Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned two of Ireland’s most senior judges that they must respect the independence of Government to perform its duties, insisting separation of powers between the groups works both ways.
Mr Varadkar hit back at the judiciary after Chief Justice Susan Denham and High Court President Peter Kelly became embroiled in a damaging row with Transport Minister Shane Ross over Government plans to reform judge appointments.
In a speech to the Dublin Solicitors’ Bar Association on Friday night, Mr Justice Peter Kelly took aim at Mr Ross’s Judicial Appointments Bill, which is expected to be passed by the Dáil this week, describing it as “ill-conceived” and “ill- advised”.
The rare comment by a senior judge on political issues followed that of Chief Justice Denham, who last week said the separation of powers “inevitably” means the judiciary is a system of “checks and balances... of other branches of Government”.
The remarks have been seen as a clear attack on the imminent bill, which seeks to ensure that judicial appointments are in future made by an independent lay-majority body.
While the comments were backed by Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan, who said last night he will repeal the bill if in office, Mr Varadkar warned that judges must respect the independence of Government and insisted the separation of powers works both ways.
Asked about Mr Justice Peter Kelly’s “ill-conceived” and “ill-advised” comments, while attending an Eid celebration at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh, Dublin, Mr Varadkar said: “I’m very conscious of the separation of powers that exist between the Oireachtas and the judiciary, and I’m very minded of the Chief Justice’s comments on that very matter only last week.
“That really has to apply in both directions. Both judges and politicians need to respect the separation of powers and ensure there is a decent distance between the judiciary and the Oireachtas.
“The Government is fully behind it [the new bill]; it’s going to be in the Dáil next week and we hope to have it enacted before the summer.
“That will bring about a major reform of the way judges are appointed, making it much more transparent and also ensuring all applications go through the new appointments board, which hasn’t always been the case.”
Mr Varadkar’s decision to openly criticise comments made by two of Ireland’s most senior judges, while not unexpected, is likely to cause fresh friction in the immediate aftermath of Máire Whelan’s Court of Appeal appointment.
His confirmation that Government will push ahead with plans to put the Judicial Appointments Reform Bill to a Dáil vote later this week is also likely to further antagonise Fianna Fáil, which staunchly opposes the move.
On RTÉ Radio’s This Week programme, Mr O’Callaghan said if his party “get a majority after the next election” he will “repeal” the legislation.
Describing the new bill as “deeply flawed”, he said: “This Government needs to listen to other individuals and it needs to listen to well-informed individuals.”
Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath warned Fine Gael is “inevitably” risking a general election if it makes another error like the Whelan appointment fiasco.
While Mr Varadkar yesterday denied relations between the parties have become “putrid”, Mr McGrath said on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics that Fine Gael “can’t afford for any more examples like this to emerge” and that “the trust is definitely damaged”.
Within Cabinet, Transport Minister Mr Ross confirmed he threatened to resign and bring down the Government over the controversy, as first revealed last week in the Irish Examiner.
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