Stephen Donnelly gave devices to cyber security body after ‘hack’

The incident meant an email about the proposed secondment of the chief medical officer was not passed on to the minister, a committee was told.
Stephen Donnelly gave devices to cyber security body after ‘hack’

By Cillian Sherlock, PA

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and another department official were advised not to use their devices during a St Patrick’s Day trip to the US in March 2022, in an incident described by department secretary general Robert Watt as a “hack”.

“Minister Donnelly and his officials were advised not to use their devices – particularly for email – due to concerns about a cyber security risk,” a spokesman for the minister said.

The official’s devices were powered off and surrendered to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) upon their arrival back in Ireland.

However, the NCSC said no signs of compromise were found on the devices.

A spokesman for the Department of Communications said the NCSC technically examines people’s devices as a precautionary measure “on occasion”.

“Minister Donnelly’s device was examined at the time in question and no signs of compromise were found,” the spokesman said.

The minister had travelled to Texas as part of a St Patrick’s Day visit, where he met then Texas secretary of state John B Scott and mayor of Austin Steve Adler.

At the Finance Committee on Wednesday, Mr Watt said a message relating to a controversial secondment of the chief medical officer was drafted for the minister but he did not receive it because “his computer was hacked”.

Mr Watt claimed “the machine” was corrupted for four to five days.

According to Mr Watt, the incident meant that an important email about the proposed secondment of then chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan was not passed on to the minister.

It would have contained details around proposals for the annual allocation of two million euro to accompany the secondment of Dr Holohan to Trinity College Dublin.

“There was a technical issue that got in the way. I haven’t spoken about this before because that sounds like making excuses but that’s actually what happened.”

A controversy arose around the secondment and it ultimately did not take place.

An external review into the proposed secondment was published this week and highlighted a lack of formal consultation with the Taoiseach, Minister for Health and Department of Public Expenditure and Reform throughout the process.

There were conflicting reports of when key government officials were informed of significant details about the proposal.

It also said the associated annual commitment of two million euro in research funding to be allocated through the Health Research Board (HRB) was not based on any scope nor costings and that the HRB was not consulted.

The report said the proposed funding bypassed all accepted protocols for research funding and did not, in the author’s opinion, meet accepted norms of scrutiny, transparency and accountability.

It said the proposed secondment and associated research funding should not have been linked together and that it should have been fully discussed at an earlier stage by Mr Watt with the Minister for Health.

Reflecting on the incident at committee, Mr Watt said: “Whatever, we didn’t communicate with him. We should have.”

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