Dáil row erupts after McEntee agrees to take questions on Woulfe appointment

Oireachtas justice committee disputes Minister’s account of appearance before it

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee: under pressure to commit to a full question and answer session in the Dáil on her role in the appointment of Mr Justice Woulfe to the Supreme Court.   Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee: under pressure to commit to a full question and answer session in the Dáil on her role in the appointment of Mr Justice Woulfe to the Supreme Court. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee will face Dáil questions on Thursday over the appointment of Supreme Court justice, Séamus Woulfe, following the Government’s decision to back down.

However, significant last-minute disagreements emerged between the Government and the Opposition last night after the latter saw sight of the plans for the debate.

In the Dáil, the Opposition accused the Government of acting with “bad grace” in a row over the time allocated to questions and answers when Ms McEntee addresses the Dáil on Thursday on the controversy.

TDs claimed the Government was attempting to “shield” Ms McEntee from questions, which fuelled the view that there was something to hide, amid claims that three quarters of the two-hour session would be for Government speakers and she would be protected from questions.

The Government yielded to the statements and a formal question and answer session after two weeks of opposition pressure calling for Ms McEntee to deal with the process of the former attorney general’s appointment when three sitting judges had also expressed an interest in the position.

Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers said two hours had been allocated for the debate with five minutes of questions from each opposition group and party.

The Dáil voted by 88 to 63 in favour of the Government’s proposal for the format of the debate. Seven Regional TDs backed the three Coalition parties in the vote.

Mr Chambers said the exact same format applied to the debate as was used in 2017 when the appointment of then attorney general Maire Whelan to the Court of appeal was questioned.

He accused the Opposition of “fake anger” to a “constructive and compromise proposal”.

Sinn Féin whip Pádraig Mac Lochlainn said the Government was forced “to do the right thing” in having the debate but he said even now “you couldn’t do it with good grace. You had to come in to the business committee and give us a fait accompli of five minutes each for questions”.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy asked what the Government had to hide, and questioned why they could not have a mixture of statements and ongoing questions and answers.

Labour Whip Duncan Smith said the Government’s behaviour was “not right” and something the Opposition would not stand for, after 50 minutes of debate at the business committee.

People Before Profit TD Richard Body Barrett claimed that the Government had tried to “shield” the Minister for Justice from questions and that for threequarters of the two hours session she would be shielded from questions.

Rural Independent TD Mattie McGrath said Ms McEntee was like the youngest child in a big family with the family gathered around to protect her.

Earlier, the Government proposed a 10-minute statement by Ms McEntee, followed by 10-minute statements from each Opposition spokesman, and then 35 minutes of questions, with each Opposition party getting five minutes.

Describing the rules as “scandalous” and threatening to fight back, Opposition figures charged that efforts are being made to protect Minister McEntee.

However, the Government argues that a similar format was used when there was a Dáil debate following controversy over the appointment of former attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal in 2017.

During leaders questions in the Dáil, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald that Ms McEntee is prepared to answer questions over the Woulfe appointment, and her role in it.

Mr Woulfe, the former attorney general, has been criticised for attending the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Co Galway in August attended by 80 people, with allegations that it breached Covid-19 regulations.

Ms McEntee previously offered to bring forward her ministerial questions, but that was rejected by the Opposition as insufficient, and they had demanded a full statement and question-and-answer session.

In an escalation of the row, the Labour leader Alan Kelly has lodged a formal complaint with the Ceann Comhairle’s office about what he says is the failure of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice to answer Dáil questions about the affair. Mr Kelly cited 18 questions that he says have not been answered fully or at all and has asked the Ceann Comhairle to apply the standing orders of the Dáil which require questions be answered.

The Opposition on Tuesday withdrew from the Dáil’s business committee as part of the row over Ms McEntee making a statement and taking parliamentary questions.

Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Martin said their decision to do so over “the format of how questions are being asked is wholly disproportionate”.

The Taoiseach said he had spoken to the Ceann Comhairle who had received legal advice on “both the parameters and the nature of what can be asked”.

“Questions must be on process and not commentary or the suitability of candidates or criteria,” he said.

Mr Martin said his main aim “and responsibility is to maintain the separation of powers and also to maintain confidence in our judicial system”.

Ms McDonald referred to an appointment to the Circuit Court at the same time that Mr Justice Woulfe was selected for the Supreme Court.

She said the Tánaiste had confirmed that the person appointed previously worked as a solicitor with former minister for justice Charlie Flanagan in Co Laois. She asked how many applications there were for that position.

He said he did not go into the relationships of people to any former office holders or to TDs, if they are appointed to positions.

Mr Martin told her that “this appointment came through JAAB and was in accordance with the law and with the Constitution”.