The Irish Times view on the Denham report fallout: assessing the damage

Questions about the events of recent weeks will hang over the Supreme Court for years to come

The legitimacy of the Supreme Court, which has played such an important and valuable role in the development of the State, ultimately rests on public trust. That trust is hard-won and easily eroded. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The legitimacy of the Supreme Court, which has played such an important and valuable role in the development of the State, ultimately rests on public trust. That trust is hard-won and easily eroded. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Barring new revelations, the Seamus Woulfe affair will most likely stagger to a conclusion with whatever “informal resolution” the Supreme Court arrives at to deal with Woulfe’s attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in August. But the damage will be more lasting.

The episode has underlined starkly the cost of the delay in forming a Judicial Council, which is only now, after more than 15 years of discussion, in the process of being set up and which is designed to deal with precisely this type of question related to judges’ behaviour. The frustration of former chief justice Susan Denham at having been put in this position – having to oversee a high-profile ad hoc inquiry into a sitting Supreme Court judge – comes across on every page of her report. That failure is the fault of successive governments going back more than a decade

Yet it is the judiciary whose reputation has been damaged most by the events of recent weeks. Senior politicians who attended the Clifden event all resigned from office. They accepted that news of the golf dinner had provoked genuine hurt and anger in a population struggling with severe restrictions during this national emergency.

They concluded, in a way that Woulfe did not, that for the social solidarity required to defeat Covid-19 to be maintained, they would have to be seen to pay a price for attending a celebratory dinner that to most reasonable people seemed to breach the spirit of the times. They knew that the stakes could scarcely have been higher. And they knew, unlike Woulfe, who mounted a rigidly legalistic defence before the Denham review, that the law and the rules were ultimately irrelevant. What mattered was the perception.

Even if he remains in his position, Woulfe himself is damaged. Many readers of the Denham report will come to less charitable conclusions than those of the former chief justice. They will be struck by Woulfe’s apparent lack of curiosity about his surroundings, and they will wonder whether a longtime barrister and former attorney general with a strong reputation and a feeling for politics should really need a training programme to know how judges should behave. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Woulfe, in declining to step down, put his own interests ahead of those of the Supreme Court.

The legitimacy of that court, which has played such an important and valuable role in the development of the State, ultimately rests on public trust. That trust is hard-won and easily eroded, which is why the standards demanded of its members are so high. Questions about the events of recent weeks will hang over the institution for years to come.

That’s bad for the Supreme Court and for the judiciary in general. But it’s also bad for our democratic system.

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