galway trial  | 

Chief Justice approved attendance of Supreme Court Justice Seamus Woulfe at ‘Golfgate’ event court hears

The comments were made during the trial of two prominent politicians and father and son hoteliers over alleged breaches of at a dinner held during Covid restrictions in August 2020
Seaumus Woulfe (left) at Galway District Court. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Seaumus Woulfe (left) at Galway District Court. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eavan Murray

Supreme Court justice Seamus Woulfe has told a criminal trial triggered by the ‘Golfgate’ controversy that he had the approval of the Chief Justice to attend the golf event.

The trial of two prominent politicians and father and son hoteliers over alleged breaches of the Health Act at an Oireachtas Golf Society dinner held during Covid restrictions in August 2020 continues today in Galway District Court.

The accused include the alleged organisers, Independent TD Noel Grealish (55), of Carnmore, Co Galway, and former Fianna Fáil senator Donie Cassidy (75), of Castlepollard, Co Westmeath.

Both men face a single charge that on August 19, 2020, they organised an event that contravened the Health Act 1947, as amended, to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of Covid-19.

John Sweeney (61), the owner of the Station House Hotel in Clifden, Co Galway, and his son James (32), the hotel’s general manager, face the same charge.

They all deny the charges.

In the fallout from the controversy, the then agriculture minister Dara Calleary, European commissioner Phil Hogan and leas-cathaoirleach of the Seanad Jerry Buttimer resigned their positions, and six senators lost their party whip.

Supreme Court Justice Seamus Woulfe was the second witness called to give evidence today.

Prosecutor Eoghan Cole BL said it was agreed between all counsels that Justice Woulfe be led through his witness statement.

Justice Woulfe agreed that the Oireachtas Golf Society was purely social, recreational, and non-political.

“I was of the impression it was a good way of breaking down any kind of political rivalries,” he said.

Mr Woulfe said he had previously attended a similar golf society event in 2019, when he was Attorney General, having been invited by his personal friend Senator Paul Coghlan.

He was made aware then that the following year would be the 50th anniversary and a “momentous” occasion for the society.

Justice Woulfe explained that he was again invited to the event in 2020 and, after some thought, decided to attend.

He said he bumped into Deputy Noel Grealish around May or June 2020, and he indicated it would be going ahead.

Justice Woulfe explained he was on holiday in Donegal at the time of the golf society event but decided to go given the momentous nature of the 50th anniversary.

“I probably did that because it was the 50th anniversary,” he said.

“Somebody told me it had been revived at the time of the arms trial in the 1970s and helped to diffuse tension between parties.

“I had booked my family holidays to Donegal, but when I satisfied myself (to attend), I then had a word with the Chief Justice to see if it was ok to go to this event.”

Mr Woulfe said he then checked with his wife if he was “allowed out for a couple of days from the family holiday”.

“She thought I was a bit mad to be driving from Donegal to Clifden,” he said with a smile.

“I rang Paul Coughlan at the end of July, and he gave me the dates and said he would be delighted if I could come.

“I think because it was the 50th anniversary the golf was going to be two days and rather than one day- on Tuesday and the Wednesday.

“But I thought I was doing well enough getting let out for one day, so I didn’t push my luck.”

Justice Woulfe arrived in Clifden on the evening of Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

As far as he could remember, he said he was unaware there was a formal dinner planned for the next night, following the President’s Cup competition at Ballyconneely golf club.

“It’s very hard to remember every conversation you have. It is possible Paul Coghlan might have said there was going to be a dinner but not necessarily a group dinner.

“Often with these golf societies, you eat when you come in off the course. Sometimes you eat in smaller groups as you come in (off the golf course).

“Some people don’t like being told at lunchtime they have to be there for a dinner at 7 o’clock.

“One thing to remember about the society is there is lots of little groups

“You can be a member of one of these societies, but a lot (of members) wouldn’t know each other. And I was only a guest.

“I didn’t know that many people, so I ended up having breakfast on my own.

“There may have been other people in the breakfast room, but I didn’t know them.

“I think it was John Flaherty (Captain of the Guard at Leinster House) who stopped on the way past me and told me what time I was playing.”

Justice Woulfe said he went to Ballyconneely Golf Club, where he met Senator Donie Cassidy and Deputy Noel Grealish.

“I think they were registering people and taking money. I think they gave me a ticket or a voucher we could use for the dinner that night,” he said.

“I think that’s when I realised if I hadn’t already, and I hadn’t already, that it was going to be a group dinner.

“That triggered a little thought in my head this was a group dinner.”

He said he didn’t immediately question the men about the dinner as “there were people waiting behind me so rather than question them about it I moved away to make way and I queried Paul Coughlan.”

Asked by Mr Cole if he had concerns at this point about a group dinner, Mr Woulfe said he did query “in my own head.”

“I suppose I just queried it in my own head. It was the first of those kind of dinners that I had been to since things opened up. I had been out socially a few times with smaller groups of friends,” he said.

“I queried it with Paul, and he said Donie had consulted with the authorities, and everything was in order.”

Asked was he satisfied by this answer, he said: “I was.”

“You’ve got to remember this was the Oireachtas Golf Society, with no disrespect to pubs - but the local pub might have a golf society.”

He said the presence of Mr Cassidy, Mr Flaherty and Mr Coghlan gave him reassurance about the guidelines. “I felt people like Donie Cassidy, who is a very reputable hotelier and businessman, and John Flaherty, the Captain of the Guard - I have high respect for John, I see the way he conducts himself and the way he organised security in Leinster House - once I was told by Paul Coghlan, they had applied their minds to the regulations and guidelines,” he said.

“And then somebody said when they heard me querying Paul about it that it (the dinner) had been moved specially from the clubhouse to the hotel in order to ensure compliance with the guidelines.”

The opening day of the trial yesterday heard from a defence barrister that "public hysteria” whipped up following the event led to the forced resignation of “a lot of very good people”.

Opening the prosecution case, Eoghan Cole BL outlined the legislation in place at the time and said 81 invited guests attended a dinner at the hotel when it was prohibited to organise an event with more than 50 people.

Defence counsel for Golf Society president Donie Cassidy, Mr Colm Smyth SC, yesterday told Judge Mary Fahy that two separate events took place, which he said was not contravening the regulations because: “The reality of what took place is that those people were accommodated in two separate rooms.”

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