Miriam Lord: Winston Churchtown missing in action

Shane Ross not present for Leaders’ Questions as Varadkar and Martin manoeuvre

Minister for Transport Shane Ross. The judicial appointments reform legislation is widely seen as his pet project. Photograph: Alan Betson

Minister for Transport Shane Ross. The judicial appointments reform legislation is widely seen as his pet project. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Just as well Donald Trump wasn’t trying to call the Taoiseach last Sunday night.

He wouldn’t have had a hope in hell of getting through to Leo Varadkar, who appears to have been on the phone non-stop, making and taking calls about judges and what his Government is going to do about them.

He mentioned one particular judge yesterday – no lesser a personage than Susan Denham, the Chief Justice, whose professional honour Fianna Fáil was particularly keen to defend. The party was not alone in this endeavour.

On radio, former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness described the plan to appoint a non-legal chairperson to the body advising on judicial appointments as nothing short of “a deliberate kick in the teeth” for the Chief Justice. McGuinness was not alone in her criticism of the reform legislation, which is widely seen as Independent Minister Shane Ross’s pet project.

The Bill is before the Dáil this week and, somewhere behind the scenes, Ross, aka Winston Churchtown, is doing all in his power to push it through.

A heavy rustle of silks – serving and retired – mobilised across the airwaves and in the popular prints in a last-ditch attempt to dissuade the Cabinet from proceeding. But as Sinn Féin signalled it would be holding its nose and voting to reform the judicial appointment process, it looks like the Government should have the requisite numbers to win the day.

Sinn Féin combine with Fine Gael to deny Fianna Fáil? The wor-ild is gone mad.

But the final result is not in the bag while a Seanad majority remains in the balance.

Despite reports that Fine Gael is reluctantly pushing the measures because it’s the only way to placate Ross, Varadkar owned the legislation on behalf of the Government when Micheál Martin urged him to reconsider.

Appalled

As for disrespecting Denham, Varadkar was appalled at the very suggestion. “I’ve known the current Chief Justice since I was teenager,” revealed our well-connected Taoiseach.

It’s not clear if they had a tête-à-tête about the situation on the telephone last Sunday, but Martin was definitely on the blower to him, as we know. And under questioning from Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald yesterday, Leo told us he had spoken twice to Winston Churchtown, whose dearest wish is to let the commoners have their say in who sits on the bench.

The fact that he is causing a right old rumpus among the Rumpoles will do him no harm with his voters in Dublin Rathdown. Judges are an easy target. This explains why Fine Gael will have such strange bedfellows in the chamber when the time to vote eventually arrives.

Winston Churchtown wasn’t even present for Leaders’ Questions when the issue was ventilated. Then again, why break the habits of a ministerial lifetime? Finian McGrath, his ever loyal retainer, along with the faithful Boxer Moran, held a watching brief for the Independent Alliance.

When Micheál incredulously observed that the Government nearly collapsed last weekend because the Minister for Transport threatened to bring it down if it ditched his Bill, the two Ministers of State chuckled away.

Leo scribbled a few notes as the Fianna Fáil leader spoke. He replied without having recourse to a typed script – a novel development from the new Taoiseach.

He stressed that, while he has respect for judges and respect for the separation of powers, this does not prevent him from carrying out reforms to the way judges are appointed. He gave examples of how “lay” people are routinely involved now in the selection of top appointees in the public service and private sector.

This is how things are done “in the modern world” he told Micheál. Not once, but twice.

“Hear! Hear!” cried Finian, who plays a guitar and sings ballads and likes to think he is hip and down with the kids.

The veteran Fianna Fáil leader seemed slightly stung. He told young Leo he has not time for “empty phrases like ‘the modern way’. They mean nothing.”

The Taoiseach is a bit of a cheeky pup.

The exchanges between Varadkar and Martin were much even-tempered than last week’s engagement. Micheál seems to have come to terms with having a new sparring partner in the Dáil.

Still, Leo was rubbing the age thing in a little too much.

“In the old days civil servants may have selected secretary-generals from among themselves. In the modern world of selecting people to appointments it does not happen that way,” he said at one point.

Later in the afternoon, McDonald, who is standing in a lot for Gerry Adams these days, returned to the judicial appointments question.

She asked Leo straight out: “Is it true that Shane Ross threatened to pull the plug on your administration? Is it true that he threatened to pull the plug unless you guaranteed him that the judicial appointments legislation was gotten through the Oireachtas before the House rose for the summer?”

She was also curious to know if Leo had promised to get Winston Churchtown’s Bill over the line in return for him not blocking Máire Whelan’s appointment to the Court of Appeal.

And was there any chance of an answer in “plain language?”

The Taoiseach answered in plain language, but there was much to read between the lines.

Phone call

He speaks to his Ministers regularly. In fact, himself and Winston had a chin-wag on the phone “just last night” and they chatted at Cabinet yesterday morning.

There were two calls on Sunday, but the Minister for Transport never threatened to walk, insisted Leo. Of course, there may have been stuff in the newspapers and maybe Winston “was in conversation with other people or other Ministers” but didn’t threaten anything to him.

Then the Taoiseach decided to explained the nomination process for judges in some detail.

“I didn’t ask for that,” said Mary Lou, tartly. She had already noted his description of what happened on Sunday.

Going by Leo’s account, she surmised that the threat wasn’t made directly to the Taoiseach but to somebody else in Cabinet.

Leo stammered about only knowing what was in the papers. “Certainly, no threat was made to me,” he said of “that particular Sunday”.

Did he not think of asking any colleagues about these reported threats from Shane Ross, aka Winston?

“Eh, deputy, I would, I would, I would have no . . . if I had to ascertain with Government Ministers about every piece of gossip that appears in the newspaper, I would have no time to get any work done.”

Mary Lou was unconvinced. She’s know what politicians are like.

“It’s a rather stand-out piece of gossip?”

Leo shrugged. “There are 20 things every day if you actually read the papers.”

Which the modern people aren’t supposed to do any more.

We weren’t convinced either.

Winston Churchtown must be a hard man to negotiate.