Tuesday 20 August 2019

Government circles wagons around the embattled AG

Both parties have strongly sang Máire Whelan's praises and Fine Gael sources have stressed the high regard the Taoiseach has for her
Both parties have strongly sang Máire Whelan's praises and Fine Gael sources have stressed the high regard the Taoiseach has for her
John Downing

John Downing

The Attorney General has traditionally been rarely seen or heard beyond Government Buildings and Leinster House, where they are always referred to by the initials 'AG'.

Like all rules of thumb, there are exceptions. In 1982 an unfortunate coincidence catapulted Charlie Haughey's AG, Patrick Connolly, into the headlines as the murderer Malcolm Macarthur was arrested in his home; while in 1992 Albert Reynolds's AG, Harry Whelehan, became embroiled in a series of political controversies.

The incumbent, Máire Whelan, now also finds herself in that exceptional AG category, as she has hit the headlines for a third time, and again faces political criticisms from the opposition parties. And in a curious coincidence, she is joined in the spotlight by another former AG who was often in the headlines, Michael McDowell, who put through the tribunal of inquiry of legislation, now under the spotlight, while he was Justice Minister back in 2004.

Ms Whelan, a Labour Party nominee to the job which is in large part the Government's lawyer, was in the opposition's cross-hairs twice before. When the successful November 2012 Children's Rights Referendum was challenged in the courts, because the Government had taken a formal Yes stance, some ministers tried successfully but briefly to blame the AG's office.

That one passed quickly. But last September, Ms Whelan faced more serious criticisms in the report of the Fennelly Commission.

It noted she did not contact the former Justice Minister Alan Shatter about the emergence of the Garda tapes, partly because of public remarks he had made about Garda whistleblowers.

It also emerged that Ms Whelan changed her stance about the seriousness of the Garda tapes issue in later evidence.

Sinn Féin sought to include the AG in a Dáil no-confidence motion but the Coalition circled the wagons around all the Government team, including Ms Whelan.

Both parties strongly sang her praises and Fine Gael Government sources stressed the high regard the Taoiseach has for her.

Now, as her apparent failure to alert the Government to a potential confidentiality bugbear in the IBRC tribunal becomes part of the latest political controversy, the Government is again four-square behind its legal adviser.

Many Government TDs will feel it is better to see the unelected AG taking flack. But the real targets are the Taoiseach and the Finance Minister as the Opposition seek to move it beyond technicalities, and make it all about competence.

Irish Independent

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