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New Health Boss: I will “temporarily” turn down my €81k pay rise

Dulce et Decorum est, Pro Patria Mori, wrote the Roman Poet Horace, at around about the time of Christ’s birth. It’s a famous Latin phrase, which translates to English as “it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country”. In its time, the phrase was designed to encapsulate the highest form of patriotism, and love of one’s nation. It has stood the test of centuries. Or at least it did, up until yesterday. We have a new quote now that will echo through the generations:

The Department of Health on Tuesday issued a statement confirming Mr Watt’s appointment in which he said: “I was delighted to be asked to take on the role of interim Secretary General in the Department of Health earlier this year.

“An open TLAC (Top Level Appointments Committee) competition was held and I am pleased to be asked to take on this role on a permanent basis following the Government meeting today.

“The proposed salary for this role is higher than my current salary.

“I don’t think it is appropriate to take such an increase in pay given the current difficult economic conditions the country faces.

“It had always been my intention that, if I were to be appointed to this role, I would waive this increase until the economy begins to recover and unemployment falls.

That’s an unforced error so bad that one really wonders whether some very cunning politician talked him into it under the guise of giving good advice. Watt has now put himself, explicitly, in a position where he, and he alone, will decide when and whether he accepts a gigantic eighty thousand euros per year pay rise. Let me tell you, if you happen to be reading this, Mr. Watt: There will never be a time when the public thinks the economy is sufficiently recovered, and unemployment sufficiently low, for you to award yourself an extra eighty grand a year of their money. You’ve trapped yourself with this one.

Normally, in these matters, politicians and civil servants are a little bit cleverer. The smart thing to do here, if he wanted a pay rise at a later date, but felt unable to take it now, would have been to turn it down permanently. That way, he’d have been in a position to accept a pay rise offered by the Government in the years to come. “Not my fault”, he could have said, “the Government decides the rate of pay for my position”.

As it is, that’s no longer true. Robert Watt is now the person who decides when Robert Watt gets a pay rise, which makes him unique amongst all public employees. Even politicians don’t get to decide when they get a pay rise – at least, not without convincing all the other politicians to vote for it. Watt is out there on his own.

All of this, of course, means that it’s a decent bet that he will never, now, get that pay rise, because nobody else will take the blame, and, no matter when he takes it, politicians and the media will be lining up to condemn it. Rarely, in Irish public life, has there been such an example of self-snookering as this one. Let’s hope he’s a little bit more canny when it comes to spending our money on the health service, eh?

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