Party leaders fail to reach resolution on Seamus Woulfe controversy

Taoiseach Micheal Martin briefed opposition leaders on Friday afternoon.
Seamus Woulfe

Seamus Woulfe

By Michelle Devane and Cate McCurry, PA

Party leaders have failed to reach a consensus on how to proceed over the controversy surrounding Supreme Court Justice Seamus Woulfe.

The Taoiseach held a meeting with opposition leaders on Friday afternoon to “get a sense” of how they viewed the matter.

The Irish Government received legal advice after the Chief Justice said the judge should resign over his attendance at a controversial golf dinner in Galway.

The Government reviewed the correspondence between Mr Justice Frank Clarke and Mr Justice Woulfe, which was published on Monday.

Speaking after the meeting the opposition leaders said they did not come to a resolution.

Labour leader Alan Kelly said it was a “very open” meeting but that it did not have Attorney General advice so the opposition would have to seek their own legal advice.

He said there had been partial documentation from Mr Justice Seamus Woulfe, but that full documentation was needed.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Martin described the meeting as “an airing of views” and “quite informal”.

She added that the Government was not suggesting a solution to the impasse at the meeting.

“There’s a bit to go in this process before we find a conclusion,” she said.

“I’m not convinced the conclusion is in Leinster House.”

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said the Government was being “quite cautious” but they recognised there was a problem.

“They’re not quite sure from a legal point of view what they can do,” he said.

“I think there is a concern that an impeachment process is a long drawn out process.”

Mr Boyd Barrett added: “It’s just basically a bad distraction that will undermine the public health effort and has caused a general legal political and constitutional mess and I think he should acknowledge that and step back.”

Earlier Micheal Martin described the crisis surrounding the embattled Supreme Court judge as “grave and serious”.

The Taoiseach would not confirm whether impeachment proceedings will be brought before the Houses of the Oireachtas to deal with the controversy.

There’s a reluctance for the political system to embroil itself in the judicial arm of the State

Micheal Martin

“I have to be extremely careful about what I say because if a motion of impeachment were to happen, I would be juror in that as an individual member (of the Oireachtas),” he told RTE.

“It is very serious, it’s grave.

“The separation of powers is something I hold very dearly and it’s a crucial part of our democracy.

“There’s a reluctance for the political system to embroil itself in the judicial arm of the State.”

He said the matter will be decided by the Oireachtas.

During a meeting the Chief Justice told the judge he should resign, a position he then repeated in correspondence between them.

The Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail warned TDs this week about making any comments about the controversy, over concerns it could be viewed as bias.

Former attorney general Seamus Woulfe (Niall Carson/PA)

Former attorney general Seamus Woulfe (Niall Carson/PA)

Attorney General Paul Gallagher outlined “serious constitutional issues” arising out of the controversy to Cabinet members.

Meanwhile, Mr Martin said he was not told that a number of other judges had written to the Government expressing an interest to fill the seat on the Supreme Court before Justice Woulfe’s appointment.

It was reported by the Irish Times that senior judges has expressed an interest in the role, however the Cabinet was not made aware.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee put forward Mr Woulfe’s name to Cabinet in July.

“As far as I am concerned the appointment of judges should not be for political negotiation,” Mr Martin added.

He added that the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) put forward Mr Woulfe’s name.

Labour leader Alan Kelly said the decision to appoint Mr Woulfe raises many questions.

“It’s quite obvious that the Cabinet, and remember this is a Cabinet decision, this is not a minister for justice decision, that Cabinet members were not informed of the fact that other judges, three other judges had applied for this position. We consider that to be a very serious issue,” he said.

“The fact that Fianna Fail and the Taoiseach are on record, according to the paper, [The Irish Times] that they were not informed either that there were other applicants, we find to be a really serious issue.”

A spokesman for the Justice Minister Helen McEntee said the Chief Justice wrote to her predecessor Charlie Flanagan in February requesting that the Supreme Court vacancy be filled and that Mr Flanagan asked the JAAB, which is chaired by the Chief Justice, to request a list of suitable candidates for this vacancy.

“JAAB decided to recommend one candidate, Séamus Woulfe, whom it considered suitable for appointment to the Supreme Court,” the spokesman said.

“As is standard practice with judicial appointments, the Minister for Justice, having considered expressions of interest from serving members of the judiciary; other judges eligible for the position; and the recommendation of JAAB, then recommended a name to Cabinet in line with the recommendation of JAAB.”

“The Minister brought a memorandum for the Government’s consideration to Cabinet on July 15 last.

“The Government decided to nominate Seamus Woulfe for appointment by the President to the Supreme Court.”

The spokesman added that 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.

Article 35.4 of the Constitution of Ireland says that a judge of the Supreme Court or the High Court shall not be removed from office except for “stated misbehaviour” or incapacity, and only upon resolutions passed by the Dail and by the Seanad calling for his removal.

However the Article does not set out the process by which the Oireachtas can pass the resolution.

Mr Justice Woulfe, a former attorney general who was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court in July, faced criticism after it emerged he was among 81 guests who attended the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in August.

The chief justice met Mr Justice Woulfe last week as part of a resolution process emanating from a report investigating Mr Justice Woulfe’s decision to attend the golf event amid coronavirus guidance against large indoor gatherings.

In a letter to Mr Justice Woulfe, Mr Justice Clarke outlined his concerns over how the judge has handled the incident.

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