Taoiseach Micheál Martin will be questioned in the Dáil this week over revelations that the Attorney General continued private professional work on top of his role as the State’s top legal adviser.
Paul Gallagher, a senior counsel who is serving his second spell as AG, has blamed the Covid-19 pandemic for prolonging his involvement in a number of cases including, as the Irish Times reported this week, acting in a private capacity for former directors of Independent News & Media (INM) in their dealings with High Court inspectors investigating the company’s affairs.
Labour TD Brendan Howlin said there are questions for Mr Martin to answer. These relate to why the Government appeared to have set aside the precedent that the AG does not engage in any private work while acting as chief legal adviser to ministers. He intends to raise the matter in the Dáil, as does Sinn Féin.
The chair of the Oireachtas Justice Committee, Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless, also said he was concerned about the matter, describing it as “somewhat unprecedented”.
“My understanding was that, previously, attorneys general who had pending legal work that was due to be heard or go into court imminently were allowed to finish that out,” he said. “However, I don’t believe there is a precedent for continuing 15 months later. I would be concerned in circumstances where the State appears to be a party to the proceedings.”
Mr Howlin also raised questions over Mr Gallagher advising clients on the opposite side of a case involving a state agency. The High Court inspectors were appointed to examine the affairs of INM (now known as Mediahuis, which publishes the Sunday Independent) on foot of a request from the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement.
“There are two questions. Why did he set aside precedent and, secondly, does he find it acceptable where you have a situation where your chief legal officer is advising clients on opposite sides of an investigation by a state agency?” Mr Howlin said.
The Labour Party justice spokesman pointed to the Harry Whelehan affair in the mid-1990s, which collapsed the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition. This led to a specific commitment in the subsequent Rainbow Coalition’s programme for government that the office of the AG would be a full-time position.
“I am genuinely taken aback. There is no legal debar on a serving attorney general having a private practice but there is, to my mind, a long and well-established precedent now that we would have a full-time and exclusive attorney general that would do no other work other than that assigned constitutionally to the attorney general,” he said.
In a statement issued on Thursday, the Government said: “Prior to his appointment in June 2020, the attorney general disclosed that he had a few existing litigation commitments to complete.
In the normal course of events, these obligations would have been discharged in a short period of time. Due to the Covid pandemic there were delays in the hearings of cases, so it was not possible to discharge these professional obligations as early as anticipated. The attorney general has no continuing private professional obligations.”
Sinn Féin has sought clarity on what other cases the AG has been involved in since he was appointed.
“We also want an understanding as to how it came about and was allowed to happen in the first place. Indeed,
It would be useful to get clarity as to what other cases the attorney general was involved in during his time as attorney general,” the party’s justice spokesman, Martin Kenny, told RTÉ on Friday.