The Loreal Secondment

If we weren’t already interested in how Tony Holohan’s new job in Trinity came to be, we should be very curious now.  

The letter from Robert Watt, Secretary General, of the Department of Health, to Linda Doyle, the Provost at Trinity, raises a number of questions.

It is best to ignore the fact that Stephen Donnelly moved from being fully supportive of the new role as Professor of Public Health Strategy and Leadership at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) as a “really positive move” in early April, to apparently being uninvolved in the decision making process , and then to finally ordering a review into the process once An Taoiseach called a halt to it.

It is best to ignore that the abovementioned letter contained a draft quote from Minister Donnelly – no doubt drafted on his behalf. Should we assume it would be drafted without him having knowledge of the process? Maybe. That would indicate that Robert Watt’s team are very naïve, or that they see their Health Minister as merely a rubber-stamper.

All that however is secondary. The announcement that the new role for Holohan was coming with “an annual ring-fenced allocation of €2M for the duration of the secondment, to be administered through the Health Research Board” raises a number of questions.

First, why the need for this annual fund to accompany the role? Was it a sweetener to take Holohan out of the Dept. of Health? Was it an inducement for Trinity to provide office space and a Professorship that previously did not exist?

Did TCD not actually want him or this newly created role? Did the DoH feel that Holohan had grown too influential and they needed a way to move him out but to go quietly?

Mere speculation. But one has to wonder. No one seems to know how the role was created. In a memo to the Health Minister, Robert Watt said after first raising the possibility of a new position last summer, the Dr Holohan “entered into detailed discussions with the third level sector” in February.

There was no role prior to this. It should be clear that the role was created, somehow, out of nothing, by Holohan himself, for himself, or through some other means. It doesn’t seem to have been created by the DoH. Certainly there was no competitive, open, recruitment process to fill the position?

Someone felt Holohan was entitled to this position. The DoH and TCD could have at least went through a charade of applications and interviews and arrived at the same result. But their hubris told them that they did not even need to pretend.

So how did they end up agreeing to fund €2m per annum? Did Holohan negotiate this for himself? Did TCD only agree to the role if it came with a significant research funding allocation on top of the €187k salary?

Had Holohan decided to retire as CMO before the role came about or was the role part of a package to encourage him? Or was it a ‘thank you’ agreed between Holohan and the DoH for all his work during the pandemic, acting as the Taoiseachs’ rottweiler for the last two years?

Did Holohanuse his position and influence to convince TCD to create the role and offer the funding to go with it? Did he use his influence to get someone else in the DoH to do this on his behalf? Certainly there appears to be a very strong conflict of interest, where a senior person within the HSE is able to negotiate significant DoH funding for his proposed role in his new University?

How must the other University’s feel? Research funding is hard got and considered very precious. A research grant from the EU Horizon 2020 fund or similar requires a massive amount of documentation, detailed budgets, results frameworks with clear indicators and targets for success. Did Holohan have to provide any of this? Did TCD? What was in the that proposal, if indeed there was one? Given that the Health Research Board has stated that it had no idea of this funding, indicators are that no competitive or accountable process has been put in place.

This indicates that senior civil service and government figures seem to think that the public purse is their own personal gift bag – reminiscent more of the Marcos era in the Philippines than an accountable democracy.

Negotiating a new job for oneself on one’s old salary, with a new employer, but paid by the current employer as a ‘secondment’ seems dodgy enough. Being able to bring a swag-bag of millions of euro funding to the new employer, from the old employer, is just genius.

Obviously someone felt this was all ok and above board. That Holohan was worth it. That he deserved it. And that Ireland owed him for his service – above and beyond the €187k salary.

A golden handshake is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a generous severance agreement given especially as an inducement to early retirement. This feels more like a brown envelope decorated with a veneer of respectability, hidden behind ‘Letters of Intent’ and ‘Memoranda of Understanding’.



David Reynolds

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