Séamus Woulfe profile: Judge in eye of storm was hard-working barrister who was well-regarded
Former attorney general involved in some of the most important cases of 1990s
Séamus Woulfe: found himself at the centre of controversy following his attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society Clifden dinner in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Séamus Woulfe (58) was born in Raheny in 1962 and like so many of his colleagues at the Bar and on the bench, was educated at Belvedere College before going on to study law at Trinity College and then at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. He returned to Ireland to complete his legal training at the King’s Inns and qualified as a barrister in 1987.
Woulfe developed a reputation as a hard worker and steadily built up a practice focusing on commercial and public law. He also lectured part-time at Trinity.
His reputation as a steady junior counsel earned him a place on legal teams involved in some of the most important cases in Ireland in the 1990s.
In 1992, he appeared in the X Case at Supreme Court, where he acted for a 14-year-old girl who was pregnant as a result of rape and was seeking to travel to have an abortion. The case which would shape abortion law for the next 26 years.
Woulfe has attributed some of this early success as a barrister to luck. “The Bar is sometimes a very unpredictable profession, but you can get a lucky break. These cases got me a bit of a profile in a profession where you can’t advertise yourself,” he told the Bar Review after his appointment as attorney general in 2017.
He was a member of Fine Gael in Dublin Bay North and served for a time as a branch secretary. This brought him into contact with Richard Bruton, a local TD and a rising star in the party. The two shared a close professional relationship and Woulfe would go on to act as an election agent for Bruton.
He would also represent or legally advise the party on occasion. For example he acted for Fine Gael in 2015 in a High Court case taken by party member John Perry who argued he was unfairly dropped from the party ticket ahead of the general election.
Woulfe, who is married to barrister Sheena Hickey and has two teenage children, was regarded as being on the progressive wing of the party. Colleagues say he was pro-gay marriage and pro-choice long before those referendums. As attorney general, he developed a reputation for sharing the government’s legal briefs fairly among men and women in the Law Library.
He was appointed a senior counsel in 2005 at the age of 43 and continued to practise from an office on Church Street he shared with other barristers.
He plays squash, tennis and golf and is an avid Dublin GAA fan.
He also served as vice-chairman of the Bar Council, having previously lost an election for chairman.
Woulfe’s name was in the mix for the attorney general post at an early stage following the 2017 election despite having little dealings with then taoiseach Leo Varadkar beforehand. “Richard [Bruton] made the introduction and he gained Leo’s confidence quickly,” a Fine Gael politician said.
In a speech to Trinity’s Law Society in 2018, Woulfe described the “culture shock” of moving from being a sole practitioner to heading a busy office of lawyers and sitting at the Cabinet table.
As well as giving more work to female barristers, he also gave work to young lawyers from all political hues and none, where previous attorneys general had been accused of favouring associates of the party which appointed them.
His background in public and regulatory law stood to him in the role, particularly when it came to Brexit.
Woulfe was key in marshalling the referendum on the Eighth Amendment and the subsequent legislative processes following its abolition. This and the unprecedented number of private members’ Bills introduced during the 30th Dáil meant he was probably one of the busiest attorney generals in many years, a politician said.
When Covid-19 hit, he was key in drafting restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus. But Woulfe’s term was not without controversy. In 2018, in an address to a lunch organised by Association of European Journalists, Woulfe called the Judicial Appointments Bill championed by then minister for transport Shane Ross “a dog’s dinner”.
The public eye
The resulting furore surprised Woulfe, who was not used to being in the public eye and later apologised for the remark to Ross.
Following the 2020 general election, Varadkar wanted to keep Woulfe on as attorney general but lost out in the negotiations. Paul Gallagher became Attorney General and three weeks later, Woulfe was appointed to the Supreme Court in July.
He found himself at the centre of controversy following his attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society Clifden dinner in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Former chief justice Susan Denham was asked to report to the Supreme Court as to whether Mr Justice Woulfe should have attended the so-called Golfgate dinner. Her answer was no. But she also said it would be unjust and disproportionate to ask him to resign, and recommended an informal resolution of the matter.
She attached a transcript of her interview with him as an appendix to her report. When the appendix was published by the board of the Judicial Council on October 2nd, it dealt a further blow to confidence in Mr Justice Woulfe.
In the transcript of the September 8th meeting with Denham, he is quoted as saying, “Unfortunately I think even judges are not above prejudging, judge, and in this mood of hysteria I can’t be sure that even some of my colleagues have prejudged me”.
In the transcript, he further says: “I think it’s more damaging to the Supreme Court if they allow some sort of theoretical damage to the institution prevail over hounding a judge out of office for no valid reason.”
Press coverage of the Clifden dinner now looked “objectively to be completely fake, overblown”, he said, adding that he felt sorry for the organisers who “had been pilloried” for holding an event that “some way it’s like a Ku Klux Klan”.