Sunday 17 December 2017

Daniel McConnell: The new guard behind the throne

Almost every top post in the civil service has changed hands

Martin Fraser
Martin Fraser
John Moran
Robert Watt
Dr.Ambrose McLoughlin
Seán Ó Foghlú
Geraldine Byrne Nason
Brian Purcell

Daniel McConnell, Political Correspondent

WHO are the faceless people who run our country? I am not talking about anonymous ministers like Richard Bruton, but rather about those highly paid and highly influential State officials who advise him and his cabinet colleagues.

Since the new Government took office on March 9, 2011, virtually every top position in the permanent government has changed hands. Maybe it was inevitable that there would be so much change, given how long Fianna Fail had been in power, and how much of a mess in which it had left the place when it was booted out of office.

But now, more than halfway through the lifetime of this administration, many of the newly appointed key officials, in reality, wield more power than some cabinet ministers. Who are the mysterious people who hold such sway?


Martin Fraser

In the summer of 2011, Martin Fraser was appointed to the most senior civil service position in the land, that of secretary general to the Government and secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach on a salary of €200,000 a year.

A northside Dublin lad who graduated from UCD, Fraser is known to be quite the comic, and his informal manner has seen him rise up through the civil service ranks quickly. He replaced the controversial Dermot McCarthy who had been at the helm for much of Bertie Ahern's and all of Brian Cowen's tenure as Taoiseach.

McCarthy, nicknamed the 'cardinal', retired with a golden handshake package of more than €700,000, including an annual pension of €147,000.

Robert Watt

The appointment of Robert Watt at the age of just 41 as secretary general of the newly created Department of Public Expenditure and Reform was the heralding of a new era, we were told.

Deeply combative and feisty, Watt has broken many rules about how to be a secretary general. He is not afraid to tackle critical journalists, he has engaged in a war of words with John McGuinness, chair of the PAC, and he is not afraid to infuriate his colleagues.

The former Labour youth activist and economist also worked in the private sector, for Indecon consultants, before joining the department.

Tough and uncompromising, many feel he can go too far, but he has become a formidable presence since taking over. He lives in Drumcondra with his wife and two children and likes a drink in Doheny and Nesbitt's on a Friday evening.

John Moran

The former Juice Bar owner and Limerick native was always a likely candidate to succeed the embattled Kevin Cardiff as the head of the Department of Finance once Finance Minister Michael Noonan seconded him in from the Central Bank.

When Cardiff was eventually packed off to Europe in 2012, Moran wasted little time in restructuring the department to give it a more modern corporate feel. A non-establishment figure, he has always been cast as the outsider, but is very close to Noonan.

Other officials in Finance to come to the fore are Ann Nolan (banking division) who played a central role in the promissory note deal, former press adviser turned special advisor Eoin Dorgan and Noonan's current media handler Paul Bolger.

Geraldine Byrne Nason

If you want to know who the most powerful woman in government is, forget the two females at the cabinet table. The most powerful woman in government is Geraldine Byrne Nason, Martin Fraser's second secretary general. Byrne Nason, a former ambassador to the EU, was appointed in July 2011.

Working under Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, she is in charge of co-ordinating the hugely powerful Economic Management Council, running EU affairs as well as co-ordinating Gilmore's "whole of government responsibilities".

Ambrose McLoughlin

A highly controversial figure who was branded a disgrace by Sean Fleming at the Public Accounts Committee last October, McLoughlin was appointed secretary general to the embattled Department of Health in April 2012.

As head of the most troublesome department, Ambrose is a key figure and enjoys a close relationship with both Health Minister James Reilly and HSE boss Tony O'Brien. Both McLoughlin and O'Brien are seen in Leinster House far more frequently than any of their predecessors ever were.

Seán O Foghlú

His appointment was featured in a television documentary on life in Ruairi Quinn's Department of Education in February 2012. Quinn was eager to appoint a man who would share his determination to extract some reform from some of the most intransigent vested interests in education while managing an ever reducing budget. O Foghlu succeeded Brigid McManus, who controversially retired at the age of 53, receiving a payoff of €204,000 and an annual pension then worth €115,000. McManus voluntarily waived an additional severance payment of €126,817 provided for in her contract.

Brian Purcell

Aged 53, Trinity College-educated Brian Purcell was appointed in August 2011 as secretary general in Alan Shatter's Department of Justice. Earlier this year, Purcell was accused of "stonewalling" the Public Accounts Committee over the €2m rent spend on an unused office. Purcell said he couldn't talk about it because of ongoing litigation, but it later emerged that the case was only begun 24 hours before the PAC hearing.


In total, eight new secretaries general have been appointed by this Government. Jim Breslin, aged 39, was appointed secretary general to Frances Fitzgerald's Department of Children in June 2011. In November 2011, John Murphy was appointed secretary general to Richard Bruton's Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, while two new appointments have just been announced. Mark Griffin has become Pat Rabbitte's top official at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, while Maurice Quinn will take over as secretary general at the Department of Defence with effect from October 2, 2013.

Sunday Independent

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