You have to take your hat off to the Taoiseach. Saying this line out loud took some testicular fortitude.
The Taoiseach has said “lessons have to be learned” from the controversy over the appointment of Dr Tony Holohan to a Trinity College Dublin academic position. However Micheál Martin said he did not see there being further consequences for anyone, and said he had full confidence in the secretary general of the Department of Health Robert Watt.
“Transparency from the outset would have been appropriate,” he said. “I think it’s regrettable given the fact that Tony has played a very strong role in bringing us through the pandemic. But there has to be a process too and I think there has to be full transparency in relation to all of these issues.”
It is objectively remarkable, to read those words, when you consider what he is saying. The problem here, he says, is that there was a lack of “transparency from the outset”. Which poses the following question: What would have happened if there had been transparency from the outset?
Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Minister Donnelly had appeared in the Dáil two weeks ago and said the following: That he was recommending that the Government fund Dr. Tony Holohan a position in Trinity College Dublin, on his full CMO salary and benefits, while hiring a second CMO to replace him. That the position in Trinity had been “created with Dr. Holohan in mind” and that it would be a professorship. And that one of the considerations was that “Tony wanted a new challenge”.
Do we suppose that the public would have said “oh well, that’s a wonderful idea, congratulations Tony”?
The outrage here is not, and never has been, that the process was covered up. It was covered up, at least in part, because of how outrageous it was.
So, when the Taoiseach says that we must learn lessons about transparency, he is either deluding himself, or attempting to delude the public.
And that is, perhaps, understandable. Because the real lesson to be learned here is that the upper ranks of the public sector, and the civil service in particular, are absolutely infested with a culture of entitlement and superiority.
This job was created for Dr. Holohan, if we are honest, because some people thought he deserved a reward. Not least amongst those people, I suspect, Dr. Holohan himself. There was no need for transparency because this was never supposed to be a matter for the public: When Dr. Holohan announced the appointment himself, some weeks back, we were supposed to applaud, and thank him, and ask no questions. The very idea that there might be public resentment did not enter their minds.
Which is the real lesson here. And it is not a lesson for the civil service, or for the public. It is a lesson for politicians. We elect them, after all, to keep a firm hand on the machinery of state, and the civil service. Politicians are necessary precisely because the public sector is prone to things like this. This happened because, as is very common in Ireland, politicians started treating civil servants like their friends and partners, rather than what they are: the staff who need supervision.
This is, as others have pointed out, not the first instance of things like this with the Government. We all remember the Zappone fiasco, and the parallels are obvious. In both instances, the scandal essentially resulted from people thinking that colleagues deserved a nice reward for their service in the form of a comfortable sinecure on the public purse. In both instances, public outrage seemed to take them by surprise. In both instances, they absurdly pretended that if the thing had just been transparent from the start, people wouldn’t have minded.
If that’s the lesson Mr. Martin is learning, then we can say that he is, sadly, a slow learner. The problem isn’t transparency, Taoiseach. The problem is cronyism.