Eire's Attorney General's office faces second political furore over delays

THE ATTORNEY General's office in Eire is at the centre of a new political crisis that is almost a carbon copy of the one which brought down the government headed by Prime Minister Albert Reynolds just seven months ago.

The only casualty so far has been the senior legal assistant in charge of the Attorney General's office, Matthew Russell, who has been forced to take early retirement. But Opposition parties are calling for the resignation of new Prime Minister, John Bruton, and his recently appointed Attorney General Dermot Gleeson.

The original crisis was caused by a seven-month delay in the Attorney General's office in dealing with a warrant for the extradition to Northern Ireland of a paedophile priest, Father Brendan Smyth, currently serving a jail sentence there for serious sexual offences against children.

The crisis not only forced Reynolds and his government from office, it also led to the resignation of the newly appointed president of the Irish High Court, Harry Whelehan, who had been Attorney General at the time. He had been on the bench for just two days.

The new crisis also centres on another delay in the Attorney General's office involving the Fr Smyth case. This time a letter from a solicitor acting on behalf of the priest's Belfast victims, seeking compensation for injury suffered as a result of the extradition delay, lay unanswered in the Attorney General's office for five months.

Russell, who has worked in the office for over 20 years, handled both the warrant and letter. He has now admitted the delay in acknowledging the letter was an error of judgement and has agreed to retire immediately, with a golden handshake of close to £140,000.

Russell resisted attempts to remove him from the Attorney General's office during the previous crisis, when he was blamed for delay over the extradition warrant.

Prime Minister Bruton has apologised to Fr Smyth's victims for the delay but Opposition parties say he should resign, as Reynolds had to do.

The crisis is complicated by the fact that Gleeson had a lawyer-client relationship with Russell before his appointment. This precluded him from assessing Russell's culpability in the latest crisis and from recommending what action should be taken against him.

Gleeson told him about this potential conflict of interest before he was appointed Attorney General, but the public and Parliament only learned of it when the new crisis broke. Now the Opposition claims Bruton showed bad judgement in appointing Gleeson in such circumstances.