Supreme Court justice Seamus Woulfe tells court Chief Justice approved his attendance at ‘Golfgate’ event
8th January 2022
Supreme Court justice Seamus Woulfe has told a criminal trial triggered by the ‘Golfgate’ controversy that he had the approval of the Chief Justice to attend the golf event.
The trial of two prominent politicians and father and son hoteliers over alleged breaches of the Health Act at an Oireachtas Golf Society dinner held during Covid restrictions in August 2020 continues today in Galway District Court.
The accused include the alleged organisers, Independent TD Noel Grealish (55), of Carnmore, Co Galway, and former Fianna Fáil senator Donie Cassidy (75), of Castlepollard, Co Westmeath.
Both men face a single charge that on August 19, 2020, they organised an event that contravened the Health Act 1947, as amended, to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of Covid-19.
John Sweeney (61), the owner of the Station House Hotel in Clifden, Co Galway, and his son James (32), the hotel’s general manager, face the same charge.
They all deny the charges.
In the fallout from the controversy, the then agriculture minister Dara Calleary, European commissioner Phil Hogan and leas-cathaoirleach of the Seanad Jerry Buttimer resigned their positions, and six senators lost their party whip.
Supreme Court Justice Seamus Woulfe was the second witness called to give evidence today.
Prosecutor Eoghan Cole BL said it was agreed between all counsels that Justice Woulfe be led through his witness statement.
Justice Woulfe agreed that the Oireachtas Golf Society was purely social, recreational, and non-political.
“I was of the impression it was a good way of breaking down any kind of political rivalries,” he said.
Justice Woulfe said he had previously attended a similar golf society event in 2019, when he was Attorney General, having been invited by his personal friend senator Paul Coghlan.
He was made aware then that the following year would be the 50th anniversary and a “momentous” occasion for the society.
Justice Woulfe explained that he was again invited to the event in 2020 and, after some thought, decided to attend.
He said he bumped into Deputy Noel Grealish around May or June 2020, and he indicated it would be going ahead.
Justice Woulfe explained he was on holiday in Donegal at the time of the golf society event but decided to go given the momentous nature of the 50th anniversary.
“I probably did that because it was the 50th anniversary,” he said.
“Somebody told me it had been revived at the time of the arms trial in the 1970s and helped to diffuse tension between parties.
“I had booked my family holidays to Donegal, but when I satisfied myself (to attend), I then had a word with the Chief Justice to see if it was OK to go to this event.”
Justice Woulfe said he then checked with his wife if he was “allowed out for a couple of days from the family holiday”.
“She thought I was a bit mad to be driving from Donegal to Clifden,” he said.
“I rang Paul Coughlan at the end of July, and he gave me the dates and said he would be delighted if I could come.
“I think because it was the 50th anniversary the golf was going to be two days rather than one day – on Tuesday and the Wednesday.
“But I thought I was doing well enough getting let out for one day, so I didn’t push my luck.”
Justice Woulfe arrived in Clifden on the evening of Tuesday, August 18, 2020.
As far as he could remember, he said he was unaware there was a formal dinner planned for the next night, following the President’s Cup competition at Ballyconneely golf club.
“It’s very hard to remember every conversation you have. It is possible Paul Coghlan might have said there was going to be a dinner but not necessarily a group dinner.
“Often with these golf societies, you eat when you come in off the course. Sometimes you eat in smaller groups as you come in (off the golf course).
“Some people don’t like being told at lunchtime they have to be there for a dinner at seven o’clock.
“One thing to remember about the society is there is lots of little groups
“You can be a member of one of these societies, but a lot (of members) wouldn’t know each other. And I was only a guest.
“I didn’t know that many people, so I ended up having breakfast on my own.
“There may have been other people in the breakfast room, but I didn’t know them.
“I think it was John Flaherty (Captain of the Guard at Leinster House) who stopped on the way past me and told me what time I was playing.”
Justice Woulfe said he went to Ballyconneely Golf Club where he met Mr Cassidy and Mr Grealish.
“I think they were registering people and taking money. I think they gave me a ticket or a voucher we could use for the dinner that night,” he said.
“I think that’s when I realised if I hadn’t already, and I hadn’t already, that it was going to be a group dinner.
“That triggered a little thought in my head this was a group dinner.”
He said he didn’t immediately question the men about the dinner as “there were people waiting behind me so rather than question them about it, I moved away to make way and I queried Paul Coughlan.”
Asked by Mr Cole if he had concerns at this point about a group dinner, Mr Woulfe said he did query “in my own head”.
“I suppose I just queried it in my own head. It was the first of those kind of dinners that I had been to since things opened up. I had been out socially a few times with smaller groups of friends,” he said.
“I queried it with Paul, and he said Donie had consulted with the authorities, and everything was in order.”
Asked was he satisfied by this answer, he said: “I was.”
“You’ve got to remember this was the Oireachtas Golf Society, with no disrespect to pubs – but the local pub might have a golf society.”
He said the presence of Mr Cassidy, Mr Flaherty and Mr Coghlan gave him reassurance about the guidelines. “I felt people like Donie Cassidy, who is a very reputable hotelier and businessman, and John Flaherty, the Captain of the Guard – I have high respect for John, I see the way he conducts himself and the way he organised security in Leinster House – once I was told by Paul Coghlan, they had applied their minds to the regulations and guidelines,” he said.
“And then somebody said when they heard me querying Paul about it that it (the dinner) had been moved specially from the clubhouse to the hotel in order to ensure compliance with the guidelines.”
In the final minute of his time in the witness box Justice Woulfe was asked one question by Constance Cassidy SC.
“Did you see anything on that night that caused you concern in relation to covid?” she said.
“No,” replied Justice Woulfe.
He conceded under questioning from prosecutor Mr Eoghan Cole BL that in “raising that query” with Mr Coghlan, he “would have been aware there were detailed guidelines backing up whatever the strict number rule was ( for gatherings).
“Would it have immediately come to the top of my head there was a regulation saying 50 people allowed at a gathering? I don’t know did I have that at the top of my head.
“At that split second moment, did I know if it was 40, 50 or 60? I‘m not sure.
“But what I did know was that there were guidelines as to how that 50 was to operate.
“I had never seen them (the guidelines), but I knew from my time as Attorney General there were a pile of guidelines fleshing out the regulations.
“There were ambiguities in the regulations because they were almost impossible to draft in a completely comprehensive way given the time pressures.”
Justice Woulfe’s evidence was followed by former Labour Senator Lorraine Higgins, who said she was unaware there was a second room containing other attendees of the event.
She said she only learned the dining suite had been partitioned from the subsequent media reports.
“To clarify, I wasn’t aware. And all of the main political people were in that room. So there was no reason for me to believe there was another room.”
A former barman, Anthony Curran, gave evidence that he served drinks until 2.30 am to up to 30 guests whom he felt had attended the dinner in the resident’s bar of the Clifden Station House Hotel.
“They were all standing around, drinking, chatting and singing. They were having a good time,” he said.
Mr Curran said he felt the 30 residents drinking attended the dinner as they all seemed to know each other.
The court also heard details of the Garda investigation into the gathering, including detailed correspondence between Inspector Peter Conlon, who oversaw the investigation, and the former President of the Society, Donie Cassidy.
In response to exhaustive written questions by Inspector Conlon, Mr Cassidy provided a timeline and explanation of his involvement and efforts to ensure the event was Covid compliant.
He said both he and Deputy Noel Grealish attended the Station House Hotel a week before the event to ensure full compliance with Covid-19 regulations.
The court heard details of Mr Cassidy’s assurance from the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) that the event could proceed as planned.
The court heard that upon hearing about new guidelines for the hospitality sector on the morning of August 19, Mr Cassidy called the IHF at 8.40 am.
Mr Cassidy was informed that the federation was in the process of checking and would inform members as soon as it had clarity.
Later that day, the IHF emailed all members to say that the Department of Tourism had not supplied them with notice regarding proposed changes to the regulations and that until they did, “the status quo would remain”.
A subsequent email a day later gave the same advice.
It was not until August 21 that the IHF informed members, “Fáilte Ireland are in the process of updating the relevant guidelines, which they expected to be available early next week”.
As the hearing drew to a close, defence counsel from Mr Noel Grealish, Michael McDowell SC, said he was anxious for his client’s correspondence with Inspector Conlon to be read into evidence.
In his correspondence with Inspector Conlon, Mr Grealish said he “understood and was assured at all times by Donie Cassidy and the hotel that the planned Presidents dinner function would be held in full compliance with Covid-19 regulations.”
He added: “My Captain’s Day outing took place on the 18th (the previous day), and we had no Captain’s dinner.”
The court heard that on the morning of August 19, Mr Grealish raised concerns about the new guidelines agreed at Cabinet the previous evening with Donie Cassidy.
After Mr Cassidy contacted the IHF, he briefed Deputy Grealish, who was reassured it was safe for the event to go ahead as planned.
In his official declaration to the gardaí, Mr Grealish said: “I had no responsibility for the arrangements for the dinner event on Wednesday, August 19.”
He said he had “no dealings with the hotel management in relation to that event.”
“I believe that if there was any correspondence for the holding of the president’s dinner, it would have occurred between Donie Cassidy and the hotel.”
The opening day of the trial yesterday heard from a defence barrister that “public hysteria” whipped up following the event led to the forced resignation of “a lot of very good people”.
Opening the prosecution case, Eoghan Cole BL outlined the legislation in place at the time and said 81 invited guests attended a dinner at the hotel when it was prohibited to organise an event with more than 50 people.
Defence counsel for Golf Society president Donie Cassidy, Mr Colm Smyth SC, yesterday told Judge Mary Fahy that two separate events took place, which he said was not contravening the regulations because: “The reality of what took place is that those people were accommodated in two separate rooms.”
Due to scheduling pressures the trial will recommence on February 3rd.
Fred Bassett (the same lineage as the wolf) cannot but intervene in this farce. They have a Judge who has a Supreme Court Judge in the witness box and the exchange involving well known barristers becomes a lesson for criminals to lean on when they are looking at a defence … Cartel/gangland criminals watch on. Some lawyers advise that you say little other than Yes or No when you are in the Witness Box but not in this case the Supreme Court Justice, Mr Woulfe, who was more than willing to answer questions and even engage in conjecture. Public Health measures, it appears, are only for the precariat. However, Golfgate got the media attention and this farce of a court case was catapulted back onto the media stage … but the truth is … what a waste of taxpayers money and a sleight to the Rule of Law and the Separation of Powers.Fred Bassett