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'Completely fake, overblown': Transcript shows judge compared media coverage of golf dinner to 'Ku Klux Klan'

The transcript from the conversation between former chief justice Susan Denham and Mr Justice Seamus Woulfe was released yesterday.

File photo. Seamus Woulfe attended the infamous golfgate dinner.
File photo. Seamus Woulfe attended the infamous golfgate dinner.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Images

SUPREME COURT JUSTICE Seamus Woulfe described the media coverage of the Golfgate scandal as “appalling”, and claimed the social event was treated like the “Ku Klux Klan”. 

When it was put to him by former chief justice Susan Denham that the event in Clifden caused a “huge public controversy”, Woulfe said that the press coverage was “completely fake, [and] overblown”. 

A transcript of the conversation that took place between Denham and Woulfe was released yesterday evening, after a report earlier this week from Denham found it would be “unjust and disproportionate” for Woulfe to resign over his attendance at the dinner.

The report detailed the exact details leading up to Woulfe attending the controversial golf event in Clifden.

The scandal cost then-Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary a seat at Cabinet. EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan was also forced to resign having attended the event. 

There were also calls for Justice Seamus Woulfe to stand down from his position as a Supreme Court judge. Denham carried out a full investigation into the incident, and her report was published on Thursday.

Appendice D of the report shows a transcript of the discussions between Woulfe and Denham on 8 September, and includes previously unreleased details. 

News updates

The event took place on Wednesday 19 August. A day earlier, Taoiseach Micheál Martin had addressed the nation and introduced a raft of new restrictions. 

The new government guidance outlined that indoor gatherings and events were now limited to six people from no more than three households. However, in terms of indoor events, there was an exception for weddings with 50 guests still allowed.

Updated guidance was not immediately issued to hotels, however, to reflect the new advice from the government. 

Woulfe told Denham that he was on holiday at the time and was trying to “switch off” from the news cycle. 

Denham: “But you weren’t aware, that evening, of the Government announcement?”

Woulfe: “No, no, and unusually for me, you know, I didn’t really check my phone for news as much. I didn’t buy a newspaper the next morning that I would normally do. There wasn’t one available on the reception desk. I would nearly always, when I’m staying in a hotel, you know, I’m a newspaper addict get the newspaper and read the news. But I didn’t do that. And to some extent it was deliberate, I was switching off.”

Woulfe also told Denham he wasn’t aware there was a dinner included on the Wednesday until the day itself.

‘Ku Klux Klan’ and media criticism

ku klux

In one section describing how well organised events from the Oireachtas Golf Society had been, Woulfe took aim at the media’s coverage of the event.

He said: “It’s a little bit of digression but I’m appalled at the kind of media treatment of the society event and the [...] it’s presented, in some way it’s like a Ku Klux Klan now, because on that day and both times there was a friendly social atmosphere.”

The Supreme Court judge also described his surprise when the golf event began to hit headlines, after it was first reported by Aoife Grace Moore and Paul Hosford in the Irish Examiner.

He said: “Before I went to bed that night I was back to my news addiction and I flicked on the news headlines on, I know I shouldn’t, on The Examiner newspaper and I was astonished to see that they had as a lead story something about Dara Calleary attending a golf dinner and I said, ‘this is the greatest load of rubbish ever now.’

“I don’t know, on the Thursday night had they mentioned my attendance or anybody else, but they had a breaking story that Dara Calleary attended a dinner. I thought nothing of. I thought, ‘Jesus, they’re really scraping the barrel here during the silly season in August.’

But then I woke up the next morning and I think the phrase is, I was absolutely dumbfounded to hear that Minister Calleary had resigned or been forced to resign by the Taoiseach, on account of him having attending the dinner. And it was a summary dismissal kind of atmosphere that he had done something terribly wrong.
And I was absolutely dumbfounded and shocked. So I hadn’t been aware of any breaches of the Regulations or Guidelines at that stage. I still hadn’t when I saw the news of Dara Calleary resigning and I was astonished. I tried to rack my brain, you know, ‘God, was there something here that I’ve missed? What are they talking about?’

Woulfe said the “key thing” in the media was that they were pressing “that there had been a new rule that number had gone from 50 to six and I was astonished at by that”. 

The former Attorney General, who only left that role in June for his Supreme Court position, said it had been the case previously that NPHET would make recommendations and this would be considered by government and announced, rather than being put into immediate effect. 

Pre-judging

Towards the end of the conversation, Mr Justice Woulfe was asked if he accepted that the event had created a huge public controversy.

He said: “Yes, it but it looks objectively to be completely fake, overblown. Every paragraph starts off “attended a dinner of 80 people”. Virtually every paragraph of media coverage says that. If they’re having an interview with Joe Duffy about his life they throw in a question, ‘isn’t it appalling what those people did in Clifden?’ Virtually every article I’ve read, I’ve gone back to the Sunday newspapers.

In one sense I suppose that is so, that for the media to also have the chance to bring down a judge adds an extra fuel to the fire and it did add to the controversy that I was there. Even if objectively there was no valid reason why I shouldn’t have been there.
But taking the world we live in in the more subjective sense and in that sense could be seen as, you know, bringing the Supreme Court into controversy. But objectively I think it’s more damaging to the Supreme Court if they allow some sort of theoretical damage to the institution prevail over hounding a judge out of office for no valid reason.
And I would hope that the Supreme Court didn’t prejudge the matter in the way that so many other people did. I would hope they didn’t and they’ll have your report to actually outline the true facts

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Woulfe added that, “in this mood of hysteria”, not even judges were “above prejudging”. 

“I can’t be sure that even some of my colleagues have prejudged me,” he said. 

pre-judge

Apology

Denham asked Woulfe at one point why he issued an apology after it first emerged that he had attended the event.

He said: “Okay. But all this is relevant because there’s a keyword — sorry, I’ll just say first of all I was dumbfounded. What did I do? I couldn’t think of any breaches by me except I thought, look, like anybody, maybe I didn’t social distance a hundred percent perfectly all through the night, which I think probably applies to us all if we go to any gathering or family event. And that’s all I could think of initially.

Now, I was a bit hesitant about doing it because I wasn’t sure what I was apologising for, but if was there any unintentional breach, for instance, if the number was six and I hadn’t known it, as was being presented. And I think what’s very interesting is – and I’ve only noticed this yesterday when I went back to the apology – the fact that I said ‘do apologise for any unintentional breach of any of the new guidelines on my part’.

Denham said it was an “important part of the picture” that he’d issued this apology.

Woulfe replied: “Can I just say, Judge, you know I maintain that position. If it still is the case that there was intentional breach on my part I obviously apologise, still apologise and apologise again. But it is fair to say that it appears now, objectively, that there was no breach by the organisers, let alone by me.”

Woulfe also expressed his displeasure that Dara Calleary was “forced” to resign and expressed his sympathy for the event organisers.

He said: “Just for completeness, I know we’re probably finished, can I just add that I feel terribly sorry for the people who organised this event. They did it in good faith, they meant no harm and they’ve been absolutely pilloried as if they’re responsible for something appalling and dreadful.

“I also feel sorry for some of the unfortunate politicians who feel the need to confess to a crime they may not have committed, or don’t know whether they committed or not, but feel that the media torture and the opprobrium from their community resulting from it is too great to fight their corner in any way, or bother trying to establish the true facts.”

With reporting from Stephen McDermott

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Sean Murray

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