Five out of six judges appointed have connections to Fine Gael or Labour


JUDICIARY:THE GOVERNMENT has nominated six judges to date – and five have a personal, family or funding link to Fine Gael or Labour.

Last month, the Government nominated Judge Michael White, a former Workers’ Party election candidate, to the High Court. Judge White was promoted from the Circuit Court, to which he was appointed by the last Coalition government in 1996.

In the Workers’ Party, part of which morphed into Democratic Left and later merged with Labour, Judge White was a colleague of Labour leader Eamon Gilmore.

The other appointee, Kevin Cross, a son-in-law of former Fine Gael minister Patrick Lindsay, made a political donation of €1,200 to Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton before February’s general election. High Court judges earn €243,000 a year but this will fall shortly to €187,000 on foot of the “Yes” vote in the referendum on judicial pay.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter professed himself appalled at the way the party connections of the two appointees were highlighted in the media, rightly pointing out that there was nothing to suggest the appointments were made on any criterion other than merit. Both men are regarded as being exceptionally well-qualified for the positions to which they have been appointed.

Mr Shatter had already vented his fury last June when it emerged that the Government’s appointee as a liaison for whistleblowers in An Garda Síochána, barrister Oliver Connolly, had donated €1,000 to his election campaign in 2007. Mr Connolly is the founder of Friary Law, which has developed a family mediation model together with Mr Shatter, a solicitor and expert in family law.

Mr Shatter said Mr Connolly’s donation had “no connection” with the Cabinet’s appointment. “Nobody has ever suggested that an individual who contributes to democratic politics in this country should be discriminated against, pilloried and excluded from ever being appointed to any body whatsoever.” The part-time post of “confidential recipient” for complaints from gardaí about corruption in the force pays €12,500 a year.

Last week, the Government appointed a further three judges to the Bench, this time in the District Court. Solicitor Michael Coghlan was an election agent for Labour MEP Nessa Childers in the 2009 European elections. Patrick Durcan was Fine Gael Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald’s nominee in the Seanad in the 1980s and a former running-mate of Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Gráinne Malone is a sister of Labour councillor Emer Malone (wife of Labour TD Joe Costello) and sister of Mary Moran, who was nominated to the Seanad this year by Labour leader Eamon Gilmore.

District Court judges earn €148,000 a year but this will fall shortly to €124,000.

Applications for judicial vacancies are assessed by the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, which presents government with a shortlist of suitable candidates. The actual appointments are made by the president. The idea is to take sole discretion for appointments away from government.

The board does not interview applicants or seek out suitable candidates; it has the power to do so but cites “practical difficulties” preventing this. Effectively, therefore, it screens for suitability and competence but does not rate candidates according to merit. As a result, the seven-name “shortlist” it passes to government gives politicians plenty of freedom to plump for party supporters if they wish to.

Indeed, the government is free to ignore the names on the shortlist and offer a post to someone else, provided it advertises this fact in the official State publication, Iris Oifigiúil.

In May, the Taoiseach pledged he would not use “political bias” in the appointment of personnel to the advisory board. The following month, Mr Shatter appointed three new lay members of the 10- person body, including Karen Dent, an accountant who is a long-time Fine Gael activist in Mr Shatter’s constituency, and Dr Valerie Bresnihan, an independent NUI Seanad candidate in 2002 and 2007 who was a member of the Labour party in the 1990s.

All the evidence is that political party affiliation does not play a decisive part in decision-making once judges are appointed, and it’s worth pointing out that the calibre of Irish judges is generally very high. However, Mr Shatter has ordered a review of the system of judicial appointments.