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Philip Nolan begins court action to prevent dismissal

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The High Court has begun hearing an action by Professor Philip Nolan aimed at preventing his dismissal as Director General of Science Foundation Ireland.

On 30 May last the court granted temporary orders preventing SFI from dismissing Prof Nolan three days after he had had been notified in an email that he was being dismissed from his role.

His lawyers said he had been dismissed without any disciplinary hearing or opportunity for him to deal with allegations made against him.

Senior Counsel Padraic Lyons said that complaints were made by five people in late December 2023 but a report by a senior counsel found there had been no breaches of corporate governance and no bullying.

The report had concluded that Prof Nolan had a case to answer that there had been inappropriate behaviour falling short of bullying and a disciplinary process would be required to consider these allegations.

However in an email sent on 27 May, SFI said it would not be in SFI’s or Prof Nolan’s interests to initiate a disciplinary process, the court was told.

Opening the case today Mr Lyons told the court the “historic origin” of some of the discontent related to a letter sent by Prof Nolan in February 2022 shortly after his appointment expressing disappointment that the board had refused him permission to take up a role as chair of St James’s Hospital.

In the letter Prof Nolan said the decision was “profoundly disappointing” and “raises concerns about the position and disposition of the board” on which he would reflect.

Mr Lyons said Prof Nolan had subsequently apologised for sending the letter but the board had “overreacted”.

He said minutes of a board meeting noted that board members expressed shock at the letter suggesting it called into question its bona fides and showed a lack of respect. Some board members suggested it would be grounds for termination of a CEO in the private sector.

Mr Lyons said the response of the board was an “extreme reaction” which resulted in members openly discussing the proposition that in another context this might lead to termination. Mr Lyons said this reaction from the board to the sending of the letter was “an inflection point” which seemed to initiate a decision to put in place a performance plan in October 2022.

Mr Lyons said an investigation this year into allegations made against Prof Nolan did not uphold any allegations of bullying or misconduct but found he had a case to answer in relation to what could have been inappropriate behaviour in his interactions with others.

Mr Lyons said the investigation found that Prof Nolan could have engaged in a more collaborative way but “that was the height of it”.

He said it would have been open to the board to determine a course of action or mediation but it could not “jump past” the process to which Prof Nolan was entitled and “simply guillotine all of that” by summary dismissal.

The findings of the inquiry could never give rise to someone’s dismissal but the board had however “arrived at the conclusion that this had all created terrible discord and you are to be sacked thereby attributing blame in the context where the media attention would lead one to believe that he had been engaged in terrible behaviour.”

He referred to media reports the day after Prof Nolan’s dismissal linking it to the fallout from bullying allegations.

“A person’s right to reputation is such that where allegations have been made they can’t be unmade. Where they have been publicly made they can’t be unmade,” Mr Lyons added.

He said the reason for the dismissal was clearly linked to the findings of the inquiry despite the foundation stating it was because it was not functioning properly and the situation had worsened and become “dire”.

He said there was never any recording of dysfunction and no credible evidence to support this statement.

Prof Nolan had attended the workplace and fulfilled his role during the investigation, he said.

The court was told that during this time measures were put in place including the presence of an independent observer at meetings. Prof Nolan had been out sick for a period of four weeks and then “great emphasis” was placed on an email he sent before his return to work.

Issue had been taken with the fact that he had said in the email that allegations had not been upheld, the court was told.

Mr Lyons also said they had still not seen the minutes of the meeting at which the decision was taken to dismiss Prof Nolan and they were not told what was said or who was there.

Lawyers for Science Foundation Ireland will make submissions to the court this afternoon.

The hearing before Mr Justice Rory Mulcahy continues.

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