Motion seeking to impeach Séamus Woulfe to be brought to Dáil

Rise TD Paul Murphy says judge attending golf dinner ‘undermined’ public health effort

A motion seeking to impeach Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe is to be moved in the Dáil this week by Rise TD Paul Murphy with the support of Solidarity People Before Profit's Bríd Smith.

“This is a question of accountability,” Mr Murphy said when he announced the move on Twitter.

“Through his attendance at the ‘golfgate’ dinner and his subsequent behaviour Séamus Woulfe substantially undermined the public health effort.”

Any TD can lodge a motion for impeachment under Article 35.4 of the Constitution and it must be dealt with immediately. In the process one speech is likely to be made to the House and it will be put to a vote and if it is rejected that is the end of the process.

The TDs will say that the judge breached the Constitution for “stated misbehaviour” and impeachment proceedings should therefore begin.

Mr Murphy will propose that the debate is adjourned after which another motion has to be brought within five sitting days to establish a committee to look into the issue.

Speaking later, the Dublin South West TD said he intended to move the motion on Wednesday or Thursday.

Mr Murphy said he believed that Mr Justice Woulfe "undermined the public health effort to stop the spread of infection" in attending the dinner in Clifden, Co Galway in August and in his response to the controversy over the matter.

Some 80 people gathered for a meal at a time when public health restrictions advised against groups of that size meeting or dining together.

No further steps

Taoiseach Micheál Martin confirmed in the Dáil during the week that the Government intended to take no further steps against the judge.

He said the “constitutional protections of the judiciary is best achieved in this particular case by taking no further steps in this matter” and that it was up to the Oireachtas “to take its own initiative on the matter if it so wishes”.

A Government spokeswoman said on Sunday that the Taoiseach had set out the Government’s position and there was nothing further to add.

Mr Murphy disputed the Taoiseach’s remark in the Dáil that the standard for stated misbehaviour was set “deliberately high”.

He claimed that most legal experts did not agree with that interpretation as it had never been defined by the courts. He said Mr Martin was “trying to hide behind legal gobbledegook and there is no basis for it”.

An examination of Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the dinner by retired chief justice Susan Denham found it would be “unjust and disproportionate” for the judge to resign.

Subsequently after extensive correspondence and a meeting delayed on a number of occasions between Chief Justice Mr Frank Clarke and Mr Justice Woulfe, the Chief Justice said that while he could not direct the appointee about what to do it was his personal opinion that Mr Justice Woulfe should resign from the Court. He has declined to do so.

Sinn Féin is unlikely to support the move. Party whip Pádraig Mac Lochlainn said “we do not see the grounds for impeachment”.

Social Democrats joint leader Catherine Murphy said that “if the judicial conduct regime was in place that is where Seamus Woulfe’s attendance at the Clifden golf event would and should be dealt with”. Ms Murphy added that “we have not discussed the motion yet and I expect we will tomorrow.”

The Kildare North TD said that the Denham report made it more difficult to justify impeachment using Article 35.4.

Co-ordinator for Regional Independent TDs Denis Naughten said it was hard to be definitive “until we have sight of the stated misbehaviour” but he said it would be difficult to see members supporting a motion of impeachment as a result of the Denham report and the failure to publish the full set of correspondence between the Chief Justice and Mr Justice Woulfe.

Questions have also been raised about how Mr Justice Woulfe was appointed to the Supreme Court following revelations in The Irish Times that three sitting judges also expressed interest in the €220,000 a year position.

Parliamentary questions

Ms McEntee has agreed to answer questions following days of pressure about the appointment process. She said in a letter to the Ceann Comhairle that she would reschedule her next parliamentary question session to a date to be agreed by TDs.

“As Minister for Justice, it is my duty to respect the independence of the judiciary, a cornerstone of our State and system of government,” she said.

“I and the Government have grave concerns that the manner of Dáil debate being proposed by the Opposition on judicial appointments could generate inappropriate comment around serving judges on the floor of the House.”

But the Opposition has rejected this offer and insisted that Ms McEntee had to make a statement and answer questions in full on the issue.

Labour leader Alan Kelly said "this is not about Séamus Woulfe" but rather Ms McEntee's failure to address the issue.

He warned that the issue could become one where confidence in the Minister is questioned if answers are not provided.

Speaking on Newstalk’s On the Record on Sunday, he said Ms McEntee “doesn’t have a choice” other than to answer questions on the matter.

He said that under the Constitution she was accountable to the House and it was the first time ever a minister for justice had refused to answer questions on judicial appointments.

He added that Ms McEntee either “did a solo run” and acted alone in choosing the former attorney general and did not tell the Taoiseach, Tánaiste or Green Party leader about the three judges or it was a “ready-up” which “everyone else has denied”.

He added that the Cabinet handbook states that she must consult the Government’s party leaders.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary reporter with The Irish Times