The Government’s most senior legal adviser is acting for a private client in a case in which the State is on the opposing side, the Dáil has been told.
ocial Democrat Party co-leader Róisín Shortall said the Attorney General, Paul Gallagher, is acting in a private capacity for former directors of Independent News & Media in their dealings with High Court inspectors who are investigating the company’s affairs.
The Dublin North-West TD questioned how Mr Gallagher “is the Attorney General by day and a mere ordinary barrister by night”.
Ms Shortall raised the issue during leaders’ questions following a report in The Irish Times newspaper. “Mr Gallagher simply cannot simply take off his Attorney General (AG) hat to leave it at the door and enter the room as a different persona,” she said, describing the situation as “grossly inappropriate” as she questioned who in Cabinet authorised the move.
Ms Shortall said there was a “stunning, multi-layered and obvious” conflict of interest in the State’s most senior legal officer being involved in a private capacity in a case – while the State was on the “other side”.
But in reply, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said Mr Gallagher, appointed AG in June 2020, was finishing off a number of cases in which he was involved before his appointment as the Government’s lawyer.
“I’m absolutely certain that the Attorney General will be very careful to avoid any conflict of interest or any perception of a conflict of interest,” the Fine Gael leader told the Dáil.
“He is a person of the highest integrity and ability and I have full confidence that he will make sure that there was no conflict of interest,” Mr Varadkar added.
Mr Varadkar said by the AG finishing a number of cases taken before his appointment was not unprecedented. He said it happened where former attorneys “were allowed to finish out cases that they were involved in, prior to their appointment”.
Outlining the case details, Ms Shortall noted that Mr Gallagher had sought and received Government approval to carry on his private legal work. “Who exactly authorised this?” she asked – inquiring if it was a decision by the Taoiseach or the Cabinet and also who provided the legal advice on the decision.
The Tánaiste said he was unclear precisely who authorised the AG’s continuance of private work to allow completion.
“I don’t know if there was a formal Cabinet decision on the matter recorded or if there was legal advice. But what I can say is that the party leaders and the Cabinet were informed that the Attorney General would be finishing out some cases that he’d taken on before his appointment,” Mr Varadkar said.
He said the party leaders in Cabinet were aware of cases in a general sense “but obviously not the detail of any particular cases”.
Ms Shortall demanded to know if there were other cases, how many and “exactly who are his clients”.
Ms Shortall said the issue was “even more bizarre” because, in the case, the inspectors were appointed by the High Court following a request from the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE), the State’s white collar crime watchdog.
“So we have the Attorney General, the State’s top lawyer, acting for a number of former company directors of one of the biggest media companies in the country, in the case which emanated from an inquiry by the State’s corporate watchdog. You couldn’t make it up,” Ms Shortall said.
She noted that one of Mr Gallagher’s clients is a current board member of Mediahuis, the purchasers of Independent News & Media in April 2019. “It really is quite extraordinary,” Ms Shortall said.
“His office carries weight, power, authority, responsibility, not to mention obligations that can’t just be shrugged off whenever it’s expedient to do so. And on what planet was it felt that it was appropriate to do so, especially given this case is the most high-profile investigation currently being undertaken by the ODC?”
She added that it was of “huge importance” that “the Attorney General’s office instructs barristers for State work, which is often quite lucrative”.
Ms Shortall asked the Tánaiste: “Do you accept therefore that this is grossly inappropriate, that he would be engaged in private work? How would you feel as a barrister to learn your opposing counsel is the AG, whose office can make or break careers. Do you see that there are serious problems with this?”
Mr Varadkar said Ms Shortall asked a number of detailed and reasonable questions. He said he did not have answers but he would try to find out as soon as possible.