July-August 2024 33
Panning Fanning
By Michael Smith
R
ossa Fanning was born in 1976,
grew up in Leopardstown and
went to Blackrock College. He
attended University College
Dublin where he served as
Auditor of the fatulous UCD Law Society and
graduated top of his class, obtaining First
Class Honours both in his BCL degree in
1997 and a subsequent LL.M grounded in a
thesis on tedious civil procedure. He was
called to the Irish Bar in 1999 after
graduating from King’s Inns in solid first
place. He was the individual winner of The
Irish Times Debate in the same year. He
obtained a Fulbright Scholarship and a
University Fellowship to pursue a second
LL.M, at the University of Michigan, one of
the US’s top ten law schools, where he
graduated in 2000.
As a barrister, he was apprenticed,
No bleeding heart, he wouldn’t see
championing the underdog as too big a
deal. Village could find no reference to
Fanning undertaking any worthy work
‘pro bono
‘devilled, under David Barniville, currently
President of the High Court, a fellow
graduate Blackrock College, UCD Law and
King’s Inns; and a fellow tennis enthusiast
(Barnivilles father was a tennis
professional).
He was a college lecturer at UCD’s
Sutherland School of Law between 2001
and 2009, lecturing — entertainingly by all
accounts — in Constitutional Law and
Company Law; and is now adjunct full
professor there.
In the courts he became a Senior Counsel
in 2016. and is a bencher and member of
King’s Inns and the Bar Council.
He specialised in fractious commercial
cases including insolvency and
restructuring, commercial leases,
defamation, debt recovery, repossessions
and professional negligence.
As a stereotypical agent of late-stage
decadent capitalism, he typically fronted for
the banks, including AIB, KBC and Ulster
Bank and, latterly, vulture funds such as
Pepper, for whom he was counsel of choice.
As one barrister noted: these firms don’t
choose him because they like him, they
choose him because he wins. Indeed
another barrister said the ascent of Fanning
symptomises the demise of the old model
of the bar when smaller solicitor firms would
choose a wider range of barristers.
Now the dominance of big firms has led
to a few well regarded senior counsel
dominating the profession, particularly its
commercial component. We might call them
the ‘Arran Square Squad’ after the na
1990s tax-incentivised oce block which
houses many of them.
On his day Fanning is considered the most
effective commercial advocate in the
country: a pedantic designation for which
there is vicious, albeit quiet, competition.
Fannings particular expertise in
insolvency cases and business disputes
Rossa Fanning is Ireland’s most effective commercial
advocate but a poor agent for equality or the environment
or for replying to questions about ethics
POLITICS
34 July-August 2024
He was counsel for many high-profile
business figures including Denis OBrien,
Dermot Desmond and Larry Goodman.
This galaxy of commercial defence meant
he was one of the three or four highest
earners, probably netting close to a million
euro annually.
Less venally he defended the Spiritans
Congregation of the Holy Spirit in a civil
action for damages in 2016. A month before
Fanning’s appointment Leo Varadkar told
the Dáil that the Government was
considering an inquiry “to allow us to
unearth what happened at Blackrock
College and indeed other Spiritan schools
– specifically, who knew what and how they
acted, if at all”. Though his time at Blackrock
post-dated the period of abuse it is
potentially somewhat compromising that
survivors have been told that a recently
compiled scoping report on the matter by a
senior counsel will be sent for review by the
Attorney General before it is distributed to
them, with no firm timeline as yet. matter.
Fanning has maintained a link with
Blackrock College, appearing in past pupils
versus present pupils debates as recently
as 2019. He did not reply to Village’s
question as to whether he would be recusing
himself from discussions and decisions
relating to the abuse of former pupils of
Blackrock College.
He developed a reputation as a straight
talker, a ferocious competitor and a
bruising, often brash opponent.
“He has this very aggressive style, like a
rottweiler, but it is quite vaudeville, almost
theatrical”, one florid barrister told the Irish
Times. In private he is said to be forensic but
arrogant though not unpleasant and
sometimes, like his sponsor Varadkar,
gauche. There’s a suspicion social skills
have been learnt. These may not be virtues
in dealing with politicians, politics or
coalitions though they have an enduring
appeal in conservative legal circles.
Several of Fanning’s devils, who
inevitably know him well, spoke well of his
treatment of them. He gives, and is returned,
loyalty.
Fanning can be endearingly hotheaded.
In 2021 he took to the Sunday Independent
to shield uninterviewed newly appointed
chief justice Donal O’Donnell against Shane
Ross, who had suggested that appointment
to such a job should somehow be preceded
by a job interview and who, not
uncoincidentally for Fanning, was no longer
a Minister.
Ross had persuasively argued against a
majority of lawyers on the Judicial
Appointments Council but had been
scandalously and improperly
outmanoeuvred. He was poisonously
assailed as a “petulant controversialist”;
angry “that his signature blend of vitriol and
grandstanding has had its wings clipped by
our legal system”; handicapped by the
“ostensible disadvantage of his ejection
from public life”. By contrast, Fanning
recognised the “conspicuous brilliance of
O’Donnell’s advocacy…the greatest
appellate and constitutional lawyer of his
generation [whose] formidable intellect is
more than evident from a canon of judgment
of unsurpassed quality. It was an outing
for Fannings oleaginous side and an
opportunity to impress his judicial
superiors.
Ross’s considered riposte was that
“apoplexy is not an argument.
Fanning is no radical and in June last year
he seemed more than comfortable
defending the Irish economic model at an
international conference on commercial
dispute resolution. Our economic success
was not “leprechaun economics”, he
soothed.
Following Leo Varadkar’s re-ascent to the
premiership in December 2022, Fanning
beat some more old-fashioned competition
to the role of Attorney General, the
Government’s legal adviser. He is said to
have wanted the job because he saw it as
public service, but his ego may also have
suggested he was the best man for the job.
In that capacity he is said to be less
remote from the day-to-day workings of the
oce than his predecessor, Paul Gallagher
and less likely to delegate work to
subordinates than Gallagher was. This is
possible because Fanning, like Gallagher,
has always had a ferocious appetite for
work. Personal involvement has made him
more popular with sta in the Attorney
General’s oce than his predecessor.
Shortly after his appointment he was
asked by the Government to justify its
adversarial legal strategy for dealing with
cases taken by individuals aected by
illegal nursing home charges and others
made him a ubiquitous force in many
prominent post-Celtic Tiger era cases. And
he was not found wanting on behalf of
Irelands largest liquidators and receivers.
Fannings orientation has not been as
champion of the underdog. No bleeding
heart, he wouldn’t see championing the
underdog as too big a deal. Village could
find no reference to Fanning undertaking
any worthy work ‘pro bono. We asked for
him to cite any but received no reply.
Most notably, he represented KBC in its
action against Michael Anthony McGann to
repossess his farm; succeeding in evicting
McGann’s elderly siblings from the family
home in December 2018, triggering a
violent attack at the farm a week later by a
mob, three of whose members have since
been convicted for their roles in the incident
during which a dog was killed; agents of the
bank were brutally assaulted; and property
destroyed. In February 2020, Fanning got all
three of the McGanns arrested and
threatened with jail so that the bank could
sell up their family home and farm. The case
is analysed at page 8 of the current edition
of Village.
He has been the barrister for multinational
technology companies including Facebook
which he represented in five cases between
2019 and 2022, and Google. He represented
Twitter against a defamation action by the
Iona Institute’s Dr Angelo Bottone who
claimed it was responsible for defamatory
tweets. Fanning acted for the receivers of
Apollo House, which was occupied by
activists against homelessness. He was
counsel for Debenhams when they shafted
their Dublin workforce.
He represented golfer Rory McIlroy in
proceedings against his former
management company that were eventually
settled; and was MCD Productions barrister
when it sought to enforce a judgment
against Prince.
He obtained an €8.2 million judgment
against former Renault Ireland boss Bill
Cullen for his client Danske Bank in 2012,
before it left the jurisdiction. He represented
Michael Fingleton in a debt recovery case
taken by former employer Irish Nationwide
Building Society and Seán Quinn and two of
his sons in an action taken by Anglo Irish
Bank though he resigned while the case
was ongoing apparently due to a
professional conflict after a video showed
Seán’s nephew Peter indicating his
willingness to lie in court.
Fanning appeared in the Charlton Tribunal
on behalf of crime correspondent Paul
Williams and his employer, Independent
News and Media; and for Michael Lowry at
the Moriarty Tribunal and in a subsequent
judicial review taken by Lowry contesting
the tribunal’s rulings on costs.
On his day he is
considered the most
effective commercial
advocate in the country:
a designation for which
there is vicious, albeit
quiet, competition