Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has sent a clarifying note to Fine Gael TDs and Senators stating he is fully behind a Bill that reforms judicial appointments.
The move on Monday evening came in the wake of a text message Mr Flanagan sent earlier to some backbench TDs criticising Minister for Transport Shane Ross, who is championing the Bill, and asking Fine Gael deputies to speak on the issue in the Dáil.
The Bill is expected to be debated for eight hours this week. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in a move to help to defuse the row over the appointment of former attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal, has promised the Independent Alliance it will pass through the Oireachtas before the summer recess.
Mr Flanagan’s note to TDs on Monday evening described the proposals in the Bill as “very significant” and stressed he and his “Government colleagues are determined to see this legislation enacted”.
Over the weekend, Mr Flanagan texted Fine Gael TDs with a message critical of Mr Ross.
“The Judicial Appointments Bill will be debated next week,” the text read. “There has been some negative comment regarding the judiciary and many people are unhappy with aspects of the Bill. Fine Gael must fully emphasise the absolute independence of judges and the courts under our constitution.
“I am disappointed at some of the comments of Minister Ross. Could I suggest that you speak on the Bill and I would be happy to provide a briefing on Tuesday. Best regards. Ch.”
A spokesman for Mr Varadkar said Monday’s clarifying note was done on the initiative of Mr Flanagan’s office and was not carried out at the Taoiseach’s request. It is understood, however, Mr Ross was informed the note was being sent out.
The Bill, which has been met with outright hostility from the judiciary, is due to come before the Dáil on Tuesday.
Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O'Callaghan stressed the need for Mr Flanagan to take heed of the concerns of the members of the judiciary.
“The Government will not listen to Fianna Fáil so maybe they will listen to the judiciary. Shane Ross has never fully explained his obsession with the need for a lay chair. Maybe he could start by doing that.
“Then the Government can explain why they are supporting a deeply flawed Bill.”
The Bill will lead to the establishment of a new body, with a lay chairman and a majority of lay members, which will select a ranked shortlist of candidates for the bench. The government will retain the final decision in the selection process.
Fianna Fáil is opposing the Bill, but Sinn Féin has confirmed it will support it, which means it is likely to be passed by the Dáil. Sinn Féin’s justice spokesman Jonathan O’Brien said the judiciary had every right to contact the Taoiseach but should be mindful of the separation of powers between the judiciary and the Oireachtas.
Carlow Kilkenny TD Fine Gael Pat Deering also said he needs to see changes to the Bill before he supports it. Mr Deering said he is uncomfortable with the composition of a new commission that will draw up a shortlist of judicial nominees for the Government.
The commission will have a lay majority and lay chairperson but Mr Deering said people with specialised knowledge “should have more of an influence than people who come in off the street”.
Another Fine Gael TD, Dublin Fingal's Alan Farrell, said he is "two minds" on the Bill, while Dublin South West's Colm Brophy said he believes it is fair overall.