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Miriam Lord: A jaw-dropping, arrogant performance from Robert Watt – the prince of permanent government

Watt never intended to come across as dismissive, cocky and combative at the Oireachtas finance committee but he did

Deputies, know your place!

Chairman, know you place!

Do you not realise you are in the presence of a prince of the permanent government?

The performance of Robert Watt at the Oireachtas finance committee on Wednesday afternoon was hard to credit in all its jaw-dropping swagger.


Doubtless, the exalted secretary general of the Department of Health never intended to come across as dismissive, cocky, combative and arrogant during his two hours of testimony. But unfortunately for Mr Watt, he did.

Doubtless, the controversial career civil servant never meant to sound so glib during some of his replies and never meant to smirk and shrug so much when answering questions put to him by mere TDs and senators. But unfortunately, he did.

As chairman John McGuinness remarked, having torn strips off him for his “arrogantly dismissive” attitude: “The people listening in, who have an interest in this, will make up their own minds.”

It shouldn’t be difficult for them.

His witness was highly affronted by the comments.

McGuinness didn’t hold back, having sat through the secretary general’s highly frustrating responses to questions from increasingly exasperated committee members. At every turn, when presented with what, to most observers, looked like the obvious, Robert Watt begged to differ.

“It’s here. It’s here in black and white!” shouted Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty at one point, brandishing a letter written by the mandarin’s own fair hand.

“I don’t want to split hairs here, but, honest to God!” he gasped as the hearing drew to a close.

When members pointed out the contradictions in some of his answers, Watt fell back on the same, rather petulant defence. “Well, I’m entitled to my views.”

Peadar Tóibín rightly observed that disagreeing with a report does not grant immunity to accountability. “Otherwise, it is simply analysis. It’s just meaningless opinion.” And the review is more than that.

The witness almost lost his rag with Peadar. “It’s not your job to summarise what I just said.”

Bet he wouldn’t talk to Martin Fraser or Deirdre Gillane like that.

He also took the chair to task for what some might say was telling a few home truths. “Your answers fall way short of the standard I would expect of a senior civil servant,” said McGuinness, accusing him of setting a very bad example to young officials.

“I think now, chair, you are not in a position to personally criticise me ... I’m not sure it’s appropriate for the chair to comment like that.”

McGuinness pounced. “Well, to quote yourself – I’m entitled to my opinion, aren’t I?”

The witness made it abundantly clear throughout that he does not accept the findings of the Government-commissioned review into last year’s proposed open-ended secondment of the then chief medical officer to a specially-created role in Trinity College Dublin, with a promise of up to €2 million in annual research funding.

The least the politicians could have done was give Robert his due for being absolutely right in the way he handled the botched appointment of Dr Tony Holohan, while generously condescending that the review, which found he absolutely did not get it right, was wrong.

“I regret the way it panned out,” he confessed in a rare moment of mild contrition, conceding “we” were a bit remiss when it came to “communicating” the detail around the creation of this prestigious job for the eminently deserving chief medical officer to the Minister for Health.

The secretary general had the committee’s hackles up before he even entered the room. He hadn’t provided a written opening statement, as is the norm

It didn’t help that an email destined for hapless Minister Stephen Donnelly had gone astray as the Minister’s system had been hacked. And then, said the stellar civil servant, they forgot to follow up as “it slipped our mind to give him the detail”.

“It all seems rather strange,” mused Sinn Féin’s Rose Conway-Walsh.

“No, it’s not,” snapped Robert.

Anyway, everyone who supported this new position for Dr Tony had been acting with the best of motives. “Doing the right thing in the public interest and that has to be recognised and that has to be accepted and it would be nice if that was recognised and that was accepted.”

Robert don’t get no respect from this committee. He pushed back hard.

Maura Quinn, who conducted the review, concluded that the secondment seemed like “a very casual arrangement”.

“I don’t accept that,” said Watt to Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan.

Jim read out the relevant part of the report.

“I agree with what she says there,” he said.

“No. I don’t agree with it.”

And that, in a nutshell, is how it went for the rest of the two hours. Robert Watt was “very happy” to conclude that the secondment process had been conducted in an appropriate manner and would broach no criticism.

This is because he didn’t seem to think there was any criticism. Protocols? What protocols? Did the reviewer even list any in her report? As for “bypassing” accepted procedure, what does that even mean?

No, he agreed with nothing. Or almost nothing.

When the report emerged on Monday it emerged that there had been a major difference of opinion on who on high had known what about this thorny non-appointment. The people disputing Watt’s version are two very powerful, non-elected people: Fraser, the former Department of the Taoiseach secretary general who is now Ireland’s ambassador in London; and Gillane, Tánaiste Micheál Martin’s chief of staff.

In the pecking order of the permanent government, they outrank the secretary general of the Department of Health. They say he did not supply them with the detail about the appointment. Does he agree?

Agree with what Martin and Deirdre – he referred to them by their first names – are saying, even though it contradicts him?

“I accept what people said they knew or didn’t know. So that’s fine.”

So he isn’t disputing what Martin Fraser said? “Happy to accept it broadly, alright. Happy to accept his view, he has his view. That’s fine, absolutely.”

And Deirdre, who vehemently denied his version of who knew what? “Oh yeah, I accept that. If Deirdre said she didn’t know about it, that’s fine.”

So what? As Robert breezily remarked: “Anyway, it is what it is.”

The secretary general had the committee’s hackles up before he even entered the room. He hadn’t provided a written opening statement, as is the norm. They took a dim view.

It didn’t take Pearse Doherty long to remark that it was the first time they didn’t have an opening statement. Two and a half hours later and Robert Watt didn’t make a closing statement either.

John McGuinness gave him the option but seemed rather relieved, like everyone else, when his witness jumped up and muttered “Thanks”, grabbed his leather bag and hurried out.

A few minutes earlier he had told Watt, speaking as a committee chair of long experience, that he found some of the exchanges “really bizarre”.

He was right.

Lessons, of course, will be learned. It’ll be up to the Government to work out what they will be, said the prince of the permanent government.

Such was the tone and manner of Watt’s turn in front of the committee, he made it impossible for us to feel sorry for him when Marc MacSharry began interrogating him. Marc, every bit as self possessed as the witness, thought he did a good job. When he finished, he triumphantly tucked his glasses into his top pocket and if the microphone hadn’t been nailed to the desk he would have dropped it.

Robert and Marc, like two peas in a pod.