Photo credit: Department of Health

The Holohan whitewash

It is beyond a cliché at this stage, the phrase “lessons have been learned”. In Ireland, it never means that any actual lessons have been learned. What it means is that those responsible for a particular cock up, or act of chicanery, or bit of funny business, get away with it on the basis that the process, rather than the people involved, are to blame.

The report by Dr. Maura Quinn into the aborted appointment of Dr. Tony Holohan to a lucrative, taxpayer funded research job in Trinity College Dublin does not, as is tradition, directly point a finger at any named individual and say “this person is to blame”. Instead, as ever, it speaks in the passive voice. It concludes that the process was “rushed” – who rushed it?

It concludes further that “proper procedures were not followed” – who is responsible for allowing this?

Here’s a typical paragraph from the report:

The substantial proposed funding commitment of €2 million a year until the retirement of the Chief Medical Officer, by-passed all of the accepted protocols for research funding and was linked atypically to one named individual.

Let’s spell this out in plain English: What that paragraph says is that €2m of public money – your money – was allocated specifically and only to create a new job for Dr. Tony Holohan. In other words, the state was allocating the equivalent of a life-changing win on the national lottery to create a job for Dr. Tony. If the job went to someone else, then the money would disappear. It was for Dr. Holohan, and Dr. Holohan alone.

All of this outside the normal structures of his salary, pension, and retirement benefits.

Nobody – not a single person – has somehow been identified as being responsible for this bit of jobs for the boy backslapping. Instead, the report tells us that the process was “flawed”. You don’t say.

Here’s another stunning paragraph:

On April 6, the Secretary General, Department of Health, provided by email, copies of the Letter of Intent of March 16 to Trinity College Dublin and the letter of March 16 confirming the ‘Arrangements relating to Secondment of Dr Tony Holohan’, to the Minister for Health and his Special Advisors. This is the first time the Minister knew of the €2 million research funding proposal.

In other words, the funding for Dr. Holohan’s job had been allocated and signed off without any involvement or knowledge, the report says, from the elected Minister for Health. So who is it in the Department of Health who has the authority to spend sums of money that large without informing or involving the elected Minister who is supposed to be responsible to the public for how their money is spent?

The public would be within their rights to think this a scandal, and to expect that somebody would pay for it with their job. But that, as we know, will not happen. In the words of Sir Humphrey, it would be the thin end of the wedge: Once you accept the principle that civil servants can be held accountable for incompetence, or worse, then the whole house of cards might suddenly collapse.

And that, I’d suggest, is a convincing explanation for the fact that instead of focusing on people, we have another report that essentially sets the stage for further reports and reviews. If there was a flawed process, then obviously the Government will want to ensure such things can not happen again: Cue another report about how to fix the process.

Often, when a thing looks like a fish, and smells like a fish, and has a waggly sort of tail, then the chances are that you are looking at a fish. And in this case, we are looking at what appears to have been a very quiet attempt to get Dr. Tony a nice big job on the public purse, with a guaranteed salary “until retirement”. A process which appears to have been cooked up by top civil servants, including the active involvement of the good doctor himself, and basically kept from the poor goons we elect to run the country.

In Britain, they just give exalted civil servants Knighthoods. It might be a better system, and a cheaper one, than this nonsense. But then in Britain, and in most other western democracies, people also tend to get fired for this sort of thing.

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