The Irish Times view on the Supreme Court standoff: a crisis that was waiting to happen

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have only themselves to blame for the huge dilemma they now face over the Séamus Woulfe affair

The release by Chief Justice Frank Clarke of parts of his recent correspondence with his embattled colleague Seamus Woulfe has pushed the standoff between the court and its newest member into a different dimension, raising the prospect of an unprecedented impeachment motion by the Oireachtas to remove a sitting judge of the country’s highest court. Photograph: PA Wire

The release by Chief Justice Frank Clarke of parts of his recent correspondence with his embattled colleague Seamus Woulfe has pushed the standoff between the court and its newest member into a different dimension, raising the prospect of an unprecedented impeachment motion by the Oireachtas to remove a sitting judge of the country’s highest court. Photograph: PA Wire

 

The failure of successive governments to put in place a system for dealing with judicial conduct has long been a crisis waiting to happen. Now that crisis has arrived, and in spectacular fashion. The release by Chief Justice Frank Clarke of parts of his recent correspondence with his colleague Séamus Woulfe has pushed the standoff between the court and its newest member into a different dimension, raising the prospect of an unprecedented impeachment motion by the Oireachtas to remove a sitting judge of the State’s highest court.

The letters make clear that the relationship between Clarke and Woulfe has broken down. It is difficult to see how they can ever work together. It is also clear from Clarke’s letters that the court, excluding Woulfe, is now of one mind on the damage it is incurring from the controversy that began with the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in August. While Clarke does not say that all members of the court believe Woulfe should resign, he does refer to the “unanimous” view of the group that the “cumulative effect of all of these matters has been to cause a very significant and irreparable damage both the court and to the relationship within the court which is essential to the proper functioning of a collegiate court”. These are extraordinary words, comparable only in recent decades to the 1999 report by then chief justice Liam Hamilton on the Sheedy Affair, which led to the resignation of Hugh O’Flaherty from the court.

The absence of a functioning Judicial Council has been costly for everyone involved. The judiciary, technically powerless to respond to the public clamour for action over the controversy, found itself scrambling to improvise an ad hoc process to review Woulfe’s actions, while Woulfe himself had to navigate that process without the benefit of established structures and procedures to set the ground rules for an inquiry.

There can be no doubt about the damage being done to the judiciary. Woulfe has clearly compounded his original error in attending the Clifden golf dinner by a number of serious misjudgments. His at times legalistic insistence on relatively narrow points, and on his larger sense of personal grievance, appears to have blinded him to the broader crisis that the court is now contending with. But the court’s actions in publicly distancing itself from one of its members also raise far-reaching questions whose implications will go beyond the current controversy.

The upshot is that the Government has been handed a huge dilemma. The Coalition’s two biggest parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have only themselves to blame. They have rotated power between them since the idea of a Judicial Council was broached late in the last century. For all those years they proved unwilling and incapable of putting in place a system to deal with a crisis they were warned would come.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.