O’Brien had a point: but he blew it with his own petulance
LAST weekend, there was ‘shock and awe’ in political circles following the unprecedented attack by the former head of the HSE, Tony O’Brien, on Minister for Health Simon Harris.
O’Brien called Harris a ‘weak’ Minister, and ‘a frightened little boy’ who ran ‘scared of headlines’. The subsequent reaction to O’Brien’s attack on the Minister has been almost universally critical, especially regarding the way in which he clearly personalised his criticisms of Harris.
The Minister has been somewhat of an isolated figure in the Government in that he has never been regarded as being in Leo Varadkar’s kitchen cabinet. However, O’Brien’s attack on him had the effect of rallying his Ministerial colleagues to come out fighting on his behalf. Apart from a few offthe-record responses from Fine Gael sources acknowledging that Harris has been ‘skittish and media driven’, his party solidly backed him. Even some Opposition spokespersons in Sinn Féin and Labour regarded O’Brien’s comments as over the top.
By being so blatantly personal, O’Brien dramatically diluted the arguments he was trying to make in his newspaper interview.
Clearly, he is a man who feels very let down by the way in which the political establishment behaved towards himself and other leading officials involved in the CervicalCheck scandal.
He had a lot to get off his chest and may also have felt that he was speaking on behalf of many public servants who have felt that they have not got enough protection from their political masters during recent times of crisis. I’ve no doubt that, despite the harsh public criticism, mainly from politicians, regarding his remarks, there are a sizeable number of public servants who privately agree with the main tenets of his arguments: that is, that current-day politicians tend to deflect responsibility onto public servants at times of political crisis.
However, by being so blunt, he did no justice to the strongly held view amongst many public officials that they will be thrown to the wolves when a political scandal blows up.
OVER the decades, since the foundation of the State, there has been a tendency by government Ministers to defend their officials, even to the extent that the individual Minister would take the political rap for mistakes made by such officials.
However, in more recent times, with changed management rules and, particularly, with dramatically increased televising of Oireachtas committee proceedings, officials are much more exposed, when it comes to them being scrutinised regarding their direct responsibilities. And that is as it should be. But it also means that the relationship between officials and their political masters, their Ministers, must be based on a clear and honest understanding of each other’s responsibilities. This is why the relationship between any Minister and their immediate senior officials must be one of mutual respect for each other’s position. Otherwise, it’s a recipe for disaster.
As someone who has had experience of many different Departments, with different senior officials, I always tried to ensure the people I worked with fully appreciated my political agenda.
But, on the other hand, I was acutely conscious of the need for me to understand that my desire to push officials in a particular direction had to be done in such a way that was compatible with the particular department’s overall responsibility. Often, I joked with my officials that I was merely a ‘bird of passage’, meaning that they would still be there in the Department long after I moved onto something else! In every Department I served in, from day one, I insisted that I be immediately informed of any issue of concern within the Department.
By and large, this approach worked well for me and my officials. I was conscious that, across the public service, there had been a tendency not to tell the Minister until such time as the official dealing with it felt that the Minister should be informed.
Of course, there were many instances of tension when crises blew up, but I never felt that the officials I dealt with had anything other than the best of intentions on behalf of the public good. There will be some in the political system, and indeed the public service, who will feel that, over the years, the relationship between successive Ministers and public officials has been a cosy cartel, to the detriment of Joe Public.
This was not my experience, nor, I would wager, was it the experience of many political figures who previously regarded themselves as not being part of the establishment, but who, when they became Ministers, came to realise that their previously held views were wide of the mark.
I’m thinking particularly of people such as Proinsias De Rossa and our own President, Michael D Higgins, who, having previously been regarded as ‘outside the fold’, became very good Ministers in their own right by working alongside officials they might previously have been somewhat suspicious about.
SO, while Tony O’Brien’s remarks about his former Minister may have been over the top, he may have been articulating strongly held views amongst public officials who feel that, in more recent times, they and their colleagues have been hung out to dry.
His remarks regarding the Public Accounts Committee, which he described as a ‘kangaroo court’, must have resonated with many officials who have come before it in recent years. He was on much safer ground with his criticism of the PAC. In recent years, it has dramatically moved away from its responsibility to oversee the spending of taxpayers’ money. Public servants, and indeed private citizens, have been subjected to very harsh treatment at the hands of a small number of PAC members who have grandstanded, supposedly in the interests of the taxpayer.
A number of years ago, the then Fine Gael-Labour government tried to get the public to change our Constitution to give Oireachtas committees increased powers to be able to make findings of fact, in regard to matters of public concern. The Irish voting public roundly rejected this proposal.
Supporters of this proposal guaranteed that politicians with these new proposed powers would be able to leave their particular political agenda outside the committee room. My experience in politics, for over three decades, is that there is no such thing as a politician who can operate without having their political agenda very much in the back of their mind.
Tensions: Tony O’Brien and Simon Harris