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Analysis: Unrelenting pressure from a unified opposition kept the Woulfe affair firmly in the spotlight

The opposition has been like a dog with a bone on the issue.

Tánaitse Leo Varadkar and MInister Helen McEntee, (File, 2017)
Tánaitse Leo Varadkar and MInister Helen McEntee, (File, 2017)
Image: Eamonn Farrell

FOR THE COALITION, it must feel like Golfgate is the controversy that just won’t die.

When Dara Calleary fell on his sword mere hours after the story broke back in August, few would have believed that the tentacles from the fateful dinner with still be bothering the government three months later. 

Granted, the fresh questions raised today about Seamus Woulfe’s nomination to the Supreme Court were seeded before that dinner, but they probably wouldn’t have been asked without it. 

In large part though, the main reason we’re still poring over the entire affair is because the Dáil’s opposition parties have effectively acted as one in pursuing it. 

There were a number of points when the controversy could have died down but instead grew legs again because the opposition kept it going.

In fact, there were a number of points when the opposition were setting the terms of the debate and the government were playing catch up. 

The clearest example of this was when the prospects of actually impeaching Woulfe began to fade.

When Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil a fortnight ago that the government would not be taking any action against Woulfe the debate had already moved on. Instead, opposition parties had already changed their focus and were insisting that Justice Minister Helen McEntee answer questions in the Dáil. 

When Martin made that statement it was already clear at the time that a successful impeachment was a non-runner. 

It was clear because the Social Democrats’ Catherine Murphy and others had said publicly a week previously that they didn’t believe it would succeed

Labour’s Brendan Howlin had also gone on Today with Claire Byrne to put the brakes on and urge that members keep their counsel should they be required to make a judgement on Woulfe. 

It was an urging that appeared to be heeded, with Sinn Féin’s Martin Kenny appearing to temper his language for the greater good of the opposition’s cause. 

Gunning for the Taoiseach

For about a week, the government resisted the need for McEntee to take Dáil questions, pointing to a statement she made in the Justice Committee and indeed questions answered by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste in the Dáil. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said it would be “a bad idea” to discuss the appointment in the Dáil while the Taoiseach had to hear his own words used against him. 

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald told Martin during Leaders’ Questions that the government’s approach “stinks to the highest heavens”, echoing his 2017 words when Máire Whelan was appointment to the Court of Appeal. 

The repeated attacks worked and the following day McEntee agreed to take questions on the matter, albeit only in the form of oral questions, meaning no Q&A. 

The opposition wasn’t satisfied though, insisting the government was still dodging accountability. 

With what seemed like clear coordination, each of the opposition leaders lined up on Tuesday to take aim at the Taoiseach in particular.

Alan Kelly said Martin was creating “a most dangerous precedent” and that “as Taoiseach of Ireland” he should be facilitating accountability. 

If that wasn’t enough, the opposition parties said they were withdrawing from the Dáil’s Business Committee because the government wouldn’t agree to holding the Q&A with McEntee. 

Ultimately it worked and the government was forced to relent, even if there were more statements than questions today for the opposition’s liking.

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It remains to be seen where the matter goes from here, but the revelation that Varadkar had told McEntee that Woulfe “would make a good judge” will certainly turn attention to the Fine Gael leader. 

Ultimately there is little the government can do about Woulfe’s position, so the noise around the issue may die down. But even if this is the case it could end up having a longer-lasting effect.

One of the frequent criticisms of Ireland’s left parties is that they are unable to act in unison, derided in the Dáil by Barry Cowen as an alphabet soup. On this issue they have clearly demonstrated an ability to work together. 

Not necessarily in lockstep with each other but perhaps close enough. A promised impeachment motion from Rise TD Paul Murphy may be doomed to failure but even that’s unlikely to mean much.

As soon as that motion was announced Sinn Féin and Labour both said they would not be supporting it, demonstrating a perhaps unexpected consensus.  

Questions over Woulfe will fade in the face of tomorrow’s Covid-19 announcement and the upcoming Christmas period. The challenge for the opposition is to maintain a single voice as those and other issues come to the fore.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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