Credit: Capture RTE

Free advice to Government: Rein in Holohan.

He was at it again, yesterday morning, was the nation’s beloved Chief Medical Officer. First he trooped on to Morning Ireland, and then, he marched over to Newstalk, for their breakfast show. The message? Behave yourselves, kids, or Daddy will have to get out the wooden spoon:

Chief medical officer Tony Holohan has said Nphet may be forced to give “difficult advice” to the Government if Covid-19 cases continue to rise.

Dr Holohan warned that the Government cannot make people observe restrictions and it was up to the public to make changes which will bring about a reduction in transmission of Covid-19.

He told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland that Nphet will monitor the situation closely this week and that it is important to see signs of improvement.

If that is not the case “if we think it is necessary to give difficult advice, then we will do so” though he stressed that it is too early to say if the present round of restrictions are working.

Here is a point, which is unarguable, and simple: Nothing Holohan said on the radio yesterday morning required a medical degree, or a title, to say. That message – that more restrictions might be necessary if a rise in cases continued – could have been delivered just as ably, and – BT (before Tony) – with as much authority, by a member of the Government.

In fact, this is how it works elsewhere. Scan the UK newspapers since the beginning of the pandemic, and you will not find one example of an on the record quote from Professor Chris Whitty, the UK’s equivalent to Dr. Holohan, saying what he thought the UK Government might have to do. When restrictions were announced, or relaxed, in that country, the messages came from Boris Johnson, and his ministers. When the medical advisors were rolled out, it was to offer supporting evidence for the decisions that the UK Government had made.

In Ireland, by contrast, Holohan has made himself the face of the pandemic. And he has done more than that: He has set himself up as the real, and final, arbiter of political decisions. Everybody knows and expects now that a letter from Holohan to the Government will be largely obeyed, and woe to them if they disobey. And, of course, just to make sure it is obeyed, it will be leaked to a newspaper.

The media, indeed, treat his word as more significant and important on this topic than the word of the Taoiseach himself. And with good reason: every time a notable conflict between the Government, and Dr. Holohan has emerged, it has been resolved – in favour, largely, of Holohan’s position.

Really, this is, and should be widely recognised as, a democratic outrage: We have contrived in this country to create an unelected position which wields objectively more political power over the civil liberties of citizens than the Taoiseach himself. This is no good for politicians, either: Micheál Martin’s advisors might be too dumb to notice it, but the perception that when Holohan shouts “jump”, the Taoiseach doesn’t even bother to ask how high, and just starts frantically hopping, does nothing for the Taoiseach’s image with the voters. It makes him look weak. It makes Dr. Holohan look like the boss.

The facts of the matter are fairly simple: If Dr. Holohan has a message to deliver, he is more than capable of delivering it to politicians. Who are, if they desire, more than capable of relaying it to the public. This is how it is supposed to work.

Why, you might ask, is this important? Well, there are two reasons, one constitutional, and one a matter of pragmatism. The constitutional reason is that it is remarkably unhealthy for a figure with such a large say over Irish public life to be completely removed from democratic accountability. Dr. Holohan has medical opinions. But his medical opinions, and his views on how to manage a pandemic, are not the only medical views that exist on the subject. There are other doctors, who disagree with his approach, quite profoundly. He is the Government’s chief advisor on this issue, but no Government should have only one advisor. And when one advisor becomes so powerful that they, in effect, dictate Government policy, then they are no longer, in reality, an advisor.

The Chief Medical Officer – the job, not the man – was never intended to have this kind of power. Dr. Holohan has forged it for himself, in the fires of Mount Pandemic Doom. Government has a duty to rein him in.

The second reason is pragmatic, and it is this: The Government have created a political monster. Whether Dr. Holohan would ever use the power openly is questionable, but he now has the power to directly and openly challenge the Government that he is supposed to serve. To have invested him with such power – and to create a potential opponent on policy matters, with such power – is a historic failure of political practice.

The Government is now, effectively, whether they admit it or not, at Dr. Holohan’s mercy. If he demands a full lockdown in three weeks, right before Christmas, will they dare to defy him? Whatever your answer to that question, the bigger problem is that it is a question at all. He should not have the power to dictate the national conversation like this in the first place.

It is long past time that the Government got a handle on this, and shut him up. The man is not the nation’s leader. He is a civil servant who has gotten – on a historic scale – far, far, too big for his boots.

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