Transport Minister Shane Ross’s controversial bill to overhaul the appointment of judges is a “dog’s dinner” and needs significant work, if it is to be viable, Attorney General Seamus Woulfe has said.
Mr Woulfe, speaking at an event in Dublin, said the bill — which was the cause of a major row at the Cabinet, earlier this week — is in a poor state, because of amendments made by opposition TDs at committee stage.
Mr Woulfe said that many of the amendments made by the opposition were “contradictory, inconsistent, and unconstitutional”.
“Among a whole myriad of amendments, which they made, which make the bill a complete dog’s dinner, at the moment, because a number of the amendments are contradictory, inconsistent, and unconstitutional,” he said.
Tensions are escalating within the Cabinet at the slow progress of the bill, despite it being in the Programme for Government and despite a commitment from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that it would be fast-tracked.
As a result of the amendments, Mr Woulfe indicated that Mr Ross’s demand that the bill should be introduced to the Dáil next week is very unlikely to be met.
“Therefore,” Mr Woulfe said, “it makes it a challenge to get the bill to report stage, very soon, and tidy up all that.
At an event for the Association of European Journalists, Mr Woulfe talked about the role of the attorney general and how, traditionally, it has played an important role in the selection of judges.
However, at committee stage, opposition TDs voted to remove the attorney general from the process, which Mr Woulfe described as “an absolutely crazy thing to do”.
“The attorney has a role in judicial appointments, as being a link person with the bar and knowing the people, knowing the candidates and the judges. Under the new Judicial Appointments Bill, the opposition decided to abolish me at committee stage, by 5-3, to knock the attorney out. Widely thought, not just because it is me, to be an absolutely crazy thing to do, down in the legal system,” he said.
“Because, hopefully, the AG is a good link person, and knows something about the candidates. But 5-3 went the votes, including my good friend, Jim O’Callaghan, who voted, along with Clare Daly and Mick Wallace and two others, against the three Government people,” Mr Woulfe said.
As attorney general, Mr Woulfe does not often speak in public and his comments are sure to be met with some shock and hostility by the Independent Alliance, which is demanding swift movement on this bill.
A Fine Gael party supporter, he was appointed by Mr Varadkar last summer.
As revealed by the Irish Examiner, three judicial appointments were only approved by Cabinet last Tuesday, following “an almighty dust-up” between Fine Gael and Independent Alliance ministers.
Mr Ross and super-junior health minister, Finian McGrath, became embroiled in a heated row with colleagues, especially Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, according to sources, and threatened to block any further appointments, unless the bill was pushed through the Dáil and Seanad.
Mr Ross, who is the chief sponsor of the bill, was “up in arms” over the delays, while Mr McGrath strongly reminded his Fine Gael colleagues that it is a priority in the Programme for Government.
The Independent Alliance has said its support for the appointment of any future judges is dependent on progress on this bill and it cannot be guaranteed.
Mr Flanagan has said work on the bill is progressing and should be back in the Dáil, for enactment, “within a few weeks”.
The Government is fully committed to the Judicial Appointments Bill, according to a statement issued late by a Government spokesman.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke yesterday evening to Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan and Minister for Transport Shane Ross, who proposed the bill, and also to the Attorney General.
Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Justice Jim O’Callaghan has called on the Minister for Justice & Equality to scrap the government’s Judicial Appointments Bill in light of the comments made by the Attorney General, who described the Bill as a “complete dog’s dinner”.
Deputy O’Callaghan warned that if the Attorney General believes the Bill is unconstitutional, the government needs to set it aside and the process of drafting new legislation must begin again.
“The comments by the Attorney General should act as a wake-up call for the government, especially the remarks around the constitutionality of the legislation. Minister Flanagan needs to act on the concerns of the AG and scrap this legislation that has become a vanity project for one member of cabinet.
“At no stage has the government ever explained the public policy reason for reducing judicial involvement in the proposed board and replacing this expertise with people who have no knowledge of which candidates are suitable, or characteristics required, for judicial appointment.
“The intervention by the Attorney General should mark the death knell for this deeply flawed Bill. The Justice Minister needs to intervene immediately and scrap this deeply flawed legislation”.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.