Photo credit: Department of Health

Donnelly rejecting committee invite exposes accountability crisis

It’s not hard to see why the proposed Tony Holohan TCD secondment was – and is – so controversial.

After all, even those involved would have to admit that, on its face, it looks pretty bad.

You have a senior civil servant – Holohan – earning an ungodly sum of money for years in the public sector.

He then plans to leave the role to work for a private company, Trinity College. But on the way out, he attempts take his taxpayer-funded salary with him – all with the blessing of the government department. And meanwhile, the taxpayers also have to pay someone else the same sum to fill Holohan’s former role, effectively paying for two CMOs but only getting the benefit of one.

Not only that, but the new proposed job was created specifically with Holohan in mind, and was signed off on Department of Health Secretary-General Robert Watt.

This is noteworthy as, around the time of this latest episode, Watt was already the subject of significant controversy after repeated pay rises saw his salary reach almost €300,000 per year.

And so, though the Holohan job was ultimately canned after massive backlash, it was only natural that both Watt and Stephen Donnelly as Health Minister would be called before the Finance Committee to explain what exactly had happened.

Now, at this point, you’d probably think a person would jump at an opportunity to explain away a scandal of this magnitude. They’d eagerly want to go before the committee and lay out the facts showing that nothing untoward had happened and clear the air. But au contraire – after being invited to attend the meeting, as reported by RTÉ:

“a letter sent to the committee from Mr Donnelly’s private secretary said: “Neither the minister nor his officials are in a position to attend the meeting”.

It did not outline a reason for their decision, but said the minister has announced a review “to examine learnings and recommendations that could inform future such initiatives”.

Committee member Peadar Tóibín of Aontú said it is “absolutely scandalous that the highest paid civil servant in the country has refused two requests in this Dáil term to come before the committee and be accountable for his actions”.”

Now, maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this. Far be it from me to accuse Donnelly or Watt of anything inappropriate – that’s not the intent here.

But this whole incident is very reminiscent of the Zappone Gate scandal, after which Katherine Zappone also rejected an offer to attend a committee meeting over her UN envoy role.

While Zappone obviously wasn’t a member of the government, she was certainly closely affiliated with them and is at least “government adjacent.” And yet, when serious questions were raised about her new job, she refused to be scrutinised, as have Donnelly and Watt.

Once again: if you had sincere and compelling answers to these pressing questions – which they may well have – surely it would be your duty and desire to present those answers? Why the lack of transparency in all these cases?

It’s undeniable that these scandals certainly seem to be piling up fast.

From Leo Varadkar being under criminal investigation for allegedly leaking confidential documents to a friend, to Golf Gate and Phil Hogan, to the Zappone Gate fiasco, and now Holohan’s TCD secondment, this starts to paint a grim picture in the court of public opinion. And these are all just from the last couple of years.

Whether or not anything wrong was actually done in these cases, the perception is of a sketchy, golden circle elite engaged in all sorts of shady business behind the scenes. And when independent voices try to ask them about it, and get clarification, those involved often refuse to come before a committee and explain themselves. Not a good look to put it mildly.

How can we have accountability when the people in power won’t put themselves forward for scrutiny? How can we say “Lessons must be learned” after every scandal, but then repeat the same mistakes every few months?

It’s perfectly possible that all of these situations are simply innocent misunderstandings – I’m quite willing to believe that the government has its hands clean of any funny business or dodgy practices. But will the voters believe them? Will their evasive behaviour help or hinder them at the polling station?

That’s what these politicians and officials need to start asking themselves, because these endless headlines are undoubtedly tearing strips off their carefully manicured reputation.

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