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Chief Justice says Seamus Woulfe should resign from Supreme Court, but Woulfe refuses to quit

Chief Justice Frank Clarke met with fellow Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe last week.

Chief Justice of Ireland Justice Frank Clarke (left) with Mr Justice Seamus Woulfe.
Chief Justice of Ireland Justice Frank Clarke (left) with Mr Justice Seamus Woulfe.
Image: Brian Lawless/PA Images

Updated Nov 9th 2020, 10:46 PM

CHIEF JUSTICE FRANK Clarke has said he believes that Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe should resign his position in the wake of the controversy caused by the Golfgate dinner.

The Attorney General has been asked to advise the Taoiseach and Government on the Chief Justice’s view, following the release of letters between the two judges this evening.

It’s understood that Cabinet will discuss the matter relating to Woulfe’s attendance at the dinner, which broke Covid-19 regulations and led to the resignations of Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary and EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, tomorrow.

In a letter released this evening, Clarke told Woulfe: “Regrettably, however, I believe that I should make clear my personal opinion that, to avoid continuing serious damage to the judiciary, you should resign.”

Woulfe, however, has indicated that he will not be resigning.

He has told Clarke that he “does not consider it in any way appropriate that [he] should resign”. 

Woulfe has been told he will not be listed to sit on the court until February – having only been appointed during the summer – and Clarke has “strongly suggested” that arrangements should be made to waive or repay his salary for that period. 

A meeting took place between the pair last Thursday, but details on that event and its aftermath weren’t issued until late this evening. 

In a letter dated 5 November, Chief Justice Clarke told Woulfe: “It is my view, and the unanimous view of all of the members of the Court (including the ex-officio members), that the cumulative effect of all of these matters has been to cause a very significant and irreparable damage both to the Court and to the relationship within the Court which is essential to the proper functioning of a collegiate court.

It is not part of my role to ask, let alone tell, you to resign. Resignation is and can only be for the judge him or herself. Regrettably, however, I believe that I should make clear my personal opinion that, to avoid continuing serious damage to the judiciary, you should resign. I asked you to reflect on this. You have indicated that you do not intend to resign.

Clarke said that it was not an offence to attend the controversial Oireachtas Golf Society dinner but that “a judge should not attend any event which is organised in breach of the law or where there may be a reasonable public perception that this is so”.

The two judges were due to meet on four separate occasions in October, but the planned meeting was postponed and eventually cancelled. Woulfe requested a postponement for “personal reasons” at first, and then later on “medical grounds”.

That meeting was part of the “informal resolution” that was recommended in a report to deal with Woulfe’s attendance at the Golfgate dinner, which resulted in the resignation of Dara Calleary as Agriculture Minister and Phil Hogan as the EU’s Trade Commissioner.

The review into Woulfe’s attendance at the dinner by former chief justice Susan Denham found it would be “unjust and disproportionate” for the judge to resign.

  • You can read Clarke’s latest letter to Woulfe here

However, further controversy ensued after transcripts of an interview given by Woulfe to Denham in the course of the review were later released, and described media coverage of the scandal as “appalling” “overblown” and “fake”, with claims the social event was treated like the “Ku Klux Klan”.

In correspondence to Woulfe, Chief Justice Clarke said that the details from the transcripts of Woulfe’s meeting with Denham has “caused even greater damage to the judiciary than did your attendance at the Clifden event”.

He said that Woulfe’s account to Denham put the controversy down to a media frenzy.

Clarke added: “Indeed, your statement that you did not understand what you were apologising for at the time when you issued your limited apology would now significantly devalue any further apology. There would be legitimate public scepticism about the genuineness of any such apology.”

Woulfe’s letter

In a letter to Clarke dated today, Woulfe acknowledged that the perception that he broke Covid-19 guidelines has unintentionally had a negative impact on the image of the judiciary and the Supreme Court, and apologises for this.

But he told the Chief Justice that he is determined to co-operate with the court to remedy the situation.

“I do not consider it in any way appropriate that I should resign,” Woulfe wrote.

He said he believed that an “informal resolution” of the matter proposed by Clarke meant that the two would meet informally to discuss the issues about his attendance at the dinner, but said this meeting had never taken place.

He wrote:

It is, on any view, surprising that something so serious as a Chief Justice calling on a fellow member of the Supreme Court to resign (and, apparently, intending to do so publicly) should occur without the Chief Justice even discussing the matter in advance with the Judge in question or hearing what the Judge might have to say on a point of significant concern to his livelihood, his reputation and his mental health…

Woulfe also said in his letter that although he accepted it was inappropriate for him to have attended the dinner, he argued that Clarke was incorrect to assert that the dinner did not comply with Covid-19 regulations in place at the time.

“I do not think it is fair to criticise me by saying I did not respect such guidelines in circumstances where I was simply not aware,” he said.

“It was simply a matter of fact. I attended a dinner in a room with 45 people, not 80 people.”

Woulfe further noted that the Supreme Court had accepted Susan Denham’s report into his attendance at the event, and said he did not think it was fair to characterise his defence or use of an engineer’s report as a “concentration on narrow and technical issues”.

However, he accepted that he did not appreciate the genuine public concern over the dinner and instead attributed it to “a media frenzy”.

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“If that is the impression I have given, I am sorry for that and that is certainly not the impression I intended to create,” he wrote.

“My point was that the entirely understandable public concern and, indeed, outrage, was based on the assumption that I had attended a dinner in a room with 80 people and that I did so knowing that it was, or must have been, in breach of the relevant Covid regulations and guidelines.”

Woulfe later denied making any public criticism of the government in his interview with Denham, saying his only comments were that Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary was not asked to give an account of his movements to the Taoiseach.

He also said he was “under the most intense pressure, personally, physically and emotionally” and said the comments made were in private at a time when he was “fighting for [his] professional life and reputation”.

He further denied implying that his colleagues on the Supreme Court had “pre-judged” his fate.

“I am sorry if any of my colleagues took offence at either the apprehension of pre-judgement that I expressed to Ms Justice Denham, or at the fact that I found my meeting with them to be upsetting and traumatic and said so,” he wrote.

“The fact of the matter is, however, that I did find the content and tone of the meeting both upsetting and traumatic.”

Woulfe had earlier volunteered to offer a month’s salary to charity, and responded to a suggestion by Clarke to waive or repay his salary for the three months in which he would not be listed to hear cases that he would accept this if it would resolve the issue.

Clarke’s letter today

In his final letter to Woulfe today, Chief Justice Clarke said he would be publishing the details of this correspondence as he considered this action “necessary in the public interest”. 

Clarke said that while Woulfe had expressed regret and offered an apology, this was somewhat “undermined by [his] apparent insistence that nothing [he has] done merits reprimand, criticism or apology and indeed [his] continuing desire to place responsibility elsewhere”.

The Chief Justice went on: “I very much regret that we have arrived at this situation. However, I feel that I have no alternative to expressing my opinion in circumstances where, while suggesting that you will apologise and make amends, you maintain that you did little wrong.

I do not think that sufficient to restore public confidence… Finally, I should say that, regrettably, I remain of the view, expressed at our meeting and in the draft letter, that you should resign. 
I note that you have reaffirmed the view expressed at our meeting to the effect that you will not resign. I do appreciate that this has been a most stressful time and am glad that you recognise that the views which I have come to are not borne out of ill will but rather my genuine assessment of the situation. 

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha.

About the author:

Sean Murray & Stephen McDermott

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