| 13.2°C Dublin

Golfgate Attorney General warns of 'serious constitutional issues' from Supreme Court row over Woulfe's attendance at golf event

Close

Former Attorney General Seamus Woulfe (Niall Carson/PA)

Former Attorney General Seamus Woulfe (Niall Carson/PA)

Former Attorney General Seamus Woulfe (Niall Carson/PA)

The Attorney General has warned that “serious constitutional issues” have arise from the row over Supreme Court Judge Seamus Woulfe attendance at an Oireachtas golf event.

In a statement, the Government said they have considered the correspondence between the Chief Justice Frank Clarke and Mr Justice Woulfe which were published yesterday.

“The Attorney General outlined the serious constitutional issues that now arise and the respective responsibilities of each of the organs of the State as set out in the Constitution, including in particular the respective roles of the Judiciary and of the Oireachtas,” it said.

It said the Government , who are also Members of the Oireachtas, are “acutely aware of the sensitivity and seriousness” of the issue and the need to ensure that the constitutional framework is fully respected by all concerned.

“This includes avoiding inappropriate public comment. The Government agreed that it will continue to reflect on these issues,” it added.

Letter from Mr Justice Woulfe

Former Attorney General Séamus Woulfe is clinging on to his position on the Supreme Court.

In a defiant and lengthy letter to Chief Justice Frank Clarke, he set out in considerable detail why he does not believe his attendance at the ‘Golfgate’ dinner and his subsequent handling of the controversy is a resigning issue.

Mr Justice Clarke has no powers to remove Mr Justice Woulfe, but told him at a meeting last Thursday and in a subsequent letter the same day it was his “personal view” the judge should go, given what he described as the “irreparable damage” caused by the controversy.

Mr Justice Woulfe (58) was only appointed in July and has yet to hear a case in the highest court in the land.

The correspondence between the Chief Justice and Mr Justice Woulfe was discussed by the Cabinet today.

A Government spokesperson said: "The Attorney General outlined the serious constitutional issues that now arise and the respective responsibilities of each of the organs of the State as set out in the Constitution, including in particular the respective roles of the Judiciary and of the Oireachtas.

"The Members of the Government, who are also Members of the Oireachtas, are acutely aware of the sensitivity and seriousness of the issues and the need to ensure that the constitutional framework is fully respected by all concerned. This includes avoiding inappropriate public comment."

Sunday World Newsletter

Sign up for the latest news and updates

This field is required This field is required

The spokesperson added: "The Government agreed that it will continue to reflect on these issues."

Key points Mr Justice Woulfe made in defending his position

:: Full acceptance of Denham findings

Mr Justice Woulfe said he would like to apologise again for accepting the invitation to and attending the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner and that he fully accepted the opinions, reasons and recommendations set out in a report by former Chief Justice Susan Denham.

Her report said he should not have attended, but he had not broken the law and calls for his resignation were disproportionate.

“As a newly appointed judge of the Supreme Court, my ill-judged acceptance of the invitation, and subsequent attendance at the dinner, occasioned offence and hurt to the public and damage to the court and this is a cause of profound regret to me,” Mr Justice Woulfe said.

:: Willing to accept lesser sanctions than resignation

The Chief Justice outlined a range of sanctions he proposed for Mr Justice Woulfe before going on to express his personal view the judge should resign.

In response, Mr Justice Woulfe agreed to the lesser sanctions, a reprimand, not being assigned to cases until February 2021 and waiving or repaying his salary for three months.

But his acceptance of a reprimand appeared to be less than wholehearted.

“While I believe it is based on a misunderstanding to which I will refer further below,” he wrote, “I would accept the reprimand if that would ensure resolution of this matter.”

Mr Justice Woulfe said he proposed to volunteer his salary for the three months - around €69,000 before tax - to a charity. “I believe that to be unprecedented for any judge or, acknowledging the distinction, for any public servant in the history of the State,” he said.

Mr Justice Woulfe also said he would be “willing” to sit as a High Court Judge during the three month period to assist with any shortage of judges or case backlogs.

:: Perception rules were flouted is “incorrect”

In his letter to Mr Justice Woulfe, the Chief Justice said: “A judge should not attend any event which is organised in breach of the law or where there may be a reasonable public perception that this is so.”

In response, Mr Justice Woulfe said he had checked that the event, which took place on August 19 in Clifden, was compliant with Covid regulations and guidelines and that the perception he had deliberately flouted these was “incorrect”.

“However unintended, that perception has adversely affected the judiciary in general and the Supreme Court in particular. I am truly sorry for that and for my misjudgment as identified by Ms Justice Denham,” he wrote.

“My determination now is to work to help and cooperate with the Supreme Court in every way I can to remedy this matter insofar as possible.”

:: Chief Justice’s view ‘not correct’

Mr Justice Clarke expressed the view that the organisation of the dinner “did not comply with the objective of the regulations, which was to prevent large numbers of people from mingling together at social events”. He said Mr Justice Woulfe had concentrated on narrow and technical issues at the Denham review and there was “a perception that legal technicalities outweigh public health”.

Responding, Mr Justice Woulfe said: “With the greatest of respect, this does not correctly describe the event or the Government objectives at the time.

“In July and August, it appeared that the Covid pandemic was coming under control in Ireland and, with a view to re-opening the economy, the Government accelerated the planned phased relaxation of the Covid restrictions.”

He insisted the public policy statements from the Government at the time were to encourage people to resume attendance at social events within limits. A limit of 50 people was in place for indoor events at the time.

He went on to insisted the event, attended by 81 people, complied with the objectives of the regulations and the guidelines as “two dinners were held in two separate rooms with only 45 people in the room that I was in”.

“There was compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the Government guidelines,” he said.

“This is not a matter of being legalistic or technical about the issue.”

Mr Justice Woulfe also said he regretted if it appeared he had concentrated “narrow and technical issues”.

He said he had not sought to do so.

:: Unaware of new rules being announced

The Chief Justice referred to a decision announced by the Government on August 18, which was intended to reduce the numbers permitted at an indoor social event to six persons.

Mr Justice Woulfe said he agreed with the Chief Justice’s view that while the change had yet to gain the force of law, judges should nonetheless exercise a reasonable level of vigilance to comply with such an announcement.

“I was not aware that the Cabinet had made such an announcement the previous night and I was totally unaware of any proposed ‘rule of six’ when I attended the dinner. Thus, when you say that I failed to observe the principle that judges should comply with such Government guidelines, even if not a matter of law, I do not think it is fair to criticise me by saying I did not respect such guidelines in circumstances where I was simply not aware of the rule about six persons.”

:: Judicial independence

Mr Justice Woulfe said the fact the Chief Justice had expressed a personal view he should resign was “something of the utmost seriousness which I have to consider and reflect upon”

But he said this reflection was “not only from my own perspective, but from the perspective of the institution of the judiciary and the importance of the independence of each individual member of the judiciary. He said he had to consider, in particular, whether he should resign to avoid damage or further damage to the judiciary.

But he said he equally “had to consider the circumstances under which a judge should resign under pressure from a fellow judge or judges” and the implications a resignation in such circumstances would have for the independence of individual judges.

“I have, as you can imagine, thought very deeply about this and have taken extensive advice from a number of people,” he said.

“I have come to the conclusion that I should not resign.”

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices


Privacy