For the latest in our series profiling Irish and Northern Irish lawyers working in countries around the world, we spoke with Thomas Flanagan (Senior Legal Advisor, Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission) about his time working in the field of legal reform in Ukraine and Kosovo.
Thomas Flanagan (on left), Senior Legal Advisor, Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, with Ihor Stadnyk, Deputy Head, Vinnytsia Court of Appeal, Ukraine
"I believe that the European Union has made an enormous contribution to peace on the troubled continent of Europe and it has been a privilege to play some minor part in continuing to develop this."
Hi Thomas, thanks for agreeing to speak with us today. To start, could you please give your full name and title?
My name is Thomas Flanagan, and I’m a Senior Legal Advisor at the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). From 2019-22 I was Senior Advisor on Legal Reform with the European Union Advisory Mission (EUAM) in Kyiv, Ukraine. From 2011 to 2016 I worked as a Legal Officer for the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) in Kosovo.
Can you tell us about who you are and what you do?
I am from a small village in County Meath. In February 2019, I took a career break from GSOC to take up the position of Senior Advisor on Legal Reform at EUAM based in Kyiv. In essence, my role involved providing comments and advice on draft Ukrainian criminal law legislation to ensure that it complied with European Union standards. I also provided advice on governance issues to Ukrainian law enforcement agencies. Since February 2022, I have been back with GSOC providing advice about investigations of misconduct by members of An Garda Síochána. I intend to work in Rule of Law development with EU partner states again in the future.
Can you describe your training for us?
In 1997, I completed an Arts degree in history at Trinity College Dublin and then I worked for the Courts Service of Ireland as a court clerk/registrar in the Dublin District (criminal) courts. During this time I also obtained a Diploma in Legal Studies and a Barrister-at-law Degree in King’s Inns. I was called to the Bar in 2005 and practised from 2005 to 2011, mostly in criminal law.
From 2011 to 2016 I worked as a Legal Officer for the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) in Kosovo. From 2017 to 2019, I worked as a Senior Legal Advisor with the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) before taking up the position in Ukraine. In February 2022, I returned to GSOC. In June 2023, I graduated with a master’s degree (LLM) in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law from the University of Aberystwyth.
Why did you become interested in legal work?
There was no tradition of legal work in my immediate or extended family. However, my parents and teachers instilled in me a strong sense of fairness and that everyone is entitled to have their voice heard and their rights vindicated no matter what they are accused of or how unpopular they may be. I was also encouraged to try to assist those who were not as fortunate as me in life. These things always stayed with me.
What do you hope to achieve from the work you are doing?
Ukraine has one of the most turbulent histories of any European country in modern times but its people are very resilient and are working hard to build a better country. However, corruption remains a problem. With my work in Ukraine, I hoped, in some small way, to contribute towards building a better criminal justice system, rights-based and firmly anchored in the rule of law, to better tackle corruption that will encourage investment and build a stronger economy and state. Obviously, this task has become more difficult since the Russian invasion, however, my firm belief is that Ukrainian institutions will not deviate from their stated aims.
Can you tell us some of your professional experiences that have left a mark on you personally?
From 2011 to 2016 I worked as a legal officer for the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) in Kosovo. I was a student in Dublin during the fall of Yugoslavia and I can vividly recall the horrendous images on TV of the wars there, especially from Bosnia and Kosovo. Subsequently, it was a great privilege to work with the people of Kosovo, who had survived that dreadful period, to deal with the past and to build a better criminal justice system now and for the future. Their warmth and professionalism are things I was privileged to experience and will never forget.
"Thankfully, in Ireland we have a well-developed rule of law system, meaning we can make a valuable contribution in states that are trying to develop this."
You spent time working in Kosovo and in Ukraine, what did you do in both countries? Can you tell us about your work there?
The big difference was that in Kosovo EULEX had an executive mandate. This meant it provided the judges and prosecutors who were responsible for administering criminal trials in sensitive war crime and economic corruption cases. Kosovo institutions had to comply with their verdicts. As such, the role of EULEX attracted a lot of publicity and sometimes controversy. On the other hand, in Ukraine, EUAM’s mandate is purely advisory. It has no executive functions. Therefore, it is generally less exposed to criticism and controversy. However, as a result, it was harder to make an impact with Ukrainian interlocutors – not least because they are under no legal obligation to implement the reforms suggested by EUAM. I could only make an impact by my professionalism and the strength of my arguments.
Why did you decide to work abroad?
I have always loved history and travel especially in Europe and working in Kosovo and Ukraine gave me the opportunity to combine these with my chosen profession. In addition, while I believe the criminal justice system in Ireland functions at a very high level, it does not offer the opportunity to work in an environment where the delivery of justice is so closely linked to building the architecture of the state itself. I always wanted to work in an environment like this.
What drives you to do what you do?
I believe that the European Union has made an enormous contribution to peace on the troubled continent of Europe and it has been a privilege to play some minor part in continuing to develop this. The people of Kosovo and Ukraine have repeatedly expressed their wish to join the EU and by my work, I hope to have, in some small way, helped them on this journey towards a more peaceful and prosperous future.
What sort of an impact would you like to make?
I believe that I was only responsible for a very small area within one sector of the development of a state. However, if I discharge this responsibility to the best of my ability, eventually, like a jigsaw puzzle, this connects with the work of others and, over time, a better model starts to emerge.
Any advice to young people entering the legal profession?
Be affable, be available and be able!
Anything else that you would like to add?
I would encourage Irish lawyers to also explore career opportunities outside Ireland. Thankfully, in Ireland we have a well-developed rule of law system, meaning we can make a valuable contribution in states that are trying to develop this.