Opposition withdraw from Dáil business committee as McEntee row deepens
TDs not satisfied with Minister for Justice’s refusal of full Q&A session over Woulfe appointment
Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee e previously gave a statement on her handling of the Woulfe controversy, defending it and saying she followed a “clear process” when recommending the former attorney general for a position on the Supreme Court.Photograph:Gareth Chaney/Collins
Opposition parties have temporarily withdrawn from the Dáil business committee amid a deepening row over Minister for Justice Helen McEntee’s refusal to entertain a full Dáil question and answer session on the Séamus Woulfe affair.
The business committee, which is supposed to meet on a Thursday to establish the next week’s parliamentary agenda, has been riven by infighting over the issue, with Opposition efforts to force a full question and answer session routinely being dismissed by the Government.
This has led to rows on the floor of the Dáil on Tuesday mornings, and the Government has been forced to use its majority to force through an agenda without the matter on it. Ms McEntee has committed to answering questions on the issue through her usual oral parliamentary questions, but this has been dismissed by the opposition as unsatisfactory.
Ms McEntee wrote to the business committee last week offering to address the issue in oral parliamentary questions at a time of their choosing, which the Opposition rejected.
Cian O’Callaghan, the Dublin Bay North TD for the Social Democrats who sits on the committee, said his party had decided to withdraw from the business committee arising from the row.
“The refusal by the Government to facilitate questioning of the Minister for Justice in the Dáil in a format open to all parties and groupings is not acceptable. It’s important that Ministers and the Government are open to scrutiny,” he said.
“As a result of this we have been left with no option other than to withdraw from the business committee. The fact that all of the opposition is united on this - which is very rare - shows the seriousness of the issues,” Mr O’Callaghan added.
Labour’s whip, Duncan Smith, who also sits on the committee, also said his party will be boycotting this week’s meeting and making a call on attendance on a week-by-week basis.
“We are boycotting Thursday’s meeting to send a further message to Government that their approach to this issue is totally inappropriate and we will not stand for it. We have limited measures as opposition but we will use what we can to demonstrate our dissatisfaction with government,” he said.
Mattie McGrath, the whip and leader of the Rural Independent Group, said he had also sent a letter to the Ceann Comhairle indicating they would be withdrawing from the committee. “This is an effort to hold the Taoiseach and (chief whip) Jack Chambers and Brendan Griffin to account”, saying the business committee and the Oireachtas had been “mistreated”.
Solidarity People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett, who also sits on the committee, said: “The Government’s refusal to agree to requests for Minister McEntee to come into the Dail and answer questions about the appointment of Seamus Wooufe in the midst of a major controversy about his appointment and the entire golfgate scandal shows utter contempt for basic democracy and the principle of accountability.”
Sinn Féin chief whip and business committee member, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn said whips met “due to growing anger” over the Minister’s “refusing to come in”.
“The Government have accepted the principle of questions but the format they’re suggesting is a nonsense,” he said.
“The concern we have, the fundamental issue is if you neatly accept a Minister won’t come in as is normal, then where does this end? What’s the next time when the Government will refuse to bring a Miinster in. ”
He said it raised a question over whether a schedule for the Dáil could be agreed. “Unless you change the standing orders there won’t be a schedule for next week”.
Government sources said they believed the Dáil could still establish a schedule for the House without the cooperation of the committee.
Amid speculation of a possible Dáil walkout by theOopposition, sources on the opposition benches said such a move would “hopefully” be avoided.
“Hopefully the Government will finally see sense and this doesn’t escalate any further,” a source said. Asked about the possibility of such a step, Mr Boyd Barrett said: “We have not discussed that as yet but I think we would consider all options to try and pressure the government to do the right thing”
A Government source said writing the business committee out of existence is not currently being considered, however “the Government view is the committee needs to become more functional and proportionate in how it considers business and we can’t have position where votes are called every week”.
Responding to the decision , a Government spokesperson described it as “disappointing and regrettable” saying the “ Government has always sought to work with the business committee in a constructive and collaborative way”.
“It’s surprising given the important legislation which is before the Dail such as the Brexit Bill, the Finance Bill and the Social Welfare Bill in the coming weeks. However, Dail business will continue as scheduled and government will continue to prioritise the enactment of key pieces of legislation that matter to society.
“The opposition objected to Minister McEntee bringing forward Oral Questions to next week where such questions could have been taken in the appropriate format. Collapsing the business committee on the format of questions is disproportionate.”
Questions have been raised about the process of the Supreme Court judge’s appointment after The Irish Times revealed that three sitting judges also expressed an interest in the position. Mr Justice Woulfe came through the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) process and was the name given to Coalition party leaders.
Ms McEntee previously gave a statement on her handling of the Woulfe controversy, defending it and saying she followed a “clear process” when recommending the former attorney general for a position on the Supreme Court.
Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in August, and a subsequent interview he gave during a review of his actions, have attracted widespread political criticism. Earlier this month, Chief Justice Frank Clarke said it was his personal view that Mr Justice Woulfe should resign.