Way clear for Séamus Woulfe to start on Supreme Court early next year

‘Constitutional protection of judiciary’ best served by no further Coalition steps

 Séamus Woulfe: It appears there is no obstacle, barring possible action by Opposition parties, to the judge beginning work despite controversy. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Séamus Woulfe: It appears there is no obstacle, barring possible action by Opposition parties, to the judge beginning work despite controversy. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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Séamus Woulfe looks set to begin work as a Supreme Court judge early next year after the Government said it would not initiate a process to remove him from office.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Tuesday said the Coalition would take no further steps against Mr Justice Woulfe, who has been at the centre of a controversy over his attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in August.

Mr Martin told the Dáil that the “constitutional protection of the judiciary is best achieved in this particular case” by such an approach.

The board of the Judicial Council met following the Taoiseach’s comments and it now appears there is no obstacle, barring possible action by Opposition parties, to the judge beginning work.

Sources believe, if he does so, that it will be from February in line with proposals set out under an informal resolution process initiated in October. It is understood that several members of the board were relieved that the Government did not consider the matter met the threshold for the judge’s removal.

Resignation of judges

The Supreme Court is expected to meet in the coming days to discuss the latest developments. Informed sources expressed strong scepticism about suggestions of Supreme Court judges resigning their positions or refusing to work with Mr Justice Woulfe.

“The judges are adults and will behave like adults,” one source said. No statement was issued after the board meeting, which sources interpreted as indicating the council sees no role for itself in the Woulfe matter.

The controversy over Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the dinner, along with some 80 other people during the pandemic, escalated after Chief Justice Frank Clarke last week published correspondence with the judge. In it, the Chief Justice twice tells the judge he believes he should resign over his handling of matters since the publication on October 1st of a review of his attendance at the dinner.

The Taoiseach also rejected calls for Minister for Justice Helen McEntee to be called into the Dáil to make a statement and address questions on the process that led to Mr Justice Woulfe’s appointment to the Supreme Court.

It emerged last week that at least three judges had written to the Government seeking to fill the role but the Cabinet was not told of their applications before the former attorney general was selected in July.

‘Clear process’

In her first public comments on the matter, Ms McEntee told the Oireachtas justice committee that she had adhered to a “very clear process” before bringing Mr Justice Woulfe’s name to Cabinet.

Ms McEntee is understood to have expressed doubts about the matter being debated in the Dáil, notwithstanding the Ceann Comhairle saying such a debate could be permissible if it was confined to the process of the appointment.

Some TDs have argued that the Cabinet handbook states that Ms McEntee should have informed the Coalition party leaders, Minister for Finance and Attorney General of interest in the role from other parties.

Opposition TDs are likely to continue raising the issue in the Oireachtas, with sources indicating there will be another attempt to have a question-and-answer session on the matter in the Dáil. Parties are also likely to use Private Members’ time, oral questions and parliamentary questions to pursue the issue.

Meanwhile, a Council of Europe report has concluded that Ireland’s system of appointing judges continues to fall short in terms of selecting the most qualified and suitable candidates.

It says that Ireland has failed to reform its system to a more transparent model where the most suitable candidates are selected without improper influence from government or parliament.

It finds fault, in particular, with the current system used by the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board where it submits the names of at least seven people whom it recommends for appointment. The assessors were critical of this because the long list and lack of rankings gave the government significant power in deciding on appointments.