Government refuses to confirm Philip Nolan's status in new state agency

The Government is refusing to say whether sacked science boss Professor Philip Nolan will now head up a new state agency.

Prof Nolan has failed to overturn his sacking by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in the fallout from bullying allegations against him in the research funding agency.

A High Court ruling now puts his new job as head of a quango in doubt.

Taoiseach Simon Harris had appointed Prof Nolan as head of Research Ireland, a merger of SFI with another smaller research body. But he has failed in his bid to secure a significant extension of High Court orders preventing his dismissal as director general.

Mr Justice Rory Mulcahy said the board was entitled to dismiss the director general “for no reason at all” in accordance with the terms of his contract.

But he said the reasons for its decision are “no doubt connected” to disruption following the making of claims against Prof Nolan by five senior staff members last December.

The decision on Prof Nolan’s future position now passes to the new Higher Education Minister Patrick O’Donovan. The minister will not say whether Prof Nolan is still going to be the head of the new agency.

“It would not be appropriate to comment on potential future arrangements at this stage,” the minister’s spokesperson said.

The legislation to set up Research Ireland has passed all stages in the Oireachtas and has been signed by President Michael D Higgins.

“The establishment date for the new agency will be designated by the minister and drafting of the required secondary legislation arising out of the Act is under way,” the department said.

The minister’s officials say SFI is fully operational and continues to deliver on its mandate to fund and support excellent and impactful research and innovation for the benefit of Ireland’s economy and society.

“There will be no disruption to existing services and supports for researchers, or to ongoing research programmes.”

Yesterday, Mr Justice Mulcahy said Prof Nolan has not met the necessary threshold for granting mandatory orders preventing his dismissal. The case will be listed before him on July 4.

Three weeks ago, Mr Justice Mulcahy granted Prof Nolan orders halting his dismissal for one day, after which SFI told the court it agreed, without prejudice, to an extension of these until the judge rules on this application for “interlocutory” orders, which would have lasted until the case is resolved.

The former member of the Covid-19 National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) first turned to the High Court days after receiving a letter from the SFI board purporting to terminate his contract, with three months’ salary paid in lieu of working out the notice period.

The letter noted two reports into claims made against him by five senior staff made no findings of bullying or corporate governance breaches against him.

However, the board believed there was a “threat of the most serious kind” to the foundation’s performance of its statutory duties and a “breakdown” in relations between Prof Nolan and the executive committee.

The court has heard that, while a barrister’s investigation into the claims against Prof Nolan made no findings against him, it concluded he engaged in inappropriate behaviour that could ground allegations of gross misconduct. Prof Nolan emphatically rejects the charge.

Prof Nolan’s lawyers argue there was “no conceivable justification” for his dismissal. The allegations made against him “without foundation” last December were part of an “orchestrated” bid to frustrate reform of the foundation, he claims.

SFI, represented by Mark Connaughton SC and Shelley Horan BL, instructed by McCann Fitzgerald solicitors, contends Prof Nolan was let go pursuant to the terms of his contract, which it says permits a “no-fault” termination.

The SFI board’s chair, Prof James Peter Clinch, said the organisation was not functioning normally and was in a “dire” situation under Prof Nolan’s leadership due to a breakdown of trust.

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