A Supreme Court judge has told the trial of four men accused of breaching Covid-19 regulations he had a "hazy, broad knowledge" of guidelines for the reopening of the hospitality sector.
Independent TD Noel Grealish and former Fianna Fáil senator Donie Cassidy, along with hoteliers John Sweeney and James Sweeney, each deny they organised an Oireachtas Golf Society event in breach of pandemic restrictions at the Station House Hotel in Clifden on August 19th,2020.
Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe, a former Attorney General, carried two full files under this left arm as he came into the courtroom and got into the witness box.
Judge Mary Fahy invited him to remove his mask before starting his evidence and advised him he should put it back on again when leaving the box.
Mr Justice Woulfe said he had first received an invitation from Senator Paul Coughlan to attend the Oireachtas golf outing in 2018 and while he could not attend that year, he did attend the function in 2019, again at the invitation of Senator Coughlan.
He described the Oireachtas Golf Society as a “very non-political” group which attracted members from all walks of life. “I believed it to be a pure social and recreational event,” he said. “I was given the impression it, (Golf Society) was a good way of breaking down any political relationships between people from all parties.”
In reply to Eoghan Cole BL, prosecuting, the judge said he was aware who was organising the event.
When he arrived on the first day he said he was met by Mr Cassidy, whom he described as “very much the leader, who was there to greet us.”
“Senator Coughlan could not be there and he arranged for Donie Cassidy to look after me. I think I was chatting with Deputy Noel Grealish at the desk as well,” Mr Justice Woulfe said.
He said he did not know if Deputy Grealish was club captain as he had never seen a list of the committee members. He said he was invited at the 2019 dinner to attend the 2020 event as it would be the 50th anniversary of the society.
He said he kept the event “very vaguely at the back of my head, as the one I had attended in 2019 had been great fun and they were all good people”.
He said he ‘bumped’ into Deputy Grealish by chance in the grounds at Leinster House in May 2020 and discussed the event with him then.
“Things were just beginning to open up - it was May or June,” he said.
He recalled being appointed to the Supreme Court in July and being occupied with that he had gone on holiday with his family in Donegal shortly after that.
He said he checked with Mr Coughlan again about the function and was assured everything would be fully Covid compliant.
He said his wife thought him “a bit mad”, for being willing to drive from Donegal to Clifden for the golf outing, but he felt the society was a very important one.
“It was revived at the time of the Arms Trial and helped ease tensions - that is what I was told. I rang Paul and he said he was delighted I could come,” Mr Justice Woulfe said.
He arrived in Clifden on the Wednesday and played just nine holes on the second day, as the weather turned nasty.
He had not been told anything about a formal dinner beforehand but recalled being handed a voucher for it when he registered his attendance with Mr Cassidy, which was the first indication to him that there would be “a group dinner”.
He said that triggered something in his head and he queried the Covid issue with Mr Coughlan.
Mr Cole asked the judge if he had any concerns about attending the dinner.
He said he had, as it was the first type of dinner he had attended.
“I spoke to Paul and he said something along the lines that the organiser, Donie Cassidy had consulted with the relevant people and the function was in line with the regulations.
He said he felt Mr Cassidy was very reputable and in fact, the dinner had been moved from its original venue at Ballyconneely Golf Clubhouse to the Station House Hotel, in order to comply with the Covid guidelines.
He said he was aware of the guidelines as drafted by civil servants in conjunction with Fáilte Ireland and the Dept of Tourism but he had never actually read the text of the guidelines at the time.
“While I had a hazy, broad knowledge of the guidelines, I didn’t see them until afterwards, as I didn’t see them in the office of the Attorney General, but I was aware in very broad terms that they allowed for the number of 50,” he said.
He recalled that before travelling from his hotel in Donegal the previous day, he had seen groups of up to 50 people in several rooms in that hotel.
In reply to Mr Cole, he said he had arrangements with other golfers from this four-ball to have a pre-dinner drink in the hotel bar, but only one person turned up. He recognised then other golfers in the bar.
He said he got the impression it would be a very small number of people would be at the dinner.
“I had my back to the retractable partition wall at the top of the room at a table for eight and I was not immediately aware that it had been open at any point.
He said he had not focused on many things that night.
“When you are the Attorney General you get invited to a lot of dinners and you become immune. You are ‘wheeled in and wheeled out’ and I remember I was tired from the journey the day before.
He did not recall seeing there was bar service but remembered staff brought food and drink to the table.
Afterwards, around 11pm he went out to the lobby and had a drink in the bar with one of the people who had been at his table and with another person who had been at another table at the function earlier. He said he could not recall if there were other people from the dinner there.
He said was not aware of any breaches to the Covid regulations and confirmed again he had been given assurances the event was fully compliant with the regulations.
In reply to Colm Smyth SC, for Mr Cassidy, Mr Justice Woulfe agreed there was an attempt to get businesses back open and running again.
“There was a great concern could the country pay the cost of people being locked-down and not working. When he got past the restrictions in May, we were well into re-opening and the mood in July was that Covid was going away and restrictions were being lifted and level 5 restrictions were being lifted at the end of June,” the judge observed.
He agreed with Mr Smyth there were layers of legislation at the time.
“Every time Nphet suggested lifting or changing the regulations, the Government would be over to the Attorney General’s office to draft the legislation, the regulations and I have to compliment the staff who sometimes worked over the weekend to complete that work,” he said.
“There were regulations to cover all aspects of life in the country and it was impossible,” he added.
Mr Justice Woulfe then opened one of his files and took out list of the statutory instruments governing the implementation of the restrictions. He went though each in turn, explaining their role. Instrument S1234 referred, he said, to the ‘50 people’ rule.
Mr Smyth said at the time of this function, the permitted number was 50 people (allowed attend one indoor function).
The judge said “there was some ambiguity about the 50 number and queries were coming in about what was wanted in the regulations at the time”.
The trial continues.