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Shane Ross: What on Earth was a Supreme Court Judge doing at an Oireachtas members’ golf outing?

Former minister Shane Ross says the recent ‘golfgate’ event in Clifden has the familiar ring of political and judicial cosiness.

Shane Ross

FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL Seamus Woulfe seems intent on being the last man standing, while others who foolishly attended the bash in Clifden last week, are falling like ninepins.

It is a crying shame that a man of integrity, like Seamus Woulfe, is hanging on. The recently appointed judge has made two serious errors of judgment. The first was his decision to attend the golf outing; the second his determination not to be the first, but the last, to fall on his sword.

The seeds of his difficulty lie in the system. He is a product of a deeply flawed method of choosing judges, too close to politicians and to the judiciary itself. Seamus is behaving as might have been expected by many judges with the profession’s sense of entitlement, a detachment from reality and an elitist outlook.

He has not been IN his position in the Supreme Court for long enough to have acquired those qualities, often found in so many of their lordships of longer standing. But he has been an apprentice judge for many years, as attorney general in the last government and a senior counsel before that.

He has been deeply exposed to the political/judicial culture that has been the curse of the Four Courts for decades. As attorney-general for the last three years, he was appointed by Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar.

Appointed from the top

The AG is the personal choice of the Taoiseach of the day. When the new government came in, it replaced Seamus and appointed Paul Gallagher, a previous Fianna Fáil appointee.

Seamus is political, has been an activist in Fine Gael and a man with deep blueshirt convictions. Within three weeks of losing the AG gig, he was nominated by the new government to the Supreme Court.

Like many AGs before him, he somehow straddled the uncomfortable tensions that supposedly exist between politicians and the judiciary. He was a member of both clubs. In recent days politicians have been running for cover from the new Supreme Court judge’s catastrophic mistake.

Taoiseach Michéal Martin, one of those who appointed Woulfe barely three weeks ago, is pleading that the doctrine of the ‘separation of powers‘ prevents a politician from any action or opinion in his case.

Where was Michéal’s reluctance to get involved in judicial appointments less than a month ago when he joined in the cabinet’s rush to reward Seamus for his outstanding legal abilities, by making him a judge?

Where was his ‘separation of powers’ on that recent day? It was a highly political appointment. Nothing else. Where stands Michéal’s phantom ‘separation of powers’ alongside the power of the Oireachtas to remove a judge for stated misbehaviour?

It is simply a flag of convenience to be flown when political evasion is needed. Seamus Woulfe, like all attorneys general, will have been involved in the appointment of many of today’s judges of the Supreme Court. He will know dozens of the top judges.

A close group

Whether that will have happened because of his Fine Gael connections or his long spell as a senior counsel does not matter. As Attorney General, he will probably have got to know all Fine Gael members of the cabinet plus many from rival parties. Inevitably he will have built up friendships with politicians, as all AGs do.

That will not have done him any harm when the vacancy in the Supreme Court was being filled. In my experience in cabinet he was impeccable when giving opinions on the legal merits of the legislation, but his judgment when it came to the appointment of judges was open to serious challenge, particularly in the higher courts.

All the ingredients of the pickle in which Woulfe now finds himself are present in today’s system of appointing judges. Attorneys General can often be in danger of looking compromised by virtue of their appointment by partisan politicians.

Even in normal times, if an Attorney General had decided to participate in an organised golf outing with politicians, an eyebrow should be raised. If a Supreme Court judge had done so, two eyebrows would have been merited.

But if a Supreme Court judge decides not only to play golf but to fraternise at the dinner afterwards it is all a bit too laddish for the pretence that there is a rigid separation of powers.

If the same dinner is a breach of the rules, some set by the judge when he was AG, then there can only be one outcome. The solution does not lie in setting up an inquiry, chaired by a former chief justice Susan Denham, to report to a current chief justice Frank Clarke, into the behaviour of a current Supreme Court Justice, Seamus Woulfe.

It has the familiar ring of judicial cosiness. It does not need a former chief justice to discover answers to a question that a babe in arms could give.

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Shane Ross is a former government minister. His book ‘In Bed with the Blueshirts’ will be published in October. It will cover the last government, including the controversial appointment of judges during the 2016-20 period.

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