Ross and McDowell trade insults over Judicial Bill

Minister rules out general election over issue and says legislation could pass in January

The hugely divisive Bill has been championed by Shane Ross who  wants to have a non-legal majority on the board that will appoint new judges. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

The hugely divisive Bill has been championed by Shane Ross who wants to have a non-legal majority on the board that will appoint new judges. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross has criticised a campaign “led by lawyers” in the Seanad aimed at stymieing his legislation proposing reform of the appointment of members of the judiciary.

Asked on Thursday if he thought the issue could lead to a general election, Mr Ross said it would not. Now that the filibuster - which had been “endured” for so long - was over, the legislation could pass in January, he said.

The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, which has been the subject of one of the longest debates in living memory, was passed in the Seanad on Wednesday by 25 votes to 23.

But the controversial legislation to reform how judges are appointed has to return to the Dáil, for debate on up to 60 amendments.

The hugely divisive Bill was championed by Mr Ross who wants to limit the role of politicians and the judiciary in the appointment of judges and wants to have a non-legal majority on the board that will appoint new judges.

It had been stalled in the Seanad for almost 18 months after a filibuster led by Independent Senator Michael McDowell who has repeatedly called elements of the legislation unconstitutional.

Mr Ross told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland that the 125 hour filibuster in the Seanad had been “led by lawyers”, adding the legislation was now going back to the Dáil where he expects it to pass.

“We are now close to fundamental reform that will lead to a lay majority commission that will appoint judges.”

He said it had been unfortunate that in the past judicial appointments had been subject to “political interference and patronage.” While there had been a backlog at times, that was not the situation at present.

“The Independent Alliance does not like the old system of appointing them [judges]; the system was full of insiders being appointed. We want a new system with a lay majority and legal expertise.”

The Minister admitted that he had been surprised by the strength of opposition to the proposed legislation, under which there will be a lay majority and a lay chair with limited choice so that appointments will be made on merit and not on political affiliation, he said.

Later, however, Senator McDowell accused Mr Ross of “misleading the public” over the Bill.

The function of choosing members of the judiciary cannot be taken away from Government, he said. “It will always be the law under the Constitution,” Mr McDowell told RTÉ Radio’s News at One.

The former minister for justice and attorney general also denied that the detailed examination of the Bill in the Seanad had been filibustering as had been claimed by Mr Ross.

“The Minister asked the Seanad to go through the Bill with a fine toothcomb.” Eighty amendments were made to reduce the unconstitutional aspects of the bill, he said.

Mr McDowell denied he “had an agenda” with the Minister. This was “not a personal spat,” but he claimed Mr Ross had “a personal agenda” with him. He did not have a problem with the Minister, but did with his “obsession” with “cronyism”.

Even if the Bill was passed in the Dáil the President could still refer it to the Supreme Court, the Senator added. He also pointed out that in the event of a general election in the Spring a new government could decide not to go ahead with the Bill.

The proposed Commission to select members of the judiciary would not be transparent and would cost €10million over five years, while the current Advisory Board “costs nothing”, Mr McDowell added.