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dail quiz Tánaiste told Justice Minister that Woulfe ‘would make a good judge’, Dáil hears

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Minister Helen McEntee

Minister Helen McEntee

Minister Helen McEntee

JUSTICE Minister Helen McEntee's party leader Leo Varadkar told her Séamus Woulfe “would make a good judge”, long before she brought that sole name to Cabinet for confirmation to the Supreme Court, the Dáil has heard.

Ms McEntee said she did not tell Mr Varadkar there were five other expressions of interest from sitting judges. Previously it was thought there were only three other applications.

She told the Dáil that after Mr Varadkar made his observation a few days before July 6, “of course I took that on board”.

The Minister was answering questions on the appointment of the former Attorney General, who was later embroiled in ‘Golfgate’, with calls for his resignation from the Supreme Court, to which he was appointed in July.

She was a new minister and “it was a huge decision to make”, she said, adding that she had carefully considered every name available to her.

She did not discuss the job with Mr Woulfe or with her predecessor, Charlie Flanagan, before bringing forward her sole recommendation to Cabinet, she said.

Ms McEntee said she took it on herself to bring the name of Mr Woulfe as a recommendation to Cabinet – a position branded “absurd” in the Dáil.

Ms McEntee told the Dáil: “I informed the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, Minister [Eamon] Ryan and the Attorney General of my intention to propose Séamus Woulfe for the position.”

Former Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin branded this position “incredible” and “absurd”, given that she had only been promoted to Minister for Justice three weeks earlier – and had not consulted Coalition party leaders.

He said it was never the sole or exclusive right of a justice minister to determine a judge on their own. In past governments of his experience, the names of all suitable candidates were circulated and considered by the leaders of each party in government, he said.

“Your position, minister, is that this process was set aside that you alone made the decision, and then presented that decision to the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister Ryan as a done deal, as well as their advisers and party managers.

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“They simply nodded through your personal choice. From a decade’s experience in three governments, I find that position absurd.”

What was undermining her position was the attempted “maintenance of the unbelievable”. He said: “That you would take it upon yourself without discussing the implications of that action, without consulting the leader of your own party, the leaders of other parties, and for Constitutional reasons, the Taoiseach.

“It simply doesn’t bear credibility. As Richard Nixon discovered, it isn’t the action, but the strain involved, for anyone who knows the process, that isn’t credible.”

Ms McEntee said her recommendation was in line with that of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB), which is chaired by the Chief Justice, Frank Clarke, and includes the presidents of the four other courts.

She said there was a motion of impeachment of Mr Woulfe on the order paper for next week, which “makes it all the more important that everyone in this House today is mindful of our responsibilities”.

“Serving judges are not currently required to apply to the JAAB,” Ms McEntee said. She added later: “Whether or not existing judges put forward expressions of interest is a confidential matter for obvious reasons. It is not the practice to release information that might identify any of those judges.

“The practice in relation to appointments… 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.”

This was because “an open debate on the merits or otherwise of sitting judges would amount to a complete politicisation of the judicial appointments process”, she claimed.

“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.”

Solidarity/People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith referred to this statement in her later contribution to the debate, telling the minister: “I was in knots of laughing when you said that.”

She called on people with misgivings about Mr Woulfe’s appointment to support her party’s motion for impeachment next week.

Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny said it was “baffling” that the names of three other applicants would not even be discussed within Government. He said miraculously only the name of a Fine Gael activist had been brought to Cabinet, “one of Leo’s cronies,” as a done deal.

“This was a Fine Gael appointment. It was boxed-off long before you signed off on it,” he told the minister.

His SF colleague Matt Carthy said it was the case that two Fine Gael ministers within weeks had to be “dragged kicking and screaming into the Dáil” to be held accountable.

The Woulfe appointment was “an old-fashioned political stroke”, he said. “Everyone knows it’s a shady deal. It stinks.”

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