Judges must avoid ‘anything with political overtones’ – retired judge

Catherine McGuinness says ‘judges should keep well away from political events’

Catherine McGuinness: ‘The separation of powers is more important than people just having a dinner.’ Photograph: David Sleator

Catherine McGuinness: ‘The separation of powers is more important than people just having a dinner.’ Photograph: David Sleator

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Judges must avoid taking part “in anything that has any political overtones,” said retired Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness on the controversy around the Oireachtas golf dinner.

The retired judge described the separation of powers between the Oireachtas and the judiciary as “extraordinarily important”.

She defended politicians for citing that as a reason not to comment on Supreme Court justice Seamus Woulfe and his attendance at the Clifden dinner that breached Covid-19 public health rules.

“The separation of powers is more important than people just having a dinner, even if it breaks the rules,” said the former judge, who served on the High Court from 1996 to 2000 and the Supreme Court from 2000 to 2006.

Ms Justice McGuinness declined to comment specifically on Mr Justice Woulfe’s decision to attend the event.

She said that he found himself “in a very unfortunate position now”.

“Judges should keep well away from political events but you could argue that this wasn’t a political event, that it was just a jolly get-together after a golf match,” she said.

She said the organisers should have cancelled the dinner part of the Oireachtas Golf Society event in Connemara in advance, and that the idea of having two groups divided by a partition in the function room to try to adhere to public health guidance was “a bit of a stretch”.

The Supreme Court has asked former chief justice Susan Denham to review Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the event. He has apologised for unintentionally breaching public health rules and has said that the organisers and the hotel had “satisfied themselves” that they would be operating within Government public health guidelines.

‘Not allowed’

Ms Justice McGuinness said that she felt “very strong personal opinions” in at least two referendums that were held during her time as a judge but that she had to be “very careful not to say anything or not to be mixed up with politicians” involved in the campaigns.

“You are just not allowed to do things like that. That is the only thing that I could think of that would be in any kind of parallel with what happened,” she said, referring to the golf event.

Retired judge Gillian Hussey said on Tuesday that she was astounded that any golf function, particularly an Oireachtas Golf Society function, had taken place during a pandemic.

“It beggars believe, but it doesn’t surprise me. Nothing changes; this has been going on for years,” said Ms Hussey.

She told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show that she “distanced” herself from the political scene as soon as she was appointed a judge.

Retired Court of Appeal judge Garrett Sheehan on Monday warned against a rush to judgment against attendees at the Oireachtas dinner and unfairly hounding good people out of office for “one serious mistake”.

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