High Court halts dismissal of Philip Nolan as director general of Science Foundation Ireland

Lawyers for Nolan submitted there was ‘no conceivable justification’ for his summary dismissal ‘in the most egregious fashion’

The High Court has halted the dismissal of Prof Philip Nolan as director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) after hearing he has been “so grievously wronged”.

Mr Justice Rory Mulcahy said he was satisfied Prof Nolan made out a strong case that is likely to succeed at trial such that he should make orders preventing his dismissal until the matter returns on Friday afternoon.

SFI was not in court when the application was made on Thursday afternoon but is to be notified so it can respond to the claims on Friday.

Lawyers for Prof Nolan submitted there was “no conceivable justification” for Prof Nolan’s summary dismissal “in the most egregious fashion” last Monday night.

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The State-funded research agency announced on Tuesday morning that Prof Nolan was no longer director general and that a new acting head had been appointed.

The SFI board had been due to consider the findings of an investigation into five misconduct allegations made by senior staff members against Prof Nolan. He has vehemently denied the claims.

Padraic Lyons SC, instructed by Daniel Spring & Co Solicitors, told the court on Thursday that his client “emphatically” rejects inappropriate behaviour and throughout all his time in public service was never before the subject of workplace complaints.

The probe into the protected disclosures led to no findings of bullying, the court heard. Instead, the investigation report refers to inappropriate behaviour for which there may be a case to answer by way of a disciplinary hearing, said Mr Lyons.

The report “clearly and unambiguously anticipates that if anything is to happen it is to happen by way of a process”, he submitted. However, he said, the board, having received the report, did a “volte-face” and took a “most unprecedented course of action that was extremely damaging to Prof Nolan”.

It effectively decided that the very making of allegations was sufficient to terminate his employment, Mr Lyons said. His client has been deprived of the chance to be heard on key matters, and if things are allowed to stand his reputation will be “irredeemably” tarnished.

Prof Nolan has “more than a strong case” to warrant securing a temporary order restraining his dismissal, said counsel. While cases of this kind often allege fair procedures were not entirely followed, this is “entirely different”, as it is a “no procedures case”, he said.

Prof Nolan, former president of Maynooth University, came to widespread public prominence as part of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) during Covid-19. He led the team’s disease monitoring subgroup, which presented predicted scenarios to the Government and the public.

He had been due to take over an expanded national research group: Research Ireland, based on a merger of SFI and the Irish Research Council.

The SFI, which oversees the awarding of more than €200 million in grants, received protected disclosures against Prof Nolan in late December.

When details of the misconduct claims came to light earlier this month, SFI said it took the investigation very seriously and was committed to the importance of a “fair, thorough, and robust process”.

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan is an Irish Times reporter