View that Woulfe appointment a perfectly legal ready-up remains intact

Minister for Justice under pressure in Dáil over appointment but no killer blows landed

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee came under sustained pressure in the Dáil on Thursday over the Government’s nomination of Séamus Woulfe to the Supreme Court, but no blows that could imperil her future in office were landed.

She relayed an account of the selection of the former attorney general to fill the vacancy earlier this year that may have been implausible, but was not – so far, anyway – disprovable.

The most significant piece of new information McEntee conveyed during the two-hour session was about the role of her party leader, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, in the events leading up his her proposing Woulfe for the job.

She revealed that in a conversation a few days after her appointment, and before she had considered candidates for the job, Varadkar told her that Woulfe had applied, come through the appointments board process, and – in his view – would “make a good judge”. He did not, she stressed, “tell me that this was to be the case”. He was just offering his view.


Vacancy on the court

This was, by Varadkar’s own account, a few days after he had told Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan that there was a vacancy on the court and that Woulfe had been recommended as suitable. Ryan and Martin understood from this that Woulfe would be appointed by the new Government.

But McEntee did not share that view. She still had to go through the other candidates, remember.

She duly considered them all (five, it transpires; The Irish Times reported “at least three”). And then decided that Woulfe should be appointed.

She did not consult with anyone else on Woulfe’s suitability, his legal record, the requirements of the job or the merits of the other candidates. She had a good think about it, and decided he was the man.

McEntee was, of course, within her rights to act this way. Just as when Varadkar made his view known, it was open to McEntee to make a different recommendation. But in reality that immediately became a lot less likely.

But as Brendan Howlin, Labour’s vastly experienced justice spokesman explained, this is not the way any of the three governments in which he served had treated Supreme Court appointments.

Because of the importance of the decision, governments have consulted and deliberated extensively about such appointments. But not this time – just McEntee’s thoughts and half a conversation with Varadkar.

Howlin plainly found the whole thing unbelievable. The silence of Fianna Fáil and the Greens – basically saying “sure, go on, appoint who you like” – remains remarkable.

Since the beginning of this controversy, most people in and around Leinster House and Government Buildings have assumed that the Woulfe appointment was a ready-up – a perfectly legal and constitutional one, but a ready-up nonetheless – for the former Fine Gael attorney general by his former taoiseach.

That interpretation is likely to remain intact after this session.