When Paul Gallagher became Attorney General for the second time last year, he was one of the highest-paid barristers in the Four Courts with annual fee income estimated at €1.5 million-€2 million. Now his work on three private cases after he became the State’s chief law officer has thrust him into the Opposition’s unwelcome glare.
It is not Gallagher’s first brush with controversy in recent times: the August publication of his legal advice on outdoor gatherings after Katherine Zappone’s social event in the Merrion hotel led to claims that Ministers were “politicising” his role. The latest involves claims of a clash of interests between his public role as chief legal adviser to the Government and his private role advising clients professionally.
The Government has dismissed such claims in forthright terms. Gallagher, who attends Cabinet, received explicit backing this week from Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. Coalition leaders, who admire him for his panoramic expertise and relentless work rate, had given him permission to continue working on some private cases.
“They think he is great,” says one person who has contact with Ministers every day about the Cabinet’s views on Gallagher. “Some of them are practically in awe of him.”
One person who has dealt with him and other attorneys speaks admiringly of his work rate, observing that he appears to get through twice as much work as anyone else they have seen.
Gallagher was the personal choice of the Taoiseach to do the job. Martin had been supremely impressed by Gallagher when he was attorney general in the last Fianna Fáil government, led by Brian Cowen, which had endured the financial crash and the bailout of 2008-2010.
But few outside the top echelon of Cabinet and the law were aware of it, and some legal colleagues believe he was unwise to continue representing former Independent News & Media directors after becoming Attorney General.
The affair has thrown a spotlight on Gallagher’s successful work in the world of big money business litigation, where one solicitor says he was regarded for many years as a senior counsel of choice “for anything which was really serious”. For example, he was paid €612,242 for his private work on the State’s successful challenge in the European courts to the Apple tax ruling. It was said at the time that the Department of Finance had sent him before judges with nothing less than Ireland’s economic model at stake.
Gallagher’s private work largely came to a halt when Martin asked him to return as Attorney General, a post he first held between 2007 and 2011 at the height of the financial crisis. He is said to have taken the post only reluctantly. His staff includes one special adviser, Liam O’Daly, a former director general of the Attorney General’s office who is known to carry Gallagher’s considerable authority in dealings with officials.
The annual salary for the attorney general post is €181,005 but the effective rate is 10 per cent lower after a Cabinet decision in July 2020 to reduce Government remuneration. Such pay is far below Gallagher’s previous income so his work as Attorney General comes at a big opportunity cost. “I would imagine that it doesn’t pay him at all to take this and that he probably does it out of a sense of public service,” said a senior legal figure. “Of the commercial senior counsel, in my view he would be the highest earner of the high earners. His practice is more like an industry than a practice because it is so high volume.”
Another legal figure said some lawyers may have been pleased to see him leave the Four Courts because it left a sizeable “Paul Gallagher-sized hole” to fill in the allocation of lucrative case work.
Gallagher was born in Tralee in 1955 and attended the Christian Brothers school in the town before going to Dublin for his secondary education, at Castleknock College. He is a graduate of UCD, the King’s Inns and Cambridge University, with degrees in law, history and economics. He is married to Dr Bláthna Ruane, a senior counsel and constitutional historian who was partner at solicitors McCann FitzGerald before being called to the bar. Wealthy he no doubt is, but he is not a man to flaunt it. “He’d never drive a new car, it’s always old and Kerry reg,” said an acquaintance, noting his penchant for second- or third-hand Mercedes. “He’s the most ordinary guy, a real Kerryman. You could imagine him in a mart.”
‘Amiable’ and ‘chatty’
At the age of 66, when many think of nothing but retirement, Gallagher is still a man in a hurry. “He’s an amiable, chatty character, but he doesn’t stop to chat because he’s so busy. He’d chat to you on the move,” the acquaintance added.
The story has often been told how Gallagher had two secretaries in private practice, as one alone could not keep up with his pace of work. It has been no different in his latest phase as Attorney General, even as civil servants worked from home in a succession of lockdowns. At an online video meeting one Sunday, officials logging on from home in weekend garb were astonished to see the Attorney General beaming in from his office dressed in suit and tie and ready for action. “He drives them hard,” said one observer. Another said he was known for his “omnivorous” legal curiosity, with a personality capable of extemporising at length and making a “deep impression” on international officials
Many in the Government regard him as the best and most efficient attorney general they have ever dealt with. In some accounts, certain Fine Gael Ministers want Gallagher to stay on when Varadkar is scheduled to return as taoiseach at the end of Martin’s term in December 2022. “Among the Fine Gael/Blueshirt wing, he’s very much respected,” said a person who is close to the party.
The esteem in which he is held in the Coalition – similar to the high regard in legal circles and indeed the judiciary – has helped to insulate Gallagher in the face of opposition attacks over his private work. There is no question of him being forced out, say Government insiders.
But that work has still raised hackles, not least because it continued right up until last Saturday week – September 25th – some 15 months after the Attorney General took office with permission to close out some prior litigation commitments.
Acting in a private capacity, Gallagher took part in a hearing that day before High Court inspectors who are examining the affairs of INM. He represented former INM directors – one of them a current director of its successor company, Mediahuis Ireland – at another hearing before the inspectors the previous Saturday. The inspection was sought by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, the State authority responsible for enforcing business law, after an investigation into matters raised in protected disclosures by INM former chief executive Robert Pitt and former chief financial officer Ryan Preston.
‘Barrister by night’
Róisín Shortall, co-leader of the Social Democrats, was quick to question the Attorney General’s involvement in a private capacity after it was first reported by The Irish Times four days after the latter hearing. “There is the obvious conflict of the Attorney General being involved in a case in which the State is on the other side,” she told the Dáil, asking whether Gallagher was Attorney General “by day and a more ordinary barrister by night”.
The Government insisted there was no conflict, saying the court inspectors and the corporate law enforcer were independent in their functions.
Shortall sent further questions to Varadkar, who replied by letter this week saying Gallagher’s involvement in the INM case “was scheduled to cease” on September 25th and “did cease on that date”. The case was one of three which the Attorney General “considered he had a personal obligation to discharge”, Varadkar said.
In addition to INM, Gallagher had represented Permanent TSB in a private capacity in a long-running case against the Minister for Finance over the bank’s nationalisation. Pete Skoczylas, a litigant in the proceedings, complained about Gallagher’s work for the bank to the Standards in Public Office Commission in April. The commission dismissed the complaint in June.
Gallagher also represented plaintiffs in an action by Russian chemical group TogliattiAzot, one of the world’s largest ammonia producers, against defendants including Dmitry Mazepin, a Moscow-based oligarch who is majority-owner of ammonia producer Uralchem, involving lots of companies registered in the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere.
“Having acted in these [three] matters in a private capacity, the Attorney General could never have acted for the State in these or any related matters,” the Tánaiste said.
Although the Government has said Gallagher’s private work was prolonged by court delays due to coronavirus, Shortall is not convinced. “It is wholly inappropriate for the AG to have continued with his private work for such a long period of time and it is worrying that Cabinet members have not acknowledged this,” she said.
“We have been provided with very limited information about the other two cases the AG was involved in and are still none the wiser as to whether there may have been other non-court legal work – mediations, settlements or arbitrations – that the AG engaged in. This needs to be clarified.”
Asked whether the Attorney General carried out any non-court private work, the Government replied: “Other than the three private litigation matters previously identified, the Attorney General has had no other private professional obligation to discharge following his appointment and did not engage in settlements, mediations or arbitrations.”
No barrister colleague has openly criticised Gallagher’s work on the INM case, although some have privately, saying there was an inconsistency and that the case was in a different category to other commercial litigation.
“The reason people say nothing is because his reputation is stellar and also the fact that he is such an ordinary guy. If he was some toffee-nosed, south Dublin politically correct-spouting guy, someone would take a turn against him but with Gallagher what you see is what you get,” said the retired solicitor.
Another legal figure, who is familiar with the constraints of high office, said it was acceptable for an attorney general to tidy up some limited work while being mindful of the need to avoid any risk of a conflict. “Anybody who has to bring to a close what he or she is dealing with, should do so in a discreet way, and bring it to a conclusion.”