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Judicial appointments in the spotlight as Council of Europe says Ireland fails on political influence

A new report comes as the government faces ongoing questions over the Seamus Woulfe affair.

Chief Justice Frank Clarke (L) and Seamus Woulfe (R).
Chief Justice Frank Clarke (L) and Seamus Woulfe (R).
Image: Sam Boal

A EUROPEAN ANTI-CORRUPTION watchdog has said that Ireland’s system for appointing judges continues to fail to be free from political influence.

The Group of States Against Corruption (Greco), which is a body established by the Council of Europe, first delivered a report on ethics including judicial appointments in 2014.

It delivered 11 different recommendations for Ireland to follow and, in its latest evaluation published today, found that only five of the recommdations have been implemented.

Among those not implemented is one stating that the system for appointing a promoting judges must be done “in a transparent way, without improper influence from the executive/political powers.”

The publication of the report comes as the government faces questions over the appointment of former Attorney General Seamus Woulfe to the Supreme Court earlier this year. 

Speaking in the Dáil today, Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald described Woulfe as “a long-term member of Fine Gael” and said that Minister for Justice Helen McEntee was “duty-bound to take questions” on the process that led to his selection. 

Opposition parties have raised concerns about the selection process after it emerged last week that Cabinet was not told in July that a number of other judges had expressed interest in the vacancy on the Supreme Court before Woulfe was selected.

Speaking on the matter last week, the Taoiseach said only one name is brought to Cabinet when a judge is being appointed.

The Greco report published today did not feature an evaluation of the appointment process in the case of Woulfe, but was an evaluation of the system in general. 

The report was critical of the practice of not ranking potential candidates presented to government to become judges. 

It was not critical of the pre-selection process put in place by the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) but said that the seven names being forwarded should be prioritised to reduce potential political influence. 

Greco also makes numerous references to the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, which was championed by former minister Shane Ross but which was not passed by the Seanad and has since lapsed.

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The report stated that the proposal contained in the bill to create a commission to appoint judges that would have a lay majority and a lay chairperson was also problematic.

It stated that making the commission answerable to parliament would have also risked having “improper influence from the executive/political power over the appointment process”. 

Ross has been an outspoken critic of the process for selecting judges in this country, writing preciously in TheJournal.ie that the process is “too close to politicians and to the judiciary itself”.  

Speaking yesterday, Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín said that the judges and politics have been “interwoven for far too long”. 

“Irish people know more about the selection of Supreme Court Judges in the US than in Ireland,” he said.

“Many people look down their noses at the political nature of the system in the US while ignoring the political wheeling and dealing that goes into the selection process in Ireland.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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