Former Attorney General Máire Whelan remained at the Cabinet table as ministers discussed her appointment to the Court of Appeal, the Irish Examiner has learned, writes Elaine Loughlin and Daniel McConnell.
The Government has come under fire from opposition for appointing Máire Whelan to the appeals court during the final Cabinet meeting under Enda Kenny’s leadership.
It has emerged that Ms Whelan, who faced much criticism for her handling of scandals within An Garda Síochána in recent years, did not recuse herself from Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting as ministers decided on her appointment.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin slammed the appointment in the Dáil as “directly political”, and last night the party’s justice spokesman, Jim O’Callaghan, said there were numerous unanswered questions around the decision.
Mr O’Callaghan claimed every member of the High Court would have been qualified for the position and questioned why a shortlist had not been provided to Cabinet.
“When this came before Cabinet, all of the members of Cabinet would have been aware that usually they are presented with a list of names,” he said. “Did no one ask why no list had been provided and why only one person had been nominated?”
The job on the Court of Appeal became vacant in March, but the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board was not able to name any candidates for approval. However, sitting judges do not go through the board and instead generally write directly to the attorney general if they want to seek a promotion.
However, one political source hinted that the position in the Court of Appeal had been left open since March purely to give it to Ms Whelan. He said: “It was almost as if the Court of Appeal was held open for her as a safety net.”
Separately, Mr O’Callaghan also pointed to the fact that Transport Minister Shane Ross has made reforming the system of judicial appointments a clear priority in this Government.
“If Government is not applying the current vetting system how can they argue that a more rigorous system be introduced?” he asked.
Mr Ross has denied the appointment was linked in any way to the reopening of Stepaside Garda Station in his Dublin Rathdown constituency after coming under pressure in the Dáil.
“There has been no link of any kind between the two,” Mr Ross said. “When I learned about it, there was no conversation about Stepaside station.”
Newly appointed Employment and Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty said she was not aware before last Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting that Ms Whelan was to be nominated to join the Court of Appeal.
“I can’t speak for every member, I can only speak for myself, but no I didn’t know she was going to be appointed,” she said. “It wasn’t on the documentation that was circulated in the days before the meeting.
“The appointment was put to Cabinet and approved by Cabinet.”
However, the former Government chief whip went on to praise Ms Whelan describing her as an “eminently qualified judge” who has done “an absolutely super job for this government and the previous government”.
One legal source said it was “not a surprise” that Ms Whelan was appointed to the position, as traditionally attorneys general have been rewarded with a position on the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal.
Education Minister Richard Bruton also defended Ms Whelan’s appointment, saying she is “eminently qualified against any criteria”.
“This was a Government decision and we exercised our Constitutional prerogative to appoint a person,” said Mr Bruton.
“She is a woman of great compassion, of judgement, of understanding she is eminently experienced across the public service.”