Woulfe controversy passes from judicial to political phase

Removing a judge by vote of both Houses of the Oireachtas would be a monumental step

Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe: Extraordinary exchange of letters. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe: Extraordinary exchange of letters. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

The Government must now decide whether it should seek to remove Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe from his position over his attendance at the Oireachtas golf society dinner in Clifden.

To do so, resolutions would have to be passed by the Dáil and the Seanad citing “stated misbehaviour” by the judge.

Such a step has never been taken by an Irish government. But no Irish government has ever been put in such a situation.

The extraordinary exchange of letters between the Chief Justice Frank Clarke and Mr Justice Woulfe, published tonight (Monday) by the Courts Service at the Chief Justice’s request, brings to an end the phase of this controversy that was limited to the judicial sphere.

It now enters the political realm, one way or another.

For several weeks, Ministers and senior officials have deflected questions about the situation of Mr Justice Woulfe, insisting that it was a matter for the judiciary to address.

“Separation of powers”, they intoned, “a matter for their lordships”, often adding “thank God”.

After the political trauma of the resignations of former minister for agriculture Dara Calleary and former European commissioner Phil Hogan, nobody in Government wanted to face up to the question of the last man standing after the Oireachtas golf dinner controversy. They were entirely content for the matter to be left up to the judges.

That process has now reached its incendiary conclusion with the Chief Justice telling a judge of the Supreme Court that he should resign, and the judge refusing.

Monumental step

This now places the Government in a position where it inevitably has to decide if it should follow the logic of the Chief Justice’s reasoning and seek to remove Mr Justice Woulfe, or whether it wants to let the matter sit, uncomfortable and all that is.

Removing a judge by a vote of both Houses of the Oireachtas would be a monumental step to take.

It has never been done before, though the then government was preparing to take such a step when Judge Brian Curtin (who had been charged with possession of child pornography, but was acquitted when alleged evidence contained on his computer was deemed inadmissable) resigned from the bench in 2006.

Ministers had resolved to remove Supreme Court judge Hugh O’Flaherty before he resigned in 1999. But such a vote has never actually taken place.

It is difficult to see how the Government avoids dealing with this issue now.

The opposition and the media will require answers, and soon.

While Ministers were happy to take cover behind the doctrine of the separation of powers since August – though the constitutional provisions for removing a judge show that this separation is not absolute, at least in these circumstances – they must decide, bluntly, if the actions of Mr Justice Woulfe are sufficiently serious to warrant his removal.

The Chief Justice has had his say. Now it’s over to the politicians.