Donal O’Donnell: Intellectual heavyweight and innovator

Second most senior member of Supreme Court seen as socially liberal and elegant writer

The second most senior member of the current Supreme Court, after Chief Justice Susan Denham, Donal O'Donnell was regarded as the leading constitutional lawyer in the country by the time he was appointed directly from the Bar to the Supreme Court in 2010 – an honour given to just a handful of lawyers since the foundation of the State.

Born in Belfast and educated at UCD, O'Donnell represented the State in some of the biggest constitutional cases of his time at the law library. But he also had notable successes against the State, including in the Abbeylara case on Oireachtas inquiries. He has no party political connections and, as he turns 60 this year, would be in a position to serve a full seven-year term as chief justice.

He is married to the artist Mary Rose Binchy.

As a judge, O’Donnell is seen as an intellectual heavyweight. He has a reputation for sharp reasoning, elegant writing and a willingness to innovate. He wrote the lead judgment in the court’s recent unanimous decision that the absolute ban on asylum seekers taking paid work was unconstitutional.


Yet, in a departure, the court delayed the activation of that decision for six months, giving the Government a chance to work out a response. Judges often baulk at pressing the nuclear button of a declaration of unconstitutionality out of fear of unintended consequences. This suggested the judiciary was trying to find a new, more pragmatic approach.

Socially liberal

O'Donnell's grandfather was a supporter of James Connolly, and his father Turlough, who became a judge of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland, was previously involved in the civil rights movement.

Like Frank Clarke, O'Donnell is seen as socially liberal, and the two men have staked out similar positions on many important issues.

In the Callely case, in which the Seanad successfully appealed a High Court finding in favour of former Senator Ivor Callely over his expenses, O'Donnell and Clarke took the unusual step of writing a joint judgment. In it, they in effect argued that while it was the role of judges to adjudicate on individuals' rights, it was in the interests of democracy to give the Oireachtas a certain amount of leeway to act in its sphere.

Whereas some judges pride themselves on projecting a sense of absolute certainty, O’Donnell’s judgments are striking for his willingness to be up front about the fine calls involved in many of the court’s decisions. His writing is sprinkled with markers for the future, but also with intriguing asides. His reflection on the nature of sport, contained in a relatively obscure 2015 judgment about horse-racing regulation, could make an anthology of the best of Irish sportswriting.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is the Editor of The Irish Times