Ireland's tribunal millionaire

If prominent Irish lawyer Eoin McGonigal kept a career scrapbook, it is unlikely that it would include the headline that made him a household name – and which prompted some cynics to refer to the Dublin Four Courts as the Four Goldmines.

“Beef Tribunal's First Millionaire,” trumpeted the headline back in 1994, spelling out in two-inch-high capitals the fee bonanza which McGonigal had collected. The image that it conjured up in the public mind has haunted him – and the Irish legal profession – ever since.

The Beef Tribunal, headed by Mr Justice Liam Hamilton – now the Irish Chief Justice – was set up to investigate allegations of widespread fraud and other irregularities in the country's IR£2bn-a-year meat industry. It sat almost continuously for two years and left angry Irish taxpayers picking up a bill close to IR£30m for the heavyweight legal teams who were involved.

As lead counsel for the tribunal, McGonigal's gross fees amounted to IR£1,300,000 – a landmark figure that reflected the exceptional length of the inquiry and the heavy workload which was involved. However, when the “millionaire” headline hit the streets, critics seized on it to claim that tribunals had become private goldmines for a legal elite, with the hard-pressed taxpayer picking up the tab.

Former Irish Bar Council chairman James Nugent, a senior counsel who has also worked in the Beef Tribunal, has described the tribunal as “a disaster for the profession”. He says: “It went on too long and cost too much and we were a part of that, and the whole thing was bad value for money.”

But, despite their cost and the cynicism they provoke in some quarters, Irish politicians remain incurably hooked on tribunals. Two such inquiries, established by the national parliament and headed by High Court judges, are currently under way in Dublin – and McGonigal is back in the headlines, being involved in both of them.

One tribunal, presided over by Mr Justice Michael Moriarty, is investigating who financed the lavish lifestyle of the former Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey during his time in government, and what political favours, if any, they received in return. McGonigal heads the Haughey legal team, and the assignment looks like his toughest to date.

Evidence of coded bank accounts, mystery cheques and secret payments is being given at the daily public hearings. Already Haughey has admitted receiving an undeclared IR£1.3m from former Irish supermarket boss Ben Dunne, and is facing prosecution for allegedly misleading an earlier inquiry into his finances.

Ironically, Haughey was Prime Minister when the Beef Tribunal was established, and his personal and political relationship with some of the major figures in the industry was one of the key areas explored by the tribunal team under McGonigal. Now, as is common in the legal profession, he is working on the other side of the fence.

The second tribunal, headed by Mr Justice Flood, is investigating alleged corruption in the Irish planning system. Here McGonigal is representing former Irish Foreign Minister Ray Burke, who resigned from his post and quit politics altogether last year after admitting that he had accepted a IR£30,000 donation from a building firm.

As with Haughey, this inquiry represents a formidable undertaking for a defence counsel. Burke claims the IR£30,000 was a contribution to his election expenses – his accusers assert that it was to buy planning permission and that the amount was IR£80,000.

It is an indication of McGonigal's standing in the profession that he has been chosen to head the defence in two such high-profile cases. For over a decade he has been one of the top earners in the Irish Law Library, with an impressive courtroom presence and a sharp, tactical brain.

“His laid-back style is deceptive and can trap a witness,” says a colleague. “He has a cool head and a big reputation as a tactician.”

The McGonigal family credentials are impeccable. His father, Ambrose, was a prominent member of the Northern Ireland bar and later became a judge, while his uncle was a leading barrister in the republic. The young McGonigal was educated at Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare, the Jesuit establishment that has helped shape some of Ireland's most celebrated sons, including James Joyce.

He went on to study at University College, Dublin, where he met his wife, Patricia. They have two grown-up children.

He has been a senior counsel since 1984 and is also a member of the Northern Ireland bar.

McGonigal lives at one of Dublin's most exclusive addresses, Sorrento Terrace, Dalkey, in a property estimated to be worth around IR£2m, and the family also has a holiday home in Donegal.

Despite being involved in both of the current tribunals, this time round McDonigal's earnings will not be making the headlines. Not only will the public sitting be much shorter, but it is unlikely that all the parties involved will have their legal costs met by the state, as happened with the Beef Tribunal. That decision may depend on the degree of co-operation which they offer to the inquiries.

Also, the payments agreed for the tribunal's legal teams are less generous this time – a brief fee of IR£25,000, with a daily refresher of IR£1,450 for the first 30 days, IR£1,400 for the next 20, and IR£1,350 thereafter. For non-sitting days, there is a fee of IR£1,350.

James Nugent still feels that tribunals are “a cumbersome and expensive” way of establishing the truth. Legislation is needed, he believes, to put an alternative system in place that would bridge the gap between the two methods of inquiry now available – either an investigation by government appointed inspectors or a full-blown tribunal.

“At present, the only options on offer are either a bicycle, or a Rolls Royce,” he says. “We need something in between.”

According to Nugent, few of the profession's top names welcome tribunal work, despite the public perception of the fees bonanza that it brings. “The volume of paperwork is enormous,” he explains. “The media interest is intense, so you're under constant pressure. Although you're representing clients, you become almost a public figure, losing your privacy as a citizen.

“You have to suspend your regular work to do the job and, at the end of it, all you get is abuse. The money may seem big but most would prefer to avoid the pressure and hassle that high-profile tribunal work entails.

“The trouble is that in this profession we're like taxis, waiting for hire. If someone picks you, then you can't say no unless you have a prior booking.”

Cynics would claim, however, that not many taxis end the journey with a whopping IR£1.3m on the meter.