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# oireachtas golf society
Golfgate trial: Former AG Seámus Woulfe describes 'hazy knowledge' of guidelines
Woulfe was present at the dinner and had played golf with the society on the day of the dinner.

LAST UPDATE | Jan 7th 2022, 6:14 PM

SUPREME COURT JUDGE Seámus Woulfe has told the Golfgate trial that, in his view, there were “ambiguities” surrounding what constituted a gathering under rules for hospitality at the time of the August 2020 Oireachtas Golf Society dinner. 

Woulfe, who had been Attorney General in the months prior to the event, was present at the dinner and had played golf with the society on the day of the dinner. 

Independent TD Noel Grealish (55), former Fianna Fáil senator Donie Cassidy (76), John Sweeney (61), owner of the Station House Hotel in Clifden, and his son James (32), the general manager of the hotel, face charges in relation to the dinner which took place at the Station House Hotel in the Connemara town on 19 August 2020.

The State alleges that the four men were organisers of the event and that the event contravened a penal provision of a regulation made under Section 31A (1) of the Health Act 1947 as amended, to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of Covid-19.  

The State has argued that the men “did not take all reasonable steps” to ensure that the number of persons at the event did not exceed 50 persons. 

The offence, which the men deny, is punishable by a fine of up to €2,500 and/or six months in prison.

Counsel for a number of the defendants have argued that they were following Fáilte Ireland guidelines that had been agreed between the government and the representative body.

Woulfe was appointed as a Supreme Court judge in July 2020 but prior to that had been Attorney General from June 2017 to June 2020. 

He told Galway District Court today that he first attended an event by the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in 2019 as he was told it was a good opportunity for politicians to mix in a relaxed way. 

He told the court he first told of the August 2020 society event by Paul Coghlan by way of a “friendly verbal invitation” and was then told by Grealish in May or June 2020 that it would be going ahead. 

He said that, after being appointed as a Supreme Court judge, he did question if it was still appropriate for him to attend. 

“There was complications, I had now become a judge that was one thing, so was it still okay to come to come to dinner?….but when I satisfied myself, having had a word with the Chief Justice that it seemed okay to go as a judge to the social, recreational event.”

Guidelines

Woulfe told the court that when he attended the event he was aware that there were “detailed guidelines” backing up “whatever we call the strict numbers rule”.

During his evidence, Woulfe read from a folder which he said contained details of Covid-19 statutory instruments and associated guidelines.  

He told that court that his view at the time of the event was the guidelines were in place to detail how the 50-person rule was to operate. 

“I knew from my time as attorney general there were a pile of guidelines fleshing out the regulations because there were ambiguities in the regulations because they were almost impossible to draft in a comprehensive way, given the time pressures and everything,” he said. 

Woulfe said that the ambiguity applied to all hotels and restaurants and that, while he is not sure it was something he considered on the day of the dinner, it was something he was aware of “along the way”. 

“So, was a gathering 50 people in one room in a hotel or was it 50 people in the premises, sorry 50 people in the building, or if a hotel had two buildings was it 50 people in the overall hotel premises,” he said. 

Speaking about his experience of the drafting of Covid-19 regulations during his time as Attorney General, Woulfe said the guidelines “weren’t done in the Attorney General’s Office, the regulations were”. 

Woulfe said the guidelines were drafted by civil servants as well Fáilte Ireland but that they were “government-approved”.

“Insofar as they were approved by government, the Attorney General’s Office wasn’t involved. So while I would have had a hazy, broad knowledge in broad terms of the nature of the guidelines, I wouldn’t have seen it until after,” he said.

Addressing Judge Mary Fahy, he said it was “significant” that the guidelines were published with the logo of the Irish government. 

“You’re probably through all this yesterday Judge, it is significant that the government of Ireland harp is on the front page,” he said. 

Woulfe said it was a “conscious policy” for the guidelines to have “a more liberal view” and allow for ”multiple gatherings in venue facilities”.

Partition

The court has heard various details of a partition wall that was in place to separate groups of diners, with counsel for defendants arguing that the partition was “soundproofed” and “clearly defined two areas”. 

Asked about the nature of the partition today, Woulfe described it as a ”retractable wall” but that he was sitting with his back to it. 

He said it was a “white wall” and that he didn’t focus on it and has very little memory of it. 

“When you’re Attorney General, I’m afraid you get invited to an awful lot of dinners. So over those three years I would have been at a lot of dinner and hotel functions and you become fairly oblivious to the surroundings around you,” he said. 

Asked by Constance Cassidy SC, counsel for James Sweeney, had he seen anything on the night of the event that would have concerned him “in relation to Covid”, Woulfe responded “no”. 

Today’s proceedings also heard evidence from Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer, former Labour party senator Lorraine Higgins and a number of hotel and bar staff who were employed on the night of the event. 

Buttimer told the court that he was “very impressed” with Covid compliance at the hotel during the event, saying that staff “went above and beyond” what would be expected. 

He said he “was aware there was another room” during dinner but “wasn’t aware of how many tables”. 

Higgins told the court that as she was seated in one room she had “no reason to believe that there was any other room.”

Michael McDowell SC, for Grealish, has previously told the court that his client contends he did not organise the President’s Dinner at the centre as he was the Captain of the Oireachtas Golf Society.  

McDowell asked Higgins, a former captain of the society, whether that role was “chiefly as a golfer” to which she responded: “That was certainly my experience.”

‘Drinking, chatting, singing’ 

Anthony Curran, a barman who was working in the hotel on the night of the event, told the court that most of the patrons left after dinner but “about 30 or so” stayed behind in the residents’ bar “drinking, chatting, singing”.

Curran said he had been working in a separate public bar in the hotel before he moved to the function room to collect glasses and then on to the residents’ bar where he served patrons. 

The witness said he and another barman were were told to stop serving at about 2.30 am.

“After I was clearing glasses, I was doing that for about half an hour or 45 minutes and then I ended up in the resident’s bar as they started to go in, to help a colleague, it was about 2.30 am that they told us to stop serving,” he said.

Asked by Eoghan Cole BL for the State about the layout of the function room, Curran said there was a partition in the room which he said was “mostly still up” when he arrived. He said the partition had a section opened “for staff to pass through”.

Gardaí

This afternoon, the court heard evidence from Inspector Peter Conlon who was responsible for overseeing the garda investigation into the event.

The garda told the court that he first became aware on 21 August 2020 that the event had taken place two days previous.

He said that two gardaí attended the hotel on 21 August and spoke with John and James Sweeney. He said the the two hoteliers: “provided information to both sergeants regarding this event and the organisation of this event and numbers that attended and where the event took place”.

Conlon also confirmed correspondence he had with both Noel Grealish and Donie Cassidy after the garda had written to them separately on 16 September inviting them for an interview.

In the garda’s letter, Conlon said to both men it was his understanding and that it was “widely reported in the media” that they had been involved in organising the event.

In a response from Cassidy which was also read out in court, the former senator in correspondence with the garda there had been “two entirely separate rooms” during the event and that he was “entirely satisfied” that Covid guidelines were followed by the hotel.

A response from Grealish was also read out in court in which the sitting TD said that he had “no dealings with the hotel management” in relation to the holding of the dinner event on 19 August.

The evidence from Inspector Conlon was not completed by the end of today’s proceedings and will resume when the trial returns before Judge Mary Fahy on 3 February.