Give me a crash course in... the Tony Holohan job controversy

Secretary general Robert Watt “ring-fenced” €2 million per annum to TCD to support Holohan’s new role

Why all the hullabaloo about Tony Holohan's new job? Nobody objected to his new job. When it was announced that the chief medical officer would become professor of public health strategy at Trinity College Dublin, there was almost universal welcome for his new role. The problem revolved around the deal that was struck, and also about governance and transparency.

So what was the deal? It was highly unusual. Holohan would move to TCD but remain an employee of the Department of Health and retain his  €187,000 annual salary. In a letter of intent to TCD, the secretary general of the department, Robert Watt, also promised a "ring-fenced" €2 million per annum to the university to support Holohan's new role. If Holohan remained for 10 years, that would amount to ¤20 million.

Watt told TCD that the funding would come via the Health Research Board (HRB). However, all funding for research approved by the HRB can only be made after a transparent competitive process. In his briefing note, Watt states the funding "would involve competitive funding organised appropriately". But it is hard to make sense of that sentence and any notion of competition, given that he had already promised TCD a "ring-fenced" €2 million each year.

Was Robert Watt authorised to do that? In a briefing note to the Government this week, he argues that he was. He said that the programme for government had committed, as an immediate first step, to examine the international public health model, learn from best practice and reshape the public health system. He has contended that Holohan's new role was in furtherance of this. But senior Ministers expressed surprise that Watt would have signed off on such a significant arrangement without reference to others.


There is a view in Government that political approval should have been sought, and if the money was coming from the HRB, the “competitive” nature of the funding should have been clearly spelled out.

Why was the secondment controversial? Watt says straight out in the briefing note it was Holohan who wanted the secondment arrangement as he "simply desired to preserve his existing terms and conditions". Watt gives many instances of secondments and notes, factually, that they are a "common feature" across the public service. But this one was unusual. It was open-ended: in reality Holohan would never come back to the department. Also, the receiving body tends to pay the salary of the person seconded. Watt contended there was a "small number of cases" where the parent organisation paid but gave no examples. That was unusual.

Why was the Minister for Health not told about the secondment? In the briefing note we see the bluntness for which Watt is renowned. He said the Minister was informed of the appointment but it was appropriate for Watt not to tell him of the secondment because there was "nothing unusual" about it and there were no proposed change in the chief medical officer's conditions. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly did not find out about the secondment until April 5th.

He also said the Taoiseach and others were not "kept in the dark" as Martin Fraser, secretary to the Government, was "aware of the proposed secondment move (but not of course the precise details)". But that news never percolated up to the Taoiseach. It's hard to find any concession in the 12 pages other than the fact that elements were "not communicated well". It also said the lack of a reference to the secondment in the press release allowed inaccurate inference to be drawn. Otherwise it is unapologetic.

So what happens now? The Taoiseach has requested an external independent review of the matter. It signals that the briefing note has not fully answered questions on the transparency and governance of the process, the practices of secondments in the public service, and the effective promise of as much as €20 million to TCD up to Holohan's retirement age.