Varadkar ‘did not know’ names of three judges interested in Supreme Court job
Tánaiste tells Dáil it would be wrong for Woulfe appointment process to be debated in House
Government Whips have refused Opposition demands to have speaking time set aside in the Dáil for the Minister for Justice to make a statement on the appointment of Séamus Woulfe to the Supreme Court
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has told the Dáil he did not know the name of the three sitting judges who expressed an interest in the Supreme Court vacancy that went to former attorney general Séamus Woulfe.
He told Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty he knew there was a list of judges seeking promotion and a separate list of those who were deemed eligible for promotion.
“So I knew those lists existed, I didn’t know how many people are on them. I didn’t know the names.”
He also said the previous government could have filled the vacancy but felt that as a caretaker administration it should be done by the new Government.
Mr Varadkar said that to be “transparent” he told Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan that Mr Woulfe had been recommended by the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) for the Supreme Court vacancy, only after they had agreed that a new attorney general would be appointed.
Opposition leaders have warned the issue would not go away as they repeatedly called for Minister for Justice Helen McEntee to address the Dáil on the process of Mr Justice Woulfe’s appointment.
In a later debate on domestic violence that Ms McEntee introduced, Sinn Féin justice spokesman Martin Kenny again called on her to deal with the issue in the Dáil and to answer questions. He had also raised the issue on Wednesday night when Ms McEntee opened a debate on community safety and crime prevention.
Earlier, during Leaders’ Questions, Labour leader Alan Kelly said the Government will not have legitimacy if the Ms McEntee does not answer questions in the Dáil about the process involved in the appointment of Mr Woulfe to the Supreme Court.
Alan Kelly told Mr Varadkar he believed the Constitution was being undermined if Ms McEntee did not address the issue.
However, Mr Varadkar said the Minister had fully upheld the Constitution in her handling of the issue and that it would be wrong for the House to debate the issue.
He repeated the statement by Ms McEntee to the Oireachtas justice committee on Wednesday and said she had answered questions, but Opposition TDs said she had merely made a statement.
Mr Varadkar told Mr Kelly, Mr Doherty and Social Democrats joint leader Catherine Murphy they could use their Private Members’ time to debate the issue.
But Ms Murphy told the Tánaiste: “Don’t insult us with the throwaway ‘it’s your responsibility to raise it in Private Members’ time’”.
Government Whips have again refused Opposition demands to have speaking time set aside in the Dáil next week for the Minister for Justice to make a statement on the appointment of Mr Woulfe to the Supreme Court.
At a meeting of the Dáil Business Committee on Saturday morning, whips representing Opposition parties and groups requested time to be allotted, but they were told by Government chief whip Jack Chambers that no time would be allotted.
One Opposition source said it represented the first time since the new Dáil was convened that a request for speaking time or statements has been flatly refused by the three Coalition parties.
Mr Woulfe has been at the centre of ongoing controversy over his attendance at the Oireachtas golf society dinner in Clifden, Co Galway, last August.
Questions have also been raised about how he was appointed to the Supreme Court. The Opposition has repeatedly asked for Ms McEntee to come before the Dáil and explain her decision to appoint the long-time Fine Gael-supporting former attorney general to the position ahead of three serving judges who also expressed interest in the €220,000 role.
Mr Varadkar was repeatedly asked if he was aware of the expressions of interest by three serving judges in the Supreme Court position.
The Tánaiste insisted only one name was presented and the issue was subject to Cabinet confidentiality.
Mr Doherty told Mr Varadkar that in refusing to answer questions “you are trying to shy away from accountability” and that he did not want Ms McEntee to come into the Dáil “because you know there is an issue in relation to the process, not the merits of the candidate”.
But the Tánaiste said that in almost 10 years in Cabinet “I’ve never seen the short list of candidates” for judicial appointments or even for the chair of State boards.
Mr Kelly said that claiming the separation of powers was a reason for the Minister not to deal with the issue was “bogus” as were claims of confidentiality because many of the questions being asked were “way outside the Cabinet room”.
He said the Taoiseach and Mr Varadkar were saying it would be “wrong for us to actually question the Minister of Justice and the process, not the merits or demerits of any candidate”.
The Executive is accountable to the House on this, he said, adding the Ceann Comhairle makes that decision and not the Government, and so that claim was bogus too.
Mr Kelly said the Government also claimed that because Mr Justice Woulfe came through the JAAB process, that was all they needed to know.
The JAAB makes a recommendation of those suitable. “It doesn’t make an actual recommendation full stop. So that is also bogus, bogus, bogus, bogus, bogus.”
He said Mr Varadkar had a big decision to make and “if the Minister for Justice does not come in here to answer questions. I don’t think your Government has legitimacy.”
The Labour leader said the Government might have a majority but that the issue would not go away, and he insisted the Minister should come into the House.
Ms Murphy said they were told there was one process the JAAB process and that “everything else was binned”.
Later Mr Varadkar acknowledged to Mr Kelly there is a second judicial vacancy to the Supreme Court and it would be filled