Miriam Lord: Mary Lou subdued as questions about Dowdall links hang over Sinn Féin

Learnings from Holohan appointment saga will be taken away never to be seen again

We have the bones of The Learnings now, which is the main thing.

But it must be stressed that nobody did anything wrong and there were no adverse findings against anyone. Everybody acted in good faith.

Nonetheless, lessons will have to be learned; a number of which have already been identified so that mistakes will not be repeated, going forward.

These lessons are not to be confused with the “clear learnings”. They will be examined in due course by all concerned.


And anyway, nothing actually happened. “And we shouldn’t forget that …” said the Taoiseach.

This is why we appoint very clever people to the top jobs in the public service and pay them shedloads of money. They have the smarts to run the country. More importantly, they are the bringers of The Learnings (if a bit too often for some people’s liking).

If it hadn’t been for the price of gas and the housing crisis and nobody ever expecting a Government report to be released on time, the nation would have been waiting with bated breath for the publication of Maura Quinn’s independent review into last year’s proposed secondment of Tony Holohan to a new role in Trinity College.

This idea was abandoned when a political furore blew up over the way the appointment was handled and how it was to be funded.

Twelve months ago, the Minister for Health set up the inquiry to “determine learnings” from the discontinued process and hopefully pick up a few pointers on how to avoid making yet another top level balls-up in the future.

“Recommendations that could inform future such initiatives” as the Department of Health put it.

Stephen Donnelly said the review should only take a couple of months and he was right. The very efficient Maura Quinn had it on his desk by July.

“There are clear learnings for my department,” he said at the time.

The taoiseach of the day took a similar tack. “I think fundamentally lessons have to be learned here,” said Micheál Martin. “Transparency from the outset would have been appropriate.”

And from there, it only took Speedy Stephen, known for his decisiveness, a lightning seven months to publish the report. It seemed destined to be overlooked when the Dáil returned on Tuesday after the Easter recess and Joe Biden excess.

The housing crisis returned to its familiar centre-stage spot for the standard accusations of Government incompetence and inaction from the Opposition and equally predictable robust pushback from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.


Those TDs who boycotted the US president’s Dáil performance took the opportunity to air the criticisms they complained they would not have been allowed to ventilate in his presence last Thursday while all the rest complimented themselves on hosting a lovely occasion.

And there was a shock declaration from the Sinn Féin leader after the members of People Before Profit had lambasted American foreign policy and pitied the Taoiseach for not feeling even a tiny bit embarrassed about hosting warmonger and climate change vandal Joe Biden in Leinster House.

“I agree with you, Taoiseach” said Mary Lou McDonald. “I think the visit was extremely successful.”

She was more subdued than usual, which was not surprising. The sensational conclusion of the Gerard Hutch murder trial in the Special Criminal Court on Monday – the gangland boss walked – was a major topic of conversation outside the chamber but it didn’t figure during Leaders’ Questions.

And yet, her party’s former links to Jonathan Dowdall, a thoroughly nasty piece of work whose wholly unreliable evidence formed the main plank of the prosecution’s case, hung in the air. Unspoken.

Dowdall was a Sinn Féin councillor in Mary Lou’s Dublin Central constituency, back in the day when he portrayed himself as the inner city boy made good in business giving something back to his community. She has repeatedly stressed she knew nothing of his murky, criminal background back then, but nevertheless, his mere existence is embarrassing to her and the party.

It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if the Taoiseach stuck in some oblique reference to Dowdall during their exchanges. Leo doesn’t usually need a second invitation to stick the knife into Sinn Féin. But he kept his powder dry.

Finally, after many speakers on the Order of Business, Wexford’s Paul Kehoe stood up and did the job for him. Did the Taoiseach agree that keeping the Special Criminal Court is essential “if we are to have stronger and safer communities?”

‘Political point’

He read out a list of hoodlums and IRA murderers who have been put away by the court. They included Mary Lou’s “good friend” and “criminal councillor” Jonathan Dowdall who “saw more of the Special Criminal Court than he did the Dublin City Council chamber”.

The Sinn Féin leader did not respond.

Leo agreed that the Special Criminal Court “works” as the recent convictions in the Regency Hotel case demonstrate. And if the acquittal of Gerard Hutch was not “the outcome the State desired”, it showed that the court is a place where people get a fair trial.

The case also showed “a clear and ongoing link or overlap between republican paramilitaries and organised criminal gangs”.

But just in case anybody thought he was trying to score any political point….

“By the way, I do not think for a second that Sinn Féin is in any way responsible for Jonathan Dowdall’s actions. I know it can be difficult to vet candidates and I don’t believe in guilt by association.”

He has Paul Kehoe to do that for him.

It took some time, but the Tony Holohan report finally surfaced. Fianna Fáil’s Robert Troy wondered if the recommendations in the Quinn report would be implemented to ensure future top-level appointments were done in a structured and transparent way.

“And will there be any consequences for the failure to implement established protocols?”

Curious consequence

The Taoiseach might have mentioned that some very senior civil servants are currently at each other’s throats over the contents of the report, which is a curious consequence. But he didn’t.

“In the end, lessons have to be learned from this,” said the Taoiseach. “And a number of these have been identified in the report.”

Not the most original response to the latest Government-commissioned report on yet another regrettable misunderstanding by really smart people of a process which ordinary people, unaccustomed to the luxury of Learnings, would consider to be fairly straightforward.

“And we shouldn’t forget that this secondment never happened. It didn’t happen in the end,” he reminded Troy.

Labour leader Ivana Bacik found the events surrounding the cancelled secondment of Holohan to a Government-funded post in Trinity College “unedifying”.

The report signals “dysfunction at the heart of Government” and “a total lack of process” in the appointment, along with a failure of ministerial accountability, she claimed. “Most critically, it reveals serious accusations being made against each other by civil servants at the heart and centre of government.”

Leo is in no doubt about what has to be done next, now that what is the bleedin’ obvious to the non-mandarin class has been enshrined in a report.

“We need to put in new procedures.”

In due course, the Learnings will be taken away by a man with a trolley and stored in the Learnings room in the bowels of Government Buildings, in a location only known to the man with the trolley because nobody else ever goes there.