Cool the jets

Separation of powers

Ms Justice Máire Whelan, who was appointed to the Court of Appeal this week, and Chief Justice Susan Denham. Photograph: Colin Keegan (Collins Dublin).

Ms Justice Máire Whelan, who was appointed to the Court of Appeal this week, and Chief Justice Susan Denham. Photograph: Colin Keegan (Collins Dublin).

 

Relations between the judiciary and governments have always been fractious. Judges guarded their independence under the Constitution with fierce determination and, when the occasion demanded, upheld the rights of citizens and forced reluctant governments to change the law. During the past two decades, however, as judicial reforms were proposed, opposed, amended, introduced or abandoned, a bad-tempered, confrontational atmosphere developed that has the potential to damage public confidence.

Perhaps that was why Chief Justice Susan Denham took the opportunity to deal at length with the importance of the separation of powers under the Constitution when she welcomed the appointment of Seamus Woulfe as the new Attorney General. He would be, she said, an important and impartial bridge between the legislature and the judiciary. It was what she did not say, however, that made headlines. Legal colleagues interpreted her remarks as criticism of both Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar for what they said in the Dáil about former attorney general Máire Whelan and members of the judiciary. Off the record, they added their own views.

Indignation over this alleged breach of protocol was almost certainly influenced by pending Government legislation, promoted by Minister for Transport Shane Ross, that provides for a lay majority and chairperson on a new, independent judicial appointments commission.

Having unwisely engaged in acerbic Dáil exchanges over the rights and wrongs of appointing Whelan to the judiciary, Varadkar and Martin should cool their jets. Neither party leader is likely to land a pre-election knockout blow. On the basis of opinion polls, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would fall short of a majority, forcing them to engage in an extended bout of minority government negotiations. In view of the economic and social challenges facing the country, the public is more likely to be swayed by hard slog and administrative creativity, rather than by political grandstanding.

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