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TDs round on Taoiseach and government over Seamus Woulfe questions 'charade'

Justice Minister Helen McEntee also defended the government’s stance.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
Image: Oireachtas.ie

Updated Nov 24th 2020, 6:28 PM

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has been accused in the Dáil of setting a “dangerous precedent”, as opposition leaders rounded on him over his response to the Seamus Woulfe controversy. 

The government has insisted that Justice Minister Helen McEntee’s offer to take priority questions on the issue is sufficient, but opposition parties have described such a suggestion as “a charade”. 

The deterioration of relations between the government and other parties over the issue has also now seen opposition parties and groupings now withdraw from the Dáil’s Business Committee. The committee meets each week to agree the agenda of the Dáil for the following week. 

Woulfe was nominated to the Supreme Court in mid-July, a number of weeks after the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael-Green Party government was formed. 

McEntee has offered to take priority questions on 1 December on the appointment of Justice Woulfe and the process followed by government. 

Under the proposed format, TDs would have to submit their questions to the minister a week in advance and this has been roundly criticised by the opposition as being too rigid.

Speaking in the Dáil today, Labour leader Alan Kelly said that the Taoiseach should be facilitating accountability among his ministers.  

“You’re creating the most dangerous precedent I have seen in this house in my time here. No minister will be accountable in here if this is what you as the Taoiseach of Ireland allow to happen,” he said.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the government’s response was “shocking and unacceptable” and that what was “much worse” is the Taoiseach’s stance. 

“Taoiseach, the elected representatives and members here have not only a right but a duty to put the necessary questions to the Minister for Justice, and I for the life of me cannot understand why you are continuing to block that legitimate parliamentary work,” she said. 

“As recently as 2017 you lead the charge for accountability on that occasion and you were right,” McDonald added, referring to Martin’s criticism of the appointment of former Attorney General Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal three years ago.  

Social Democrats’ co-leader Róisín Shortall described the government’s offer of priority questions as “a charade”:

“It seems like you’re going to be part of the charade being followed by the Minister for Justice in terms of making out that it’s in any way acceptable that she comes in here under the normal oral questions. You know that’s wrong Taoiseach, you know in your heart that’s wrong,” she said. 

In response, Martin said the minister would be coming in to answer “normal questions” on the matter. He also defended his own handling of the controversy: 

My overarching objective in the context of this entire situation and particularly the publication of letters between the Chief Justice and Justice Woulfe has been to uphold the separation of powers between the Oireachtas and judiciary. I take that very seriously. And that has been that has been my motivation from the beginning. 

The Justice Minister earlier today was announcing plans for new laws against the non-consensual sharing of intimate images. 

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Speaking at a press briefing about that announcement, McEntee said she has attempted to make herself available to the opposition. 

“The suggestion is that priority questions do not hold ministers to account. What I would say is that every week ministers answer priority questions to all party deputies who raise concerns about any issues within that particular department. It has existed for many year, since beginning almost of the Dáil,” she said. 

McEntee also addressed the selection of Woulfe for the vacancy on the Supreme Court.

“I considered this person to be the best person, the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Minister Ryan and the AG agreed with me and, following that discussion with all four of them, the name was then put to Cabinet and subsequently agreed by Cabinet.”

TDs Paul Murphy and Bríd Smith today wrote to all party leaders seeking support to initiate process to remove Woulfe. 

“We have written to the party leaders seeking them to vote in favour of adjourning the debate so that the necessary process can be set up to properly look into this matter,” Smith said in a statement.

“We think that this matter should be properly investigated, and we are calling on the other party leaders not to frustrate that process. The party leaders should remember that this is not a vote for impeachment, rather it would be a vote to initiate the process to find out what actually when on.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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