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'irreparable damage' Chief Justice tells Seamus Woulfe he should resign, but judge refuses to go

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Seamus Woulfe (Niall Carson/PA)

Seamus Woulfe (Niall Carson/PA)

Seamus Woulfe (Niall Carson/PA)

Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe has refused to step down over the ‘Golfgate’ controversy – despite being strongly urged to do so by Chief Frank Clarke.

In an extraordinary exchange of letters, Mr Justice Clarke said it was his “personal view” his embattled colleague should resign due to “irreparable damage” done to the court.

But in response to points raised by the Chief Justice, Mr Justice Woulfe said: “I cannot see how any of this is a basis upon which I should resign.”

The former attorney general said he would accept lesser sanctions detailed by the Chief Justice, including having to issue a further apology, not sitting for three months and foregoing his salary for that period.

But he flatly refused to step down from his €208,000-a-year job, launching a defiant and lengthy defence of his position.

In a response running to almost 6,000 words, he repeatedly sought to justify his position and reiterated his view the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner was not held in breach of Covid-19 regulations.

The unprecedented impasse has plunged the operation of the Supreme Court into crisis.

In a letter last week, Mr Justice Clarke told Mr Justice Woulfe it was the unanimous view of all members of the court that “very significant and irreparable damage” had been done by the affair.

The damage, he said, was “both to the court and to the relationship within the court which is essential to the proper functioning of a collegiate court”.

The Chief Justice said it was not part of his role to ask, let alone tell, Mr Justice Woulfe to resign because resignation could only be a matter for a judge themselves.

“Regrettably, however, I believe that I should make clear my personal opinion that, to avoid continuing serious damage to the judiciary, you should resign,” Mr Justice Clarke wrote.

The letter and a further exchange of correspondence between the two judges were released by Mr Justice Clarke last night.

Mr Justice Woulfe was one of 81 people to attend the golf society dinner in Clifden, Co Galway on August 19. Covid-19 restrictions meant indoor gatherings were limited to a maximum of 50 people.

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In the resulting furore, high-profile attendees EU Commissioner Phil Hogan and Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary resigned their positions.

Although he issued an apology, Mr Justice Woulfe (58) rejected suggestions he too should step down.

A review by former Chief Justice Susan Denham found he had broken no laws but should not have gone to the dinner and had failed to reflect on whether his attendance might cause controversy and bring the court into disrepute.

She said he had done nothing that would justify calls for his resignation and recommended the matter be dealt with by the Chief Justice by way of “informal resolution”.

Her recommendation did not draw a line under the matter.

A transcript of his interview for the review revealed he sought to blame the media and politicians for the controversy, raising further questions over his judgment.

“The manner in which you have met this problem has, in my view, added very substantially to the damage caused to the court, the judiciary generally and thus to the administration of justice,” Mr Justice Clarke wrote.

“I should say that the reasonable response of a great number of people to the transcripts has, in my judgment, caused even greater damage to the judiciary than did your attendance at the Clifden event.”

He said Mr Justice Woulfe had concentrated on narrow and technical issues “rather than recognising the serious public concern and the consequent damage to the court”.

The Chief Justice said “further serious issues” arose out of the transcript and correspondence between the two men after the report was delivered.

“That account appeared to show that you did not appreciate the genuine public concern about the event and your attendance at it, but rather continued to put the controversy down to a media frenzy,” Mr Justice Clarke said.

“Indeed, your statement that you did not understand what you were apologising for at the time when you issued your limited apology would now significantly devalue any further apology. There would be legitimate public scepticism about the genuineness of any such apology.”

The Chief Justice said Mr Justice Woulfe had commented adversely on the government’s management of the pandemic crisis and made remarks critical of the Taoiseach and many other office holders. The tone and content of these remarks created further genuine controversy, he said.

“It is a longstanding and important aspect of the reciprocal respect due by the institutions of the State to each other that judges do not engage in or give rise to matters of controversy most particularly involving the other branches.”

The Chief Justice also said Mr Justice Woulfe had suggested “inappropriate behaviour” by three judges who met with him to discuss the controversy and had not withdrawn this when challenged.

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