Saturday 21 April 2018

'Back-room woman' is at the centre of many storms

Attorney General Maire Whelan
Attorney General Maire Whelan
John Downing

John Downing

Máire Whelan is rarely seen, never heard, but frequently talked about.

As Attorney General, or the Government's lawyer, she attends each week at Cabinet.

Though she does not have a vote, she sometimes holds the most sway over the outcome of the ministers' deliberations.

"If the AG tells the Government they can't do something for legal reasons, it's very hard to go against that," one former minister sums up.

This past week Ms Whelan was again in the news as her opinion that a bill, providing for pregnancy termination in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, was unconstitutional was strongly challenged by many Dáil deputies. There was a certain irony in that some of those challengers were in the ranks of the Labour Party to which Ms Whelan was linked before her appointment on March 9, 2011.

Attorneys General are not often household names before their appointment. But they usually are well known as top-flight lawyers regarded highly, be it ever so grudgingly, by their peers in the Law Library.

Not so Ms Whelan who was not well known to her colleagues. "I was involved in a few cases with her. But I really couldn't tell you much about her," one barrister recalled this week.

Part of this can be discounted as Law Library hubris with at least a dash of sexism. She was, after all, Ireland's first woman Attorney General and, being appointed at Labour's behest, left a host of heavy-hitting Fine Gael-linked lawyers with more cause than most to backbite.

There were also questions, on her appointment in 2011 right up to today, about her experience in handling constitutional law cases. But this is again countered by one former government adviser who insists that competence in constitutional law is by no means the only legal area required for a successful Attorney General.

"The Attorney has to be conversant with the detail of the widest range of topics. The job is about keeping the government right as it makes laws. It really demands an all-rounder rather than a specialist," the former adviser sums up.

The job is situated at the junction of politics and law. By definition, it requires an able lawyer who has considerable political nous.

Criticisms that the AG is "acting politically" thus often border on the nonsensical. It is, however, important the AG does not act in a party political way. The tensions within Labour in this past week suggest that she was not taking a partisan stance.

But ultimately, her opinion that Independent socialist TD Clare Daly's bill was unconstitutional was a big help to the party leadership. It gave them a good political reason for not parting from Fine Gael on this tricky issue.

Máire Whelan has been steeped in Labour politics for most of her adult life. She is recalled as a very hard-working party treasurer and also was heavily involved in election planning.

While she was little known to many of her Law Library colleagues, she is also little known to many in the political sphere. A native of Kinvara, Co Galway, she is recalled as a very hard-working and accomplished student.

She is married to barrister Bernard McCabe and they have one child.

They are known to keep their private life private and socialise with a small circle of friends. Ms Whelan's work rate is never in doubt and she is readily available for consultation by ministers.

In the 1990s, Labour's Dick Spring managed to get his nominee, John Rogers, appointed AG. On other occasions, the junior coalition partners have rued their failure to take sufficient account of its pivotal importance.

"When I heard the sentence beginning, 'The AG says', I knew the business was lost. It was most frustrating," one former minister recalls.

Those words tell all.

Irish Independent

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