Monday 14 October 2019

Cormac McQuinn: 'Watt gets off to a bad start with remarks about watchdog 'mob''

David Cullinane of Sinn Féin branded the ‘mob’ remarks as ‘outrageous’. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
David Cullinane of Sinn Féin branded the ‘mob’ remarks as ‘outrageous’. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Robert Watt found himself in hot water before he even appeared before TDs for his grilling on the massive cost overruns at the National Children's Hospital (NCH). He was overheard outside the committee room allegedly saying that the chairman of the Dáil's spending watchdog should "control the mob". It came as members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) were hitting out at the news that Paul Quinn, a senior civil servant who sits on the development board of the NCH, would not be attending the meeting.

PAC members got word of the "mob" comments and they weren't happy. Sinn Féin's David Cullinane branded it "outrageous". Sure enough, it was the first thing the public expenditure secretary general was asked about when he entered the room.

Mr Watt claimed he didn't recall the remarks but if he did say it, he meant it as a "colloquial expression". He added: "If I said something to offend the committee, of course I apologise but it's not meant to be an offensive remark".

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But they were offended - Fine Gael's Alan Farrell claimed the comments were "unbecoming of someone in your office" and Independent Catherine Connolly branded them as "unacceptable". It was a bad start to seven hours of questions on the NCH cost overruns across two Oireachtas committees.

There were several tetchy exchanges during the PAC session and not much new information on the cost overruns at the NCH.

And it was Groundhog Day when Mr Watt appeared at the Finance Committee in the afternoon, only to find he was again being asked why Mr Quinn was not present.

Mr Quinn, the government's chief procurement officer, sits on the board of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board (NPHDB). Questions have been raised about his involvement in the NCH and why he didn't tell the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and Minister Paschal Donohoe about the escalating costs.

Mr Watt defended Mr Quinn numerous times during the day, insisting he's an "excellent official" who discharged his duties on the board with the chairman raising issues with the Department of Health.

He complained they have both been "criticised unfairly" by TDs but said he wouldn't make a "big fuss about that". He said Mr Quinn would be happy to appear at a future meeting with other members of the hospital's board. At one point, Mr Watt told the finance committee he wouldn't get into an argument with one of its members because "after Man United [won] last night I'm in good form".

And while he did battle with the likes of Labour's Alan Kelly and Fianna Fáil's Marc MacSharry in the morning, the finance meeting was a much more sedate affair.

It prompted John McGuinness - the committee's combative chairman - to note with surprise: "We've ended the meeting without a row".

Irish Independent

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