed it. A passive health committee has failed to address the issue. It later emerged that the signer was none other than Watt himself. He was obviously hoping to challenge it, allow Donnelly to be on the front lines and move on.
Maybe he’s just accident prone? But prestigious positions are also his Achilles’ heel. His signature at the Holohan gig was just the latest example of him overshooting the mark.
What’s next? Nobody dared to stop him. No one asked him to help him explain that the delegation was not a delegation at all. It was what is better known in Mandarin parlance as an “indefinite-term contract,” meaning it was meant to be permanent. No one told him Trinity and not the underfunded Department of Health should pay for Holohan. Nobody insisted that informing his hapless minister about the unusual financial arrangements might be a good idea.
Watts’ own appointment as the top healthcare job last year, followed by his outrageous €81,000 pay raise – to more than €300,000 by the end of 2022 – is a signal he has an alarming grip on his political bosses.
Micheál, Leo and Eamon approved his raise. Now they are beginning to roll back on their protégé’s excesses as they see the collateral damage of a dominant mandarin
When I was at the Department of Sport a little over two years ago, Watt asked for my approval to be Director of the FAI. I was shocked. When I said it wasn’t going to happen because it would have created a conflict, he was less than pleased. As Director of the FAI, in his position as General Secretary of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, he would solicit huge funds from himself. He had guile; He simply plotted a cunning course and arranged with the FAI to reserve a vacancy for a few months until I was out of office.
Today he is on the FAI Board. He is no longer at the Department for Public Expenditure and Economic Reform but in the health sector he is arguably the most influential person in Ireland when rules are being set in relation to Covid. What jersey does he wear when it comes to the elixir of life, football, the number of fans allowed at games? Is he hailing looser restrictions to save FAI revenues or tougher rules to save the nation’s health? No Mandarin should sit on an outside board of this nature, but Watt has been allowed to pave a flawed path for others.
Watt’s odd reign at the top isn’t the only example of mandarins running the show. Appointments at the highest levels of public service are an insider’s paradise. Last week, under the radar while the Holohan Quarrel raged, the most powerful post in the entire service was filled. There was no open procedure. A new secretary-general of the Taoiseach itself was quietly appointed. A few weeks ago, “expressions of interest” were solicited from officials. Whatever number was sent, all disappeared into the Merrion Street airwaves. Have there been any interviews or public tenders for the post, which also holds the title of Secretary General of the Government?
Lo and behold, after this non-existent process, the Mandarins’ favourite, heir apparent John Callinan, currently the second Secretary-General after Secretary-General Martin Fraser, was selected. What a surprise. An insider landed the prize. Callinan was appointed without open process by the Taoiseach himself. On Friday, the same Taoiseach who felt the heat of the holohan sought transparency from others.
The Taoiseach rightly cries out for transparency. But first he should get the splinter out of his
own eye. Is Friday’s sudden conversion
willing to openness and accountability to explain to us how a mandarin prince, John Callinan, seamlessly inherited the mandarin throne last week? Callinan was a talented civil servant when I was there, but there was no open public selection for his new post.
And while the Taoiseach is still suffering from his bout of purity in Finland, let’s detail how Callinan’s friend and boss and predecessor as the Mandarin King, Martin Fraser, somehow got back the job as ambassador to the court of St. James without open competition ?
Fraser is an impressive, personable official, but it’s hard to see how his training as a troubleshooter for three Taoisigh makes him the best possible Irish ambassador to the UK. Another case of mandarins getting plum jobs they’re obviously not qualified for. I knew and liked Fraser when I was in government. He was amusing company, efficient and bright; but he is not a diplomat.
The truth is inedible. Ireland’s mandarins put rings around their political masters. One of the best episodes of Yes minister A political satirical television series was a meeting of two general secretaries at their club, exchanging confidence about the weaknesses and strengths of their respective ministers. They conspired successfully over which ministerial strings to pull.
Ireland’s network of officers is based on the UK model. We have made our oppressors proud.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/mandarins-lording-it-over-ministers-41538080.html Mandarins rule over ministers