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Varadkar says he spoke with other leaders before telling McEntee ‘Woulfe would make a good judge’

Helen McEntee took questions today on the ongoing controversy around Seamus Woulfe’s appointment.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee.
Image: Oireachtas.ie

Updated Nov 26th 2020, 8:33 PM

LEO VARADKAR SPOKE to other party leaders before making Justice Minister Helen McEntee aware of the vacancy on the Supreme Court later filled by Seamus Woulfe, a spokesperson for the Tánaiste has said. 

Earlier today, McEntee told the Dáil that she had an “informal” conversation with the Tánaiste about the Supreme Court vacancy, stating that Varadkar told her he believed Woulfe “would make a good judge”.

The Supreme Court judge attended the “golfgate” event in Clifden, Co Galway, in August when members of the Oireachtas’ golf society gathered for a dinner organised in variance with Covid-19 rules.

He refused to resign over his handling of the incident despite a call from chief justice Frank Clarke to quit.

A spokesperson for the Tánaiste said this evening: “The Tanaiste made the Minister for Justice aware of a vacancy on the Supreme Court after he had made the other Party Leaders aware.

As the Minister for Justice has said, the Tanaiste expressed an opinion that Seamus Woulfe would be a good judge. This was in line with the recommendation of Seamus Woulfe by JAAB – which is chaired by the Chief Justice.

The spokesperson added that, as McEntee has said, Varadkar did not instruct the Justice Minister to propose Woulfe for the position, nor was he aware of the names of the five other judge who expressed an interest. 

McEntee said earlier today that the government acted  “appropriately” throughout the Woulfe appointment process, McEntee said.

Outlining the series of events, the minister said that when she was appointed to office she was told there was a Supreme Court vacancy that needed to be filled.

“I learned that Seamus was come through Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB). I did have a conversation informally with my colleague, with the Tánaiste. He informed me himself that there was a vacancy and that Seamus Woulfe had come through that process. I informed him that I was already aware of that. He also informed me or I suppose gave a view that he thought Seamus would be a good judge,” she said.

The minister added: “He did not tell me this was to be the case.”

McEntee said when she had the informal conversation with Varadkar, she had not received the expression of interest list of five other judges that were also interested in the job.

Asked if the Tánaiste stating that Woulfe would make a good judge “weighed heavily on her mind”, the minister said: “Of course I took that on board.”

“But having then looked at the other names I made a recommendation based on who I thought was the best person for the job,” she said.

‘Intrusion in the process’

In response, Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said: “The very fact that there was an informal discussion is an intrusion in the process. It is pretty much saying, ‘I’d really like to see this person appointed.’”

Former attorney general Mr Justice Woulfe’s name was the only one she put forward to the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Green Party leader for approval in the summer, only three weeks after being appointed as minister.

He was proposed to the minister by the independent JAAB, which assessed him as being suitable for the job, while the three sitting judges registered their expressions of interest through the attorney general’s office.

McEntee told the Dáil: “The practice in relation to appointments or nominations to positions made by government is that only one name is brought to Cabinet by the proposing minister.

“I believe that this practice is particularly important in relation to judicial appointments, as an open debate on the merits or otherwise of sitting judges, as well as others who have been nominated by the JAAB, would amount to a complete politicisation of the judicial appointments process, when one of the very great strengths of the Irish judiciary has been its non-political character and independence, unlike what we see in many other countries.

It is a solemn duty on the part of the minister for justice to propose to Cabinet someone who, in the opinion of the minister, is the best person for the particular judicial vacancy. The government then decides. That is exactly what has happened in this case.”

‘Done deal’

McEntee’s account was challenged by all of the opposition, with Labour’s Brendan Howlin TD saying that while the Minister for Justice brings one name to Cabinet it is not their role to alone decide on a nomination. 

He said that from his experience of having served in three Coalition governments ,there is always “detailed discussions” about judicial appointments. 

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“It is correct to say that the Minister for Justice proposes one name to government for appointment. It was never, never the sole, or exclusive right of that minister to determine on their own who should be nominated,” he said.

“The names of all suitable candidates were circulated and considered by the leaders of each party in government, detailed papers were presented to each leader and a consensus eventually arrived at. Your position minister is that this process was set aside.

“That you alone made the decision and then presented that decision to the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister Ryan as a done deal.”

- With reporting by Press Association and Orla Dwyer

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Rónán Duffy and Christina Finn

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