Government rules out taking further action against Séamus Woulfe
Taoiseach also rejects calls for Helen McEntee to address Dáil over appointment
Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe: facing pressure to resign. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has confirmed that the Government will take no further steps against Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe.
He has also rejected calls for Minister for Justice Helen McEntee to be called in to the Dáil to make a statement and address questions on the process for the appointment of the Supreme Court judge.
In a statement to the Dáil, Mr Martin said that the “constitutional protections of the judiciary is best achieved in this particular case by taking no further steps in this matter”.
He said his statement was on behalf of the Government and that it was up to the Oireachtas “to take its own initiative on the matter if it so wishes”.
The decision effectively rules out an impeachment motion being moved by the Government. While an Opposition party can still make such a move, the Government decision makes it increasingly likely that the solution to the impasse, if one is to be found, lies within the judicial system.
The possibility of the Oireachtas initiating impeachment proceedings against Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe has arisen following the decision of the Chief Justice Frank Clarke to publish correspondence in which he expressed the view that his colleague should resign.
Regarding the manner in which Mr Justice Woulfe was chosen for the post, Mr Martin said there was a clear process for the appointment of a judge and “that process has been complied with completely”.
He said he had never before seen a situation where a minister for justice had been brought in to account for how a judge was appointed. “That would represent by any yardstick a breach of the separation of powers,” he said to Opposition protests.
The Taoiseach was responding to repeated Opposition calls for Ms McEntee to explain the process in which the former attorney general was appointed.
The Opposition continued raising the issue through two votes on the order of business, in which the Dáil’s business for the week is agreed.
Labour leader Alan Kelly said the Taoiseach had sacked a minister because he would not address the Dáil and it was “total hypocrisy” that the Minister for Justice would not account to the Dáil.
He said “it seems you’re the first Taoiseach in the history of the State never been consulted in relation to the appointment of a Supreme Court judge”.
Mr Kelly accused the Taoiseach of “running scared” and being afraid to have questions raised. He said “I can guarantee you This will not go away”
But the Taoiseach said “I don’t want to be embroiling myself” in the appointment of judges. He said the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) chaired by the Chief Justice had dealt with the issue.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the Taoiseach had plenty to say when in opposition about an appointment to the Court of Appeal. She noted Mr Martin had said he was unaware of three other judges expressing interest in the appointment and that somehow four nominees became one.
She described the JAAB as a clearing house for suitable candidates but said it was the Government which decided.
On the judicial standoff, Ms McDonald said that “a Chief Justice expressing no confidence in a member of the bench remains problematic”.
She said the Government had to be accountable and that there should have been a “mediated settlement” to the issue.
Social Democrats joint leader Catherine Murphy said the controversy was “undermining both the House and the Judiciary”.
The only way for the Opposition to do their job was for a full debate on the appointments process.
Ms Murphy said the establishment of the judicial conduct committee had to be accelerated. The judicial appointments process also required “a separate and urgent debate”, the Kildare North TD said, and she believed it was “essential” the Minister address the House to deal with the process of appointments.
Ms Murphy said it was the responsibility of the judiciary to deal with ethical matters but they lacked the powers to deal with it.
Mr Martin said the Government “fully abided by its duties and responsibilities”.
He added that the judicial appointments commission should and would be progressed.
In his statement on the standoff between Mr Justice Woulfe and the Chief Justice, Mr Martin said the independence and the integrity of the judiciary is of paramount importance.
Mr Justice Woulfe has said he does not intend to step down over controversy surrounding his attendance at an Oireachtas golf society dinner in Clifden, Co Galway on August 19th, a day after the Government tightened Covid-19 restrictions on gatherings.
“The judiciary has played a vital role in supporting the democratic and constitutional traditions of the State since its foundation and has ensured respect for the rule of law, which underpins those traditions,” Mr Martin said.
“The Government knows the formal process, which is both transparent and comprehensive adopted by the judiciary, to address the legitimate concerns arising from Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the Oireachtas golf dinner in Clifden.
“The Government fully supports the Supreme Court and recognises the importance of protecting its collegiate nature, and is concerned, to maintain the highest standards.
“The Government notes the important distinction between the resignation and the deliberately high constitutional standard for removal for stated misbehaviour,” said the Taoiseach.
“After very careful consideration, and having listened to both the Opposition leaders on this matter, the Government believes the constitutional protection of the judiciary is best achieved in this particular case by taking no further steps in this matter.”
Regarding the appointment question, Ceann Comhairle Sean Ó Fearghail said on Tuesday it would be in order for Ms McEntee to address the House as long as the discussion did not go into the area of “personal suitability” for the job.
Opposition parties insisted it was “essential” that Ms McEntee address the House on the issue.
However, Mr Martin said there was a selection process chaired by Chief Justice which included the Presidents of the Four Courts, in addition to representatives of the Bar Council and Law Society, and they approved his appointment.
He said that only one name was mentioned and brought to Cabinet.
Mr Kelly expressed surprise at the Taoiseach’s statement about no further action being taken and said it would have been appropriate and polite to ask all party leaders to come together and discuss it and to formally ask their views.
He said the meeting last week with Opposition leaders on the issue appeared to have been a “fishing exercise” and he could not understand why the Taoiseach had not contacted party leaders and told them the Government’s view and asked them theirs. He accused the Government of misusing the “separation of powers”.
Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae said he welcomed the Taoiseach’s statement and said it was important for the Minister for Justice to come into the House and answer questions.
Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín also called for clarity from Ms McEntee.
“We more about the judicial appointments process in the US than in Ireland,” he said. “It’s imperative that the Minister comes before the House to answer questions.”
Labour TD Duncan Smith said he had sent two emails calling for time to be set aside for the Minister to address the House but he got no reply. “The manner in which the request was made was disrespected,” said Mr Smith.