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Highly paid, but highly scrutinised - the top civil servants at the helm of Government departments

Most of the top mandarins running Government departments were educated in public schools, with some attending college at night or later in their careers

The working life of a Government department secretary general can be complicated.

In one high-profile department, senior figures tell a story of a minister of many years who, following a row with his officials, locked himself in his office and would not come out. The secretary general, the department’s most senior civil servant, made entreaties from outside the door.

But the politician was not for budging. The minister, a wealthy man and long since dead, felt he did not have to work with the civil servants assigned to his department and wanted to hire his own staff to deliver the policies he wanted, threatening to consult the attorney general.

The storm eventually blew over, but the tale encapsulates the tensions that exist occasionally between Ministers and their top officials.


Secretaries general manage the operations of their departments and advise their Ministers, but they are not the only ones giving counsel; each Minister can, under law, hire two advisers.

Gary Murphy, politics professor at Dublin City University, says over recent years Ministers have commissioned management consultants in advance of significant policy decisions, though – ultimately – secretaries general are the accounting officers at departments who must appear before Oireachtas committees and explain the implementation of those decisions.

Some former senior civil servants maintain that while top civil servants are well remunerated, people at high levels in the private sector can earn considerably more. The counter argument is that it is very rare for a senior civil servant to be fired if things go wrong, unlike in the private sector.

Prof Murphy says a recent trend has been for secretaries general to be appointed at a younger age. He says that whereas the late TK Whitaker – one of the State’s most famous civil servants and regarded as the architect of much of Ireland’s modern economic policy – was appointed on merit as the top Department of Finance official at the age of 39 in the 1950s, that was seen as a one-off at a time when most appointments were based on seniority.

Appointing individuals in their 40s throws up problems. How long should they remain in post? Will long tenures block promotional opportunities for others? And how should the State compensate those who have to leave in their 50s, particularly if there are restrictions on their future careers under conflict-of-interest rules?

Prof Murphy says this is an issue with which the Government is still grappling.

In early March the Cabinet agreed new arrangements.

In future secretaries general can remain in office for a maximum of nine years. Afterwards they can revert to the lower assistant secretary grade. Alternatively the Government can offer posts elsewhere or a one-year salary payment.

So who are the country’s most senior civil servants? There are 18 who run Government departments, of whom five are women.

There are four salary levels for secretaries general, ranging from just over €230,000 to close to €300,000.

There are other Civil Service roles on similar pay such as the chair of the Revenue Commissioners, director general of the Attorney General’s office, the Chief State Solicitor and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Contrary to a possible view that these so-called top mandarins attended private schools, many were educated in public schools. Two were actually in the same class in one Christian Brothers school. Some studied for college degrees at night or later in their careers.

A minority previously worked in the private sector. The Top Level Appointments Committee (TLAC), which recommends candidates for the three Civil Service highest posts, has identified a drop-off in applications from outside the public system in recent years.

Conor Brady, who was a member and later chair of TLAC up to 2022 (as well as a former editor of The Irish Times), says that there has been a trend of more men applying for posts but of more women ultimately being recommended for roles.

He drew attention to the need for more appointments from different ethnic backgrounds.

The TLAC report for 2021 says bluntly: “There is still no ethnic diversity in the pool of candidates currently coming to preliminary and final interview stage, notwithstanding an increasingly varied ethnic intake into the workforce. It is desirable that the composition of the Civil Service should broadly reflect the ethnic make-up of the community.”

Pension arrangements were reformed in 2011 amid controversy over lucrative retirement packages.

The then minister for public expenditure Brendan Howlin said in future there would be no added years for pension purposes and pensions would not be paid before minimum retirement age.

In July 2012, Howlin gave the Dáil a list of senior officials then in place for whom the previous and more beneficial terms would still apply.

Included on Howlin’s list were Robert Watt, who is now running the Department of Health, and Martin Fraser, who is Ireland’s ambassador in London.

The Department of Public Expenditure refused to comment on whether the terms were still in place in light of the two men’s more recent appointments.

While the pay and pensions may seem attractive, there is unease over some issues. The Irish Times understands that some serving senior civil servants believe the Government proposal for secretaries general to revert to assistant secretary level on completion of their term is not feasible.

Another issue is the prospect of their pension pots attracting a large tax bill if the pots exceed the current €2 million limit to qualify for tax relief. The Government is reviewing these rules.

Scrutiny by both media and politicians is also an issue for some top officials.

Some argue that whereas senior figures in the private sector involved in controversies are dealt with in private, top civil servants have to go before politicians in Oireachtas committees in full public view.

It is at these moments that their largely private backroom work is cast into a very public spotlight.