O’Brien had a point: but he blew it with his own petu­lance

Irish Daily Mail - - News - Der­mot Ah­ern

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

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