Constitutional and political crisis over Woulfe deepens as leaders to meet again

Opposition leaders to seek independent legal advice and full documentation on controversy

Chief Justice Frank Clarke listens to the then attorney general Séamus Woulfe at an event in Dublin. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Chief Justice Frank Clarke listens to the then attorney general Séamus Woulfe at an event in Dublin. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

Leaders of Government and Opposition parties will meet early next week in an effort to resolve the deepening political and Constitutional crisis surrounding Supreme Court justice, Séamus Woulfe.

A meeting between the Taoiseach and leaders of all parties and groupings on Friday afternoon finished inconclusively, with no certainty or agreement if triggering an impeachment process to remove Mr Justice Woulfe would be appropriate or proportionate.

Opposition leaders leaving the meeting in Government Buildings said they will now seek independent legal advice and also full documentation on the controversy, including all the correspondence between Mr Justice Woulfe and Chief Justice Frank Clarke. The Chief Justice told the former attorney general it was his opinion that he should resign from the court.

The meeting convened by Mr Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party Leader Eamon Ryan lasted for two hours.

Labour leader Alan Kelly said the outcome of the meeting had been inconclusive and Opposition leaders would need to get their own advice. He said another meeting would be required early next week as it was now urgent and the “clock had started ticking” on the impasse.

It is understood the Taoiseach gave an undertaking to gather all the relevant documentation surrounding the episode. Mr Justice Clarke has asserted that the manner in which Mr Woulfe has handled his attendance at a golf dinner in Clifden during the summer has damaged the reputation and the authority of the Supreme Court.

“We have only got partial disclosure and partial documentation from Justice Woulfe and Chief Justice Clarke. We want the full documentation,” said Mr Kelly.

He also said that impeachment under Article 35.4 of the Constitution was only one of several options open to the Oireachtas. He added that doing nothing was also an option as it would pass responsibility for the matter back to the judiciary.

The sense of urgency was stressed at the meeting. A motion under Article 35.4 can be tabled by any Oireachtas member. Richard Boyd-Barrett of Solidarity-People Before Profit confirmed his alliance may consider putting forward such a motion. If that occurs, the Houses must act quickly and deal with it within five working days.

Expressed interest

Mr Kelly was one of a number of leaders who also brought up the disclosure that other judges had expressed interest in the vacant position on the Supreme Court but that information had not been conveyed to the Taoiseach by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, or the Tánaiste.

In a statement, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said this raised serious questions which needed to be answered by the Government.

The three Government leaders were very cautious in their approach to the meeting, according to others in attendance, and had not pushed any particular standpoint, view or possible solution.

Social Democrats co-leader CatherineMurphy said it was obvious that the Oireachtas needs its own independent legal advice. She said she was yet to be convinced that impeachment was an option. “I think you have got to set the bar high in relation to impeachments. I’m still not convinced that the bar is high enough in this particular case,” she said.

Mattie McGrath of the Rural Independents said he thought it “bizarre” that Mr Justice Clarke was chair of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) which recommended Mr Woulfe. He said he was opposed to impeachment.

Controversy also arose about the appointment of former attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal in 2016. Mr Martin in a Dáil debate in 2017 described it as an “insider appointment” and “squalid”. He said nobody was told in 2016 three High Court judges had applied. Government sources dismissed contentions of Mr Martin holding different positions then and now, saying Mr Woulfe had gone through the JAAB process, and Ms Whelan had not.

The Taoiseach also confirmed he was told a few days after the Programme for Government was agreed, but before the Government was formed, that Mr Woulfe had come through the JAAB process. It is understood the Green Party was informed at the same time.