Minister intervened to urge mediation between Philip Nolan and SFI, court told

Minister Intervened To Urge Mediation Between Philip Nolan And Sfi, Court Told
The High Court is hearing a dispute between Professor Philip Nolan (pictured) and Science Foundation Ireland. Photo: PA Images
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High Court reporters

Updated: 5.30pm

The Minister for Research, Innovation and Science intervened in a dispute between Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and Professor Philip Nolan to suggest they could mediate outstanding issues, the High Court has heard.


Senior counsel for Prof Nolan, who is seeking an extension of orders preventing his dismissal, said it was “striking” that there was a “blanket refusal” from the State-funded research agency in response to his client’s repeated offers to engage in mediation.

Padraic Lyons told the court on Tuesday that in late April, a representative for the Minister, Patrick O’Donovan, wrote to SFI noting that an independent barrister’s investigation into claims against Prof Nolan by five senior staff members made no findings of bullying or breaches of corporate governance.

The secretary general of Mr O’Donovan’s department, writing on behalf of the new Minister, said it would be in the “best interests” of the research agency to resolve matters promptly and that mediation could be an approach to take, the court heard.

Still to be considered by SFI was the investigation report’s conclusion that Prof Nolan engaged in inappropriate behaviour that could ground allegations of gross misconduct. Prof Nolan emphatically rejects the charge.


Mr Lyons, instructed by Daniel Spring & Co Solicitors, said the SFI board gave a “thin-skinned” response to the Minister’s letter, saying it was surprised he would suggest mediation before a disciplinary process into the outstanding claims was initiated.

This reply indicated there would be a disciplinary process, Mr Lyons said, but the SFI board went on to summarily dismiss his client on May 27th without any such process, which would have allowed his client to defend himself.

It is “untenable” for SFI to now contend it dismissed Prof Nolan not for misconduct reasons but because it was exercising its contractual right to dismiss, Mr Lyons said.

Prof Nolan is asking Mr Justice Rory Mulcahy to extend orders he made in recent weeks preventing his dismissal from his director general role. His lawyers argue there was “no conceivable justification” for the move.


'Lost the dressing room'

Responding, senior counsel Mark Connaughton, instructed by McCann Fitzgerald solicitors, said that, as director general, Prof Nolan was the star of the show but he “lost the dressing room, plain and simple”.

The organisation was not functioning normally, and in a private company this situation would fall on the head of the chief executive, he said.

He rebuffed any suggestion the SFI board acted in any way other than in the best interests of the organisation.

This is a “highly qualified, highly experienced board of great calibre” that takes its responsibilities very seriously, counsel added.


While Prof Nolan’s legal team argued the board overreacted to a critical letter he wrote in February 2022, which he regrets, Mr Connaughton said the reaction demonstrates this board requires “exacting standards”.

He said internal investigations are underway to determine the source of the “completely unauthorised and improper” disclosure of “highly confidential material” to the media.

While the plaintiff says he has suffered reputational harm due to the release of information about the investigation, SFI cannot be held legally responsible for the fact these “horrible events occurred”, Mr Connaughton added.

He said Prof Nolan’s case fails to acknowledge other findings in the barrister’s report. His push for mediation under these circumstances demonstrates a “certain lack of insight”, the court heard.


There is also a “fundamental difference” between the parties regarding the legalities at play, he added.

Alleged behaviour

In a letter dismissing Prof Nolan on May 27th, the SFI board’s chair, Professor Peter Clinch, noted an internal group’s report recommended the invocation of disciplinary procedures against Prof Nolan regarding instances of inappropriate behaviour cited in the barrister’s investigation.

He said the board had to consider whether it was in SFI’s best interests to “prolong this matter and the discord it has produced, including the loss of trust at the executive level that is a clear threat to the ability of the foundation to meet its statutory function”.

Prof Clinch said it had been decided it was “neither in the foundation’s interests nor yours to initiate a disciplinary process” and the board “cannot allow the situation to continue”.

He noted Prof Nolan rejects certain findings of the report but said the board has decided terminating his contract is the “correct course”.

SFI’s senior counsel, Mark Connaughton, instructed by McCann Fitzgerald solicitors, previously said the “only basis” for terminating Prof Nolan’s employment was in reference to the “express terms” of his written contract. SFI has yet to outline its full defence to the court.

Prof Nolan came to public prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic while leading the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (Nphet’s) epidemiological modelling group. He is a former president of Maynooth University.

Prof Nolan, who assumed the director general role in January 2022, argues the claims made against him “without foundation” last December form part of an “orchestrated” bid to frustrate his efforts to substantially reform the organisation.

The Department of Research, Innovation and Science had acknowledged a need for change but, Prof Nolan said, there was “profound resistance” to this aim from the senior management team. He believes most of SFI’s 120 staff members are in favour of reform.

He was appointed CEO-designate of Research Ireland – a planned merger of SFI and the Irish Research Council – in a move he says amounted to an endorsement by the Government of his leadership and strategy.

Prof Nolan believes he can continue to perform his role to the benefit of SFI and Research Ireland if he has the correct support.

He noted the SFI board is soon to be dissolved and said the organisation and the research community it serves will be “seriously disadvantaged” if the amalgamation is delayed or halted due to SFI actions.

The case concluded on Tuesday, and Mr Justice Rory Mulcahy said he intends to deliver his ruling next week.

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