Senior civil servant apologises after being heard to refer to PAC as 'mob'

Robert Watt

The head of the Department of Public Expenditure has been forced to apologise to a Dáil committee after being heard by the Irish Examiner telling officials before a crunch children's hospital costs grilling its chair "has to control the mob".

Department of Public Expenditure secretary general Robert Watt apologised to the Dáil's public accounts committee this morning at the start of the first of two key meetings over the financial scandal.

Before the meeting began this morning, PAC chair and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming met with Mr Watt for eight minutes in the lobby outside the PAC committee room to discuss the fact a key official was not attending.

As reported by the Irish Examiner last night, this officials is the State's chief procurement officer Paul Quinn, who despite the PAC specifically inviting to attend was not chosen to appear by Mr Watt.

He had been asked to attend as he was a "public interest" member of the children's hospital board, which the Government still claims did not discuss the project's runaway budget with either Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe or Health Minister Simon Harris.

During the eight minute pre-meeting discussion, Mr Watt repeatedly told Mr Fleming he is not obliged to bring Mr Quinn to the meeting despite the invitation, and that he would not do so.

Despite Mr Fleming emphasising Mr Quinn has questions to answer, Mr Watt told him the only person who is legally obliged to attend the PAC is the accounting officer for the relevant department, which in this case is Mr Watt.

After the discussion, Mr Watt returned to his officials in the lobby and was asked what the discussion was about and if anything had happened.

Mr Watt was heard by the Irish Examiner to say Mr Fleming was "just trying to help", before adding "he [Mr Fleming] has to control the mob".

On being informed of the remark, PAC members including Mr Fleming, Labour's Alan Kelly, Fianna Fáil's Marc Mac Sharry and Sinn Féin's David Cullinane demanded Mr Watt clarify and apologise for what he said.

Asked to do so at the start of the meeting, a notably flustered Mr Watt told Mr Cullinane:

I don't know what I said, if I said it I apologise, I don't actually recollect it to be honest... If anybody takes offence chair, I apologise. It's, it's a colloquial (phrase)... It's not meant to be an offensive remark.

Mr Cullinane added when asked if there was anything else he wanted to raise on the matter that an unequivocal apology would be appropriate, while Mr Kelly noted Mr Watt did not deny making the comment and that his response sounds like he did.

The remit of the PAC to grill public officials has come under intense scrutiny in recent days due in part to the court ruling relating to ex-Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins.

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