Taoiseach stresses independence of judiciary but will not intervene in row

FF leader warns of ‘full-blown constitutional crisis’

President of the High Court the Hon Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns.

President of the High Court the Hon Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns.

 

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said the independence of the judiciary is "central to democracy" but declined to intervene in the row between judges and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter.

Mr Kenny said there were ongoing formal and informal communications between the judiciary and the Attorney General’s office, and he was happy for this to continue. He said the independence of the judiciary was enshrined in the Constitution and was central to democracy, but that the standoff between Mr Shatter and the Association of Judges of Ireland did not require his intervention.

Mr Kenny was responding to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who said the Government was demonising the judiciary and warned of the danger of a “full-blown constitutional crisis”. Mr Martin urged the Taoiseach to “pull Alan Shatter back” and reach out to judges.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore attempted to ease tensions by stressing judges’ independence and saying discussions should take place in private. “Frankly, I think it is a conversation that is best not conducted in public.”

“As far as the Government is concerned and as far as I am concerned we respect the independence of the judiciary, full stop.”

In an unusual, sharply worded statement, meanwhile, president of the High Court Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns rebuked the Master of the High Court, Edmund Honohan, saying he had “no authority to speak on behalf of the High Court or its judge”.

Mr Justice Kearns also said he believed the concerns about judicial independence expressed by the association were “well founded” and he hoped they would be addressed as soon as possible, as the present situation was “highly undesirable”. He was reacting to an interview on RTÉ Radio in which Mr Honohan said he felt the row had erupted out of “a sense of entitlement” among judges.

Mr Justice Kearns said he wished to clarify that the master was “not a judge but an office holder with limited functions created by statute”.

“He does not operate under my oversight, direction or control,” he said.

Mr Honohan had said Mr Justice Peter Kelly was “over the top” in accusing the Government last week of dismantling judicial independence.

“Now all of this brouhaha seems to be about some sort of sense of entitlement that judges are entitled to be consulted when the Minister or the Government proposes new legislation of one sort or another,” Mr Honohan said. “Sorry, but that’s just not correct.”

Former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness said she was "very surprised" by Mr Honohan’s remarks, which she described as “completely exaggerated”. She said the judges were not suggesting they should be consulted on every form of legislation before it appeared. “Of course that would be incorrect. On the other hand, when decisions about the actual future of the judges themselves are concerned, it has been the tradition that the Government would consult with them in regard to legislation that affected them directly,” she said.

The association on Monday affirmed its support for Mr Justice Kelly, whose remarks prompted criticism from Mr Shatter and brought tensions between the Minister and the judiciary into the public domain. Judges are angry over a range of issues which they say threaten their independence, including pay, pensions and future appointments.