Donal O’Donnell to become next chief justice after Ministers approve his nomination

Supreme Court judge was expected to be selected to replace outgoing Chief Justice Frank Clarke

Supreme Court judge Donal O'Donnell (63) has been approved by the Government for nomination as the State's next chief justice.

Mr Justice O’Donnell is regarded as one of the intellectual heavyweights of the court and was expected to be selected to replace outgoing Chief Justice Frank Clarke, who will retire in October when he reaches the age of 70.

Mr Justice O’Donnell was appointed straight from practice to the State’s top court in 2010, which is a highly-unusual step but one which created little controversy because of the widespread admiration for the lawyer’s ability.

The late Adrian Hardiman, who was also a judge of the Supreme Court, was likewise appointed straight to the top court, in 2000, despite having never served as a judge.


More recently, the appointment of the former attorney general Séamus Woulfe to membership of the court as his first judicial appointment was the subject of controversy.

‘Golfgate’ dinner

Shortly after the appointment, one of the most significant controversies ever to hit the judiciary arose when there were calls for Mr Justice Woulfe’s resignation because of his attendance at the so-called “golfgate” dinner in Clifden.

Mr Justice Woulfe resisted calls for his resignation, including the suggestion by Chief Justice Clarke that he should resign.

During the controversy a delegation from the court that included Mr Justice O’Donnell met Mr Justice Woulfe to discuss the crisis.

In subsequent email correspondence with Chief Justice Clarke, Mr Justice Woulfe referred to the meeting, saying “the content and tone of what was laid out for me by my three colleagues with whom I met on Friday, and indeed their collective demeanour, was unexpected, upsetting and traumatic, and has added very significantly to an already stressful situation.”

Mr Justice O’Donnell was born in Belfast where his father, the late Turlough O’Donnell, was a senior judge and one of the few Catholic judges of his generation in Northern Ireland.

Educated at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School, Belfast, University College Dublin, King’s Inns, and the University of Virginia, Mr Justice O’Donnell was called to the bar in 1982 and appointed senior counsel in 1995.

Primarily involved in commercial law cases, he also represented the State in some of the biggest constitutional cases of his time at the Law Library.

He also had notable successes against the State, including in the Abbeylara case on Oireachtas inquiries. He has no party political connections and would be viewed as socially liberal.

During his time at the bar he worked with the Attorney General, Paul Gallagher SC who was involved in the committee that advised the government on the appointment.


The decision to appoint Mr O'Donnell on Friday came after consultations between the Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys and the three party leaders.

Ms Humphreys then brought Mr Justice O’Donnell’s name to the Cabinet meeting, where Ministers approved the nomination.

Mr Justice O’Donnell is viewed by observers as having played a major role in the development of a more “adventurous ” culture at the Supreme Court over recent years, despite his publicly-stated admiration for the practice of restraint by judges in terms of the interpretation of the Constitution.

Among the innovative judgments of recent years with which he is associated is the court’s unanimous decision in 2017 that the ban on asylum seekers taking paid work was unconstitutional.

The court declared that “in principle” the ban was unconstitutional, but deferred making a formal declaration for six months, to allow the legislature address the situation.

Mr Justice O'Donnell is married to the artist, Mary Rose Binchy, and the couple live in south Dublin. He is a fan of Glasgow Celtic.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent