Taoiseach says he was not told of Supreme Court applications
Updated / Friday, 13 Nov 2020 14:41
The Taoiseach has said he was not told that at least three judges had an interest in the position on the Supreme Court that was filled by Seamus Woulfe in July.
Speaking on RTÉ’s News at One, Micheál Martin said he did not feel misled because the appointment of judges should not be for political negotiation.
He said the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board had selected Seamus Woulfe and he had no difficulty in ratifying that appointment, adding that the less political involvement in the appointment of judges the better.
“To me, the appointment of judges should not be for political negotiation. JAAB had selected Seamus Woulfe and as far as I’m concerned, that was it from my perspective,” he said.
Mr Martin said he does not know whether the Tánaiste was aware if other judges were interested in the position.
“My general view on this is the less political involvement in the appointment of judges the better. And that’s why I was happy to stand back and say okay JAAB as made the nomination here.
“I’m happy to ratify that nomination.”
Labour leader Alan Kelly said it would not be tenable for the Taoiseach to sit at Cabinet with Minister for Justice Helen McEntee if she did not inform him that three other judges had applied to be appointed to the Supreme Court.
He said very serious issues have been raised in a report in the Irish Times that other judges had written to the Government expressing an interest in the Supreme Court vacancy, but that the leaders of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party were not informed.
Mr Kelly said there are two scenarios at play.
“Either the Minister for Justice made this appointment solely or possibly with the knowledge of the Tánaiste and did not inform Cabinet members of other applicants.
“In doing so she did not inform the Taoiseach. The idea that the Taoiseach can sit at Cabinet with a Minister for Justice that did not inform him that three other judges had applied for the job, raises questions about whether it is tenable that they can sit together in the future.”
He said the alternative, which he said, has been denied by the Taoiseach, is that this was part of an understanding or agreement related to the Programme for Government negotiations.
“I have to accept the Taoiseach at his word that this is not the case because if it was the case, it would essentially undermine our democratic process and would undermine the whole judicial process and the appointments process.”
Mr Kelly said he is seeking an immediate statement from the Taoiseach, Minister McEntee and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on the issue.
Taoiseach to meet party leaders over Woulfe stand-off
Mr Martin will meet all party leaders this afternoon to discuss the stand-off in the Supreme Court over the position of Mr Justice Woulfe.
Mr Martin described the situation surrounding Mr Justice Woulfe as “very serious and grave”.
The Taoiseach said the meeting will seek to agree a collective approach to the issue, which has arisen as a result of the Supreme Court judge’s attendance at an Oireachtas Golf Society event in August.
Mr Justice Woulfe was among more than 80 guests, including then agriculture minister Dara Calleary and EU commissioner Phil Hogan, who attended the event, despite Covid-19 public health guidelines placing limits on indoor gatherings.
Mr Calleary and Mr Hogan both subsequently resigned, as did Jerry Buttimer, who stepped down as Seanad Leas-Cathaoirleach.
Mr Martin said the consideration of a motion of impeachment in relation to the position of Mr Justice Woulfe depends on the views of other members of the Oireachtas.
Mr Martin said he wants to get a sense of how other party leader view the situation today.
“I want to meet with the other party leaders today to get a sense of how they see this. It is very serious its grave,” he said.
“The separation of powers is something I hold very dearly. It’s a crucial part of our democracy.”
He said his role as Taoiseach is to ensure that there is confidence in the legislative system and judiciary.
“That’s the objective I have going into these talks with the opposition leaders. So I’m not pre-empting what may emerge out of this. Suffice to say that I’m determined that we retain the integrity of our system.
“And we do everything we possibly can to protect the Supreme Court itself, in terms of its performance and in terms of its public perception and the centrality of the Supreme Court and our overall system orientation.”
The leaders of the three Government parties met Attorney General Paul Gallagher last night to discuss the situation.
Minister McEntee also attended the meeting.
Correspondence released at the start of the week showed that Chief Justice Frank Clarke had told Mr Justice Woulfe he should resign.
Following that, Opposition parties had called for the issue to be addressed by the Oireachtas – with some going as far as questioning whether his position was tenable
However, there has been a change of tone as the week progressed, with all parties stepping back before deciding a way forward,
Party leaders are likely to seek more information on the Attorney General’s advice on the matter.
Parties will have to consider whether Mr Justice Woulfe’s actions meet the threshold of stated misbehaviour that is required under the Constitution to initiate a process to remove a judge.
There is also an acceptance that this is something they would have to be certain of before taking any steps that could change the relationship between politicians and the judiciary into the future.
Sinn Féin said it is keeping an open mind as to how to proceed from there, while Rise TD Paul Murphy, who is willing to table a Dáil motion on the issue, said he will wait to hear what the Taoiseach has to say.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she hopes they will be “fully and properly briefed” on the controversy at the briefing.
She said they want to hear what the Government has to say and also hopes the AG’s advice on the matter will be shared.
“The publicly known fact is that the Chief Justice has suggested by letter, which is now a matter of public record, that Justice Woulfe should resign,” she said.
She said that clearly creates a problem around the tenability of Mr Justice Woulfe’s position.
“The issue now is how do you within the rules and respecting and recognising the divisions of powers how do we navigate that?” she asked.
On the same programme, People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said the position of Mr Justice Woulfe is untenable and the debate surrounding the matter is detracting from bigger issues in relation to Covid-19.
Mr Boyd Barrett said “the Oireachtas wouldn’t need to act if Seamus Woulfe just stepped back”.
Fred interjects: Are we missing the point with an over reliance on the Separation of Powers? Could it be that we feel undermined by the Judiciary and its silo allegiances that need scrutiny and maybe even legislation. It is said a number of Judges were interested in the appointment to the Supreme Court – we surely need reassurance from JAAB as to the protocol and appointment process of a Judge to the Supreme Court and the procedures followed, vetted and put in place.