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Government acted appropriately during Woulfe process, justice minister says

The need to ensure and protect the principle of judicial independence was a significant factor in the consultations process, Helen McEntee added.

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The Government acted appropriately throughout the Seamus Woulfe appointment process, justice minister Helen McEntee said (Niall Carson/PA)

The Government acted appropriately throughout the Seamus Woulfe appointment process, justice minister Helen McEntee said (Niall Carson/PA)

The Government acted appropriately throughout the Seamus Woulfe appointment process, justice minister Helen McEntee said (Niall Carson/PA)

The Government acted “appropriately” throughout the Seamus Woulfe appointment process, justice minister Helen McEntee has said.

The need to ensure and protect the principle of judicial independence was a significant factor in the consultations process, she added.

The Supreme Court judge attended the “golfgate” event in Clifden, Co Galway, in August when members of the Oireachtas golf society gathered for a dinner organised in variance with Covid-19 rules.

He refused to resign over his handling of the incident despite a call from chief justice Frank Clarke to quit.

It is a solemn duty on the part of the minister for justice to propose to Cabinet someone who, in the opinion of the minister, is the best person for the particular judicial vacancyHelen McEntee, justice minister

Ms McEntee said: “This Government has acted appropriately at all times through the current process, which we stand over, having adhered to the process and to the law.”

Former attorney general Mr Justice Woulfe’s name was the only one she put forward to the Taoiseach, Tanaiste and Green Party leader for approval in the summer, only three weeks after being appointed as minister.

He was proposed to the minister by the independent Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB), which assessed him as being suitable for the job, while several other judges registered expressions of interest through the attorney general’s office.

Ms McEntee told the Dail: “The practice in relation to appointments or nominations to positions made by Government is that only one name is brought to Cabinet by the proposing minister.

“I believe that this practice is particularly important in relation to judicial appointments, as an open debate on the merits or otherwise of sitting judges, as well as others who have been nominated by the JAAB, would amount to a complete politicisation of the judicial appointments process, when one of the very great strengths of the Irish judiciary has been its non-political character and independence, unlike what we see in many other countries.

“It is a solemn duty on the part of the minister for justice to propose to Cabinet someone who, in the opinion of the minister, is the best person for the particular judicial vacancy.

“The Government then decides. That is exactly what has happened in this case.”

She admitted the judicial appointments process needed to be reformed because it was “not as good as it should be”, adding that she intended on overhauling the system quickly.

So much of your story just doesn't add up, ministerMartin Kenny, Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein’s Martin Kenny said “any reasonable person” would have expected Ms McEntee to come before the Dail and explain how four names were whittled down to one, but she had not done that.

“You didn’t tell the Taoiseach there were other applicants,” he said. “Why was the Fianna Fail leader kept in the dark in regard to this when your own party leader and others were aware of other applicants? So much of your story just doesn’t add up, minister.”

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He added: “I find it absolutely baffling that the names (of other applicants) would not be discussed and the suitability of those to be appointed would not be discussed by you as senior minister with the party leaders in government.”

Sinn Fein’s Matt Carthy claimed Fine Gael had a “problem with cronyism”.

“This was an old-fashioned political stroke, it’s as simple as that,” he said, adding “everybody knows that this was a shady deal. They know that it stinks”.

Few appointments receive greater scrutiny than the appointment of senior judges, so much so in fact that one government fell in 1994 on the basis of lack of cross-party agreementBrendan Howlin, Labour

He added: “There was no process. The dogs on the street know that. The reasons why the minister can’t explain how she whittled four names down to one is because she didn’t.

“It wasn’t even as crass as eeny-meeny-miny-moe. This was eeny-eeny-eeny-Woulfe.”

Labour’s Brendan Howlin told the Dail that in his experience, the appointment of senior judges always drew scrutiny.

“Few appointments receive greater scrutiny than the appointment of senior judges, so much so in fact that one government fell in 1994 on the basis of lack of cross-party agreement,” he said.

“While it is correct to say that the Minister of Justice proposes one name to Government for appointment, it was never the sole or exclusive right of that minister to determine on their own who should be nominated.”

He added that it appeared to him that Ms McEntee alone made the decision and that she presented the name of Seamus Woulfe as a “done deal”.

Brid Smith, of Solidarity-PBP, said she believed Ms McEntee had used the vacancy to appoint a “politically-connected person” and that there was “no such thing as the separation of powers”.

She appealed to TDs to support her party’s motion to remove Justice Seamus Woulfe from the Supreme Court.

The system is what the system is. It's not perfectHelen McEntee

Later, Ms McEntee said she had a “conversation informally” with Mr Varadkar, before making a formal recommendation to Cabinet, where the Tanaiste “gave the view that Seamus Woulfe would be a good judge”.

“He (Mr Varadkar) gave his view and made his opinion. Following that, after I received other names I looked at those names. It is my role as Minister of Justice to make a recommendation.  I made that recommendation to the Taoiseach, Tanaiste, Minister Ryan and the AG.”

She said it was at that point that she made a recommendation to Cabinet.”

She insisted that the Cabinet handbook does not require her to collaborate with other ministers in choosing nominees before making a proposal to Cabinet.

Asked by Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy what criteria she used to make her decision, Ms McEntee replied: “There is no specific criteria for me. I do not have a list, I do not have boxes that I tick. It’s not given to me, I have to use my own judgment.”

She added: “The system is what the system is. It’s not perfect.”

The Justice Minister also clarified to the Dail that there were five expressions of interest in the role in addition to the JAAB recommendation.

“It is a very sensitive process, it is a very confidential process, so no, I did not speak to officials or anyone else about that,” she said.

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