Séamus Woulfe on Golfgate: ‘Jesus, they’re really scraping the barrel here’

Transcript reveals judge’s initial reaction on reading story about controversial golf dinner

Séamus Woulfe: ‘I was absolutely dumbfounded and shocked.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

Séamus Woulfe: ‘I was absolutely dumbfounded and shocked.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Séamus Woulfe drove back to rejoin his family on holiday in Donegal after attending the Oireachtas Golf Society outing and dinner in Clifden on August 20th.

“Before I went to bed that night I was back to my news addiction, and I flicked on the news headlines on, I know I shouldn’t, on the Examiner newspaper and I was astonished to see that they had as a lead story something about Dara Calleary attending a golf dinner.

“I said, ‘This is the greatest load of rubbish ever now’. I thought, ‘Jesus, they’re really scraping the barrel here during the silly season in August,” Woulfe told former Supreme Court Chief Justice Ms Susan Denham.

By the following day, according to a transcript of the meeting released yesterday, he was astonished to see the controversy claiming the short-lived ministerial career of Dara Calleary.

“I was absolutely dumbfounded and shocked,” the Supreme Court judge told Ms Justice Denham as part of her review of his attendance at the dinner.

He had driven to Galway on August 18th and had not read the newspapers the following morning, partly because he was on holiday. He had not learned of a Government decision taken the day before to change the rules on indoor gatherings, he says.

The former attorney general explained to Ms Justice Denham how Covid-19 recommendations from the National Public Health Emergency Team go to Government for a decision, with some of them subsequently ending up as statutory instruments.

A Government decision on new Covid-19 powers could not come into effect immediately. So although the decision on gatherings was announced prior to the dinner, it had not come into effect by the time it was held.

Apology conundrum

Mr Justice Woulfe said that he spoke to one or two people after Mr Calleary’s resignation and decided he would make an apology for attending the dinner “because one or two other people had apologised, for any unintentional breach of any guidelines on my part. Now I was a bit hesitant about doing it because I wasn’t sure what I was apologising for”.

“I was getting journalists ringing me, texting me, people calling for me to resign before they knew any of the facts on that Friday morning.”

The rules concerning gatherings did not change until August 31st, he said: “So there’s so much misrepresentation and false reporting all around.”

“I was probably to some extent in a state of shock on that Friday morning. But the apology was genuine and I repeat it here again, for the record.”

He said that what had happened in the wake of the dinner “seems to have been what I would describe as the throwing [of] a tank of petrol on a small flame by forcing Dara Calleary to resign summarily without any chance to check the facts on Thursday morning, that seems to have ignited the whole maelstrom.”

He said he could not understand why the “poor man” was not given at least 24 hours. “Does our Constitution not mean anything? Are politicians totally devoid of constitutional rights?”

Pointing to the febrile atmosphere of the time, he said: “My understanding is now, and from what I’ve heard and everything that I’ve read, there was mass confusion, if not chaos in Government this week. And you’ve got to factor in August, people on holidays, the Attorney General perhaps in Kerry or wherever on holidays.”