Máire Whelan won trust of Fine Gael Ministers as AG

Tenure of outgoing attorney general, serving two governments, has not been without controversy

Máire Whelan was not exactly a familiar name in political circles when she became Attorney General unlike predecessors such as Michael McDowell, Peter Sutherland, Dermot Gleeson, Paul Gallagher, and Rory Brady.

She was not considered a Bar Council insider and broke a long tradition of UCD lawyers becoming AG upon her appointment in 2011. She was also the first female AG.

From Kinvara, Co Galway, she is a graduate of NUI Galway and made her name as a family law practitioner, and also as an author of a scholarly book on Nama. She remained in the post for six years and served with two different governments.

The fact that she went in as a Labour Party nominee and was reappointed by a Fine Gael-led Government reflects, in particular, the trust that had grown between her and outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny. She now becomes a member of the Court of Appeal, a senior judicial appointment.

There is no doubt that over time Whelan won the trust and confidence of Fine Gael Ministers and was seen as conscientious, fair and hard working. She was seen as close to Kenny, particularly from 2014 onwards.

Serious controversies

That said, she was involved in a number of serious controversies in relation to advice she gave to government. The first related to the Children’s Referendum.

In late 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that an expensive communications and information campaign the government had run in the lead-up to the referendum fell foul of the McKenna judgement. The government had argued the campaign, which involved a booklet and social media activity, was merely an information campaign but the court held otherwise, holding that the information published was weighted towards its side of the argument.

The documentation had been approved by the office of then minister for children Frances Fitzgerald, as well as the office of the AG. It was an early reverse for Whelan’s office.

In 2014, it emerged that, for many years, some Garda stations had equipment that secretly recorded telephone conversations. The disclosure was the tipping point that led to the resignation of then Garda commissioner Martin Callanan.

Whelan initially told the Fennelly Commission, which investigated the issue, that the Garda phone-tapping activity was “in complete violation of the law” and might be criminal activity. She later submitted additional evidence that was at considerable variance with her initial statement and gave a substantially modified view.

The former minister for justice, Alan Shatter, called for her resignation in the light of the commission’s report, over which Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan, a senior counsel, castigated her “alarmist advice”. Despite the calls, the Taoiseach stated strong support for her.

There is no doubt she is respected by Cabinet members.

“She did come in as a Labour appointment but she has a very able legal eye and Ministers think very highly of her,” a senior Minister said. “She has also been a very loyal member of Government, as far as the AG is a member of government.”

Some attornies general have had overt political connections; some have not. The person most mentioned as the favourite to succeed Whelan is Frank Callanan, a senior counsel and political historian, who has been a trustee of Fine Gael.