Top civil servant apologises for any offence but does not recall 'control the mob' comments

Robert Watt

The Department of Public Expenditure's secretary general has been forced to apologise to a Dáil committee after he told officials before a crunch children's hospital costs meeting that the group's chairman "has to control the mob".

Robert Watt apologised if he had caused offence to the Dáil's public accounts committee despite later saying the remark was "colloquial" and that he could not remember if he said it.

Before the first of two long-awaiting public grillings on the children's hospital scandal yesterday, PAC chairman and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming met with Mr Watt in the lobby outside the PAC committee room to ask why a key official was not attending.

During the eight-minute pre-meeting discussion, Mr Watt repeatedly told Mr Fleming that while the State's chief procurement officer, Paul Quinn, had been invited to attend, it is up to Mr Watt to decide.

Despite Mr Fleming emphasising that Mr Quinn - who was a "public interest" official on the hospital board - has questions to answer, Mr Watt told him that he is the only person who is legally obliged to attend.

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

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

On learning of the remark, PAC members including Labour's Alan Kelly, Fianna Fáil's Marc Mac Sharry and Sinn Féin's David Cullinane asked Mr Watt to apologise for what he said.

"I don't know what I said. If I said anything that offended anybody, apologies for that.

"I don't recall saying it, to be honest, but if I did say it, it is a colloquial expression. It is not in any way intended to be demeaning to anybody. I don't recollect to be honest," Mr Watt responded.

Mr Kelly noted that Mr Watt did not deny making the comment and that his response sounded like he did.

In later exchanges, Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell said the remark was "unbecoming" of someone in Mr Watt's position, while unaligned Independent TD Catherine Connolly and Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said it was "inappropriate".

Mr Watt responded that while he did not recall making the comment, he apologised if it has caused offence.

The remit of the PAC has recently come under scrutiny due to concerns over its level of grilling of public officials.

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