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Enigmatic Mr G has future of the nation in his hands

PAUL Gallagher will be sitting at the Cabinet table tomorrow ready to answer any questions on NAMA that the Minister for Finance feels needs further explanation for his less nimble-minded colleagues.

Ultimately, it will be the enigmatic Mr G who signs off on the text of NAMA, arguably the most important legislation ever to be put to the Oireachtas.

And whether it is our economic saviour or an unmitigated disaster, Paul Gallagher's name will be forever associated with NAMA and the government proposing it.

A proud Kerryman, he has spent the past three weeks on holiday in his native county wrestling the hydra-headed mythical beast known as NAMA, an acronym that sounds like the nickname of a Cork GAA hero of the 1950s.

And not many people know that he is the Attorney General because Paul Gallagher has worked very hard at preserving his anonymity.

He has never given an interview and the official photograph of him receiving his seal of office from the President is one of the very few pictures of him available.

Yet this unusually reticent lawyer is one of the most powerful and influential men in this country. The Taoiseach speaks to him many more times each day than to his wife and he is an almost daily communicant with every member of the Cabinet.

He earned his place in the AG Hall of Fame last year when bank shares plummeted and ignited the full-blown crisis that is still playing out in Government Buildings.

On September 29, the current Attorney General was sitting across a table from one of his closest friends who is a former AG: Paul Gallagher SC was advising the Government and Dermot Gleeson was chairman of Allied Irish Banks.

Irish banks were facing ignominious collapse and the Government had to make a call: let them collapse, nationalise them or guarantee them.

The rest of Europe waited to see what Ireland would do and, according to sources, the Attorney General offered his advice to the Taoiseach.

Guaranteeing the banks was the least bad option after the calamity that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers Bank in the US, and nationalising all the banks and building societies was just not a serious option.

He had been one of the country's highest paid and most successful senior counsel before taking up an invitation to be AG from Bertie Ahern after the 2007 general election.

It wrinkled noses in that twilight zone twixt law and politics: Paul Gallagher was known as a Fine Gaeler by instinct, if not party membership.

The outgoing AG Rory Brady, an old Drumcondra buddy, told the re-elected Taoiseach that the best favour he could do for him was to secure the services of the best lawyer in the Bar Library. And Paul Gallagher took the job and a pay cut of around €1.5m a year, according to well-informed sources.

He hit the ground running and got up a few noses: he arrives at the office in Merrion Street at around 7am, takes a 15-minute lunch break at his desk, leaves for home at around 7pm and often comes back to his desk again at 9pm.

In private practice he famously employed two secretaries and kept them both very busy and now he endeavours to keep what is essentially an entire government department running at top speed.

"You stop for a chat with him on a corridor and a few difficulties in the department arise in the course of conversation," said one Fianna Fail minister.

"Then a memo outlining maybe three possible options to solve the problem arrives in your offices within hours."

He also has the trust of the Green Party ministers and the Coalition Cabinet hang on his every word when he is asked, as he is frequently, for his advice.

Yet his exactness can also test the patience of the most serene civil servants and politicians: "His extreme fastidiousness about what sometimes appears to be inconsequential detail can be irritating," said another source.

But it is his unblinking eye for detail that had Brian Cowen send for him to join the government team in Europe when they were negotiating the re-run of the Lisbon Treaty referendum.

"He went though every word and every sentence, anticipating the possible outcomes for the Government," said a Government source who marvelled at how the AG has managed to fly under the media's radar for so long.

He will be the wind beneath Brian Lenihan's wings when the Minister for Finance, himself a barrister, proposes the NAMA legislation to the Dail next month.

Mr Gallagher will have painstakingly gone through every word and sentence in what is expected to be the most complex and brain-numbing text ever put before 166 TDs.

Not many TDs, or indeed many other people, will fully grasp the detail of NAMA that seems destined to remain as much a mystery as Einstein's Theory of Relativity to all but an elite few.

But years from now "who wrote the text of NAMA?" will be asked in arcane pub quizzes. And Paul Gallagher SC will nod to posterity.