Judge’s attendance at Oireachtas golf dinner ‘a test for the judiciary’ – Howlin

Supreme Court judge’s actions will test ‘maintenance of standards’ across public life

Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe. Photograph: Alan Betson

Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe. Photograph: Alan Betson

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The actions of Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe in attending a dinner that breached public health rules is a “test for the judiciary”, Labour’s Brendan Howlin has claimed.

Mr Justice Woulfe’s role as judge has come under scrutiny since it emerged that he was one of more than 80 guests at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner last week at a Co Galway hotel.

The dinner, which was not in line with public health guidelines set to prevent the spread of coronavirus, has cost a Fianna Fáil minister his job at Cabinet and a Fine Gael senator his role as Seanad leas-cathaoirleach, while six senators have lost their party whips.

Mr Justice Woulfe has said he attended the dinner on the understanding it would be adhering to public health guidelines and apologised for any unintentional breach of them. He is expected to speak with the Chief Justice Mr Justice Frank Clarke over his attendance at the dinner.

The Supreme Court judge, who was appointed a month ago after serving as attorney general, can only be removed by a motion of the Oireachtas for “stated misbehaviour or incapacity”.

A new mechanism for reviewing complaints against judges has not come into force as guidelines have not yet been set by the newly-established Judicial Council that covers the conduct of judges.

Mr Howlin, the Labour party justice spokesman, said “everybody who attended this ill-fated event should have known better and everybody has to take personal responsibility for the mere action of turning up which was so undermining of public policy at a critical time for the country”.

The former Labour leader said the judiciary is “not subject to political direction” but the controversy around the judge’s attendance at the dinner was “a test for the judiciary themselves”.

The issue would be a test on “whether we can expect the process within the judiciary itself to be robust in terms of holding people to account”, he added.

“We have long talked about a judicial council and the judges having their own standards so I will await what the internal dialogue with the Chief Justice delivers,” Mr Howlin said.

“It is a test for the maintenance of standards throughout public life. The same set of standards should apply, whether you are in the judicial branch of public affairs or in the political branch of public affairs.”

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy TD said the judge’s attendance at last Wednesday’s golf dinner was an issue “because you cannot say that there is a separation of powers [between the Oireachtas and the judiciary] and then not separate yourself”.

“That is one thing in its own right and that showed poor enough judgment. It certainly undermines his position significantly as a Supreme Court justice,” she said.

Mr Justice David Barniville, a High Court judge and president of the Association of Judges of Ireland, said Mr Justice Woulfe had made a statement setting out his position on the dinner and that the representative body for judges did not intend making any further statement at this point.