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Holohan appointment looks too much like ‘jobs for the boys’



There is much kerfuffle and no end of uninformed comment online these days about the appointment of Dr Tony Holohan to a new post of consultant in public health medicine in the HSE’s National Cancer Control Programme, writes Terence Cosgrave

Specifically, it would seem that many online posters object to his salary of ‘up to’ €257,000 – which indeed is rich reward for any job. When the Irish State is paying out over a quarter of a million euros a year for one person – the equivalent of five nurses per year – questions are certainly going to be asked.

Now, the question most people would like asked is: “Do we really need to pay this type of money to get this type of talent?” And many would be forgiven for thinking that following the Ryan Turbridy experience, we might be able to pay far less for some of our home-grown ‘talent’.

Ryan is, after all, now on a basic salary of between £50,000 and £80,000 according to ‘Showbiz’ media – which is a major drop from the half million euros he used to command from the much more profligate RTÉ, and perhaps an expression of his real value.

These are huge sums of money to be paying individuals. In Turbridy’s case, the argument was that he was, in fact, making money for RTÉ with his huge ‘talent’ and drawing in the viewers and listeners. That turned out to be a complete fabrication – the numbers that watch and listen to his former shows is roughly the same now as it was then.

But it’s instructive to think that when the HSE is creating new positions (which I am not arguing against) they must offer more money to the (Irish) applicant than what our own Taoiseach gets paid?

Again, I’m not making the case for either increasing the Taoiseach’s pay, or lowering that of Dr Holohan, but it is ominous if we need to offer a quarter of a million euro for essentially a desk job.

The relatively high salaries for consultants in recent times is related to the need to get more work done, and as these employees are vital to that task, it is easier to understand larger salaries for a larger workload and longer working hours.

But this is not that. This is 9-5 – a relatively easy sinecure for the man who was basically in charge during the pandemic. For a quarter of a million euros per year. Plus pension. Plus all the other expenses, allowances, remittances and rewards of a guaranteed, lifetime government job.

Maybe, you might suggest, Dr Holohan has paid a lot of tax in his life and surely that counts for something?

Well, the last thing that Dr Holohan did (during the time he had off between these two government positions) was to write a book. And because that qualifies him as an ‘artist’, he paid no tax on any of the profits of that book. These are the issues. That ‘artistic’ tax was meant to benefit artists, writers and creative people. They are still waiting for any kind of allowance or tax break that would allow them to keep doing what they are doing.

Instead, it turns out that even very wealthy people -such as Dr Holohan – can claim a zero per cent tax rate on the profits from his book, simply because it’s a book. For someone who is making a quarter of a million euros every year, I would humbly suggest, a tax break is not appropriate.

And then there is the role he played in the Cervical Check scandal.

Again, I’m not suggesting that Dr Holohan did anything untoward during that time. I simply don’t know whether he did or not. The Cervical Check scandal was a complex issue, and I don’t believe we know all the facts yet. There is certainly a case for looking at both sides of the issue, and history will ultimately judge the affair.

But it is undeniable that in the public mind, Dr Holohan is associated with it. He is hardly the person that the Irish public would pick as the ideal and most trustworthy candidate for this position. And yet, despite the clouds hanging over him in relation to public confidence on cancer – justified or not – he is appointed to this position. It would seem that there has been an unseemly attempt to fix Dr Holohan up in some job, no matter what.

It’s all a little messy. Where is the line between public and private roles? Will Dr Holohan now give up his advisory role with Enfer? He was appointed to that position in 2022, and since Enfer are mainly in the business of providing clinical testing services, how close or how influenced will he be by their business and their ethos in this new position?

It’s also a little disturbing that Dr Holohan is basically going back to the same employer. Maybe not the exact same employer but the Department of Health runs the HSE. If they ask for someone to be appointed to a position, one would have to imagine that the HSE would cater to that request.

There is little transparency in the Department of Health and in government-provided healthcare in Ireland. And there seems to be no policy or direction or even compliance with Irish law on some salaries at the very top (as we are finding out with RTE).

No matter how qualified he is as a person, it was a mistake to hire Dr Holohan into this position. There are many roles he could have fulfilled, if indeed it was the case that both the HSE and the Department were searching around for some job for him to do.

But to put him in a role dealing with cancer – when his reputation (rightly or wrongly) is suspect in that area, is just a blunder. It smacks of the 1970s level of accountability and ‘jobs for the boys’.

They appointers may have their reasons. But it looks to the outsider that they were looking for a job for the man, rather than the man for the job.

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