Sunday 15 September 2019

Comment: Why it would now be counter-productive to sack HSE boss Tony O'Brien

Director General at the HSE Tony O Brien
Director General at the HSE Tony O Brien
John Downing

John Downing

SACKING Tony O’Brien as the boss of the national health service is a very attractive prospect. But would it help us as a nation trying to find our way out of the dreadful miasma of despair that continues to hang over the cancer-screening debacle?

Anyone who is not emotional about this issue really has missed the essential point. But we must also channel those emotional responses and take a more dispassionate view of many elements of this mess – including whether Mr O’Brien should stay or go. So, let’s do a quick stock-take.

At time of writing, Mr O’Brien is still director general of the Health Service Executive, though it emerged yesterday that he will leave his role four weeks earlier than expected – at the start of July – due to accrued annual leave entitlements.

The Government is not exactly passing itself out with expressions of confidence – but it has not asked for his resignation.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris have pointed out that the best use of Mr O’Brien’s final 12 weeks in the job, before his contract runs out at the end of July, will be to help establish the facts of what has happened and point a way forward.

Many on the Opposition side want him out – but even that is unclear. Sinn Féin was first to the barricades here, with leader Mary Lou McDonald castigating him and demanding his immediate sacking.

Sinn Féin is trying to table a motion of no-confidence in Mr O’Brien this week which could increase pressure – but that of itself is complicated.

Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats said it was inevitable that Mr O’Brien should go – but not before that preliminary scoping examination of the controversy.

Ms Shortall felt that scoping examination could be done before the end of this month. Many of the rest of us would see Mr O’Brien’s term being near-enough timed out before we get that preliminary report.

On the other side of the spectrum, Independent Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath, an unabashed conservative on social policy issues, insisted Mr O’Brien should be out.

He also cited Mr O’Brien’s earlier work as chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association.

Fianna Fáil came much later to this viewpoint. As early as last Wednesday morning, its Kildare South TD Fiona O’Loughlin told her local radio station KFM Mr O’Brien should go as what happened was “a national scandal”. It took until Friday afternoon for that to become Fianna Fáil policy via its health spokesman, Stephen Donnelly. He said Mr O’Brien should step aside immediately but “without  prejudice” – offering a sort of no-fault early exit.

However, Mr Donnelly signalled that his party was unlikely to back Sinn Féin’s no-confidence motion in Mr O’Brien.

We have been over very similar ground before, in the case of former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. But, at all events, it is unclear whether the Sinn Féin motion will get to the starting gate at all for procedural reasons. The Ceann Comhairle, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, is expected to rule on that tomorrow.

That is a summary of political pressure which is considerable, if a little diffuse. A Dáil motion would  not of itself force him out – but in practice it would be hard to defy.

Things have been compounded by Mr O’Brien getting Government permission last year to take up a lucrative board position with a US pharmaceuticals firm while still heading the HSE.

The Taoiseach had defended allowing Mr O’Brien to take up the US board seat for three reasons. He said Mr O’Brien will stand down as HSE head in a few weeks, there is no danger of conflict because the US firm does not operate in Ireland, and Mr O’Brien would undertake his US board duties in his own time.

But on Thursday the Government announced with some relief that Mr O’Brien had decided to temporarily stand aside from his US role. Tánaiste Simon Coveney, while studiously avoiding an expression of confidence, said it was appropriate that Mr O’Brien could now focus fully on helping inquiries into the cervical testing problems.

Mr O’Brien several times last week said he was staying put. He deemed the CervicalCheck scandal “a personal blow” to him, and vowed to work until the end of his contract.

It still appears extraordinary that he learned of Vicky Phelan’s High Court case via the media. Let’s recall the organisation he heads was a joint defendant for a time in this case, which was settled for €2.5m. For many people, that would of itself raise questions about his continuing in office.

But galling though it may be for many people – not least Ms Phelan and others badly hit by this debacle – removing Mr O’Brien summarily risks being unjust and counterproductive. Do we know what Mr O’Brien did wrong and what he neglected to do?

Right now we have only vague accusations which make acting in anger tempting.

Sacking Mr O’Brien would surely involve sidebar litigation entailing more expense and loss of focus on the main issue. Better far to put the focus on more accountability and responsibility on whoever succeeds him and other senior managers.

Online Editors

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