The State's most senior civil servant said neither he nor the Taoiseach were closely involved in the botched appointment of the chief medical officer to a professor role.
The secretary general in the Department of the Taoiseach, Martin Fraser, was quizzed by politicians during an appearance at the Oireachtas Finance Committee, which is seeking answers over the botched appointment of Dr Tony Holohan to a role in Trinity College Dublin.
Dr Holohan decided against taking up a proposed secondment to Trinity College Dublin after a dispute over the transparency of the process. The role would have seen the State pay his annual salary of €187,000 through competitive research funding, administered by the Health Research Board.
An external review has been commissioned.
Mr Fraser, who repeatedly played down his knowledge of the finer details of the process that led to the appointment, struggled to name any other permanent secondments matching the role Dr Holohan was set to take up.
He confirmed that he was first aware that Dr Holohan may want to seek a different role last summer, before learning greater details of the secondment in conversations with the chief medical officer and secretary general in the Department of Health Robert Watt in February.
Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty asked Mr Fraser to say when the Government had endorsed “open-ended secondments to the university sector”.
Mr Fraser said that former secretary generals had been seconded to Irish universities, but he was not aware if they were open-ended.
Quizzed further about the nature of such secondments, he said: “I agree with you in principle, these things should be temporary. That’s what they’re designed to be.”
Asked if they could be open-ended, he said: “I’m aware of them being renewed. I couldn’t tell you that there are open-ended, I’d have to check.”
Committee chair John McGuinness told Mr Fraser that a permanent secondment “flies in the face” of official guidance from the Department of Public Expenditure setting out the process for secondments.
No other examples
Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín asked the top civil servant if he could name another example of a similar role.
“Probably not, deputy,” Mr Fraser replied.
The row has also seen the Oireachtas finance committee request powers to compel Mr Watt to appear before it, amid accusations that he was snubbing requests from Irish parliamentarians.
Mr Fraser was praised by Mr McGuinness for his willingness to appear.
During an occasionally robust committee appearance, Mr Fraser repeatedly said that he knew little details of the planned role for Dr Holohan.
He also said that he had few opportunities to discuss the role with Micheál Martin in March, due to numerous overseas trips by the Taoiseach.
Mr Fraser said that he had spoken to Dr Holohan last summer and was made aware that the chief medical officer was considering moving on.
“You will be aware of his personal circumstances. This was not a usual situation, personally or professional,” Mr Fraser told Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan.
He also told Mr Doherty that he had kept no records of minutes of the meeting and that it was more a confidential check-up on a colleague.
“It was a chat,” he said.
Mr O’Callaghan asked if it would not be better if the post was openly advertised.
Mr Fraser said: “It’s an alternative approach. It think it would be equally valid. The starting point was that Dr Holohan wanted to move on from his present role, but he wanted to continue to contribute to public health in Ireland”.
The civil servant also expressed concerns over the fact that senior officials now face term limits and cannot remain in top public service roles for extended periods until retirement.
“There is a very significant issue of public policy there,” he said. “People are being appointed younger, people are being appointed from outside the public service and they are having term limits.
“The situation is different and it is a problem. It is a problem for the public service and for the country, because it could be a significant disincentive for people to join the public service.”