Ministers defend Attorney General after bill comments

Attorney General Seamus Woulfe.

Several ministers have rejected calls for Attorney General Seamus Woulfe to be shown “the red card” over his comments at a lunch last Friday.

As he faces the Cabinet for the first time since he described the Judicial Appointments Bill as a “dog’s dinner”, Mr Woulfe has been defended by ministers who say he should remain at his post.

It comes as the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), which hosted the lunch, apologised to Mr Woulfe for the breach of “Chatham House rules”, which means comments made are off the record.

The Sunday Times newspaper, which was not present at the event, reported on comments made by Mr Woulfe about a live court case during an off the record question and answer session.

AEJ chairman Richard Moore, speaking to the Irish Examiner, said the rules of the event are clear in that the speech given by Mr Woulfe was public and reportable while the question and answer session afterwards was not.

The Social Democrats’ Roisín Shortall said the Attorney General should be shown a red card after his inappropriate “off the record” comments. She said the AG should not be commenting on the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill because he “has skin in the game”.

Ms Shortall said Mr Woulfe’s job is to provide advice, not public commentary.

“He is the legal officer of the Government. His constitutional role is to provide advice, not to be making public comments,” she told Newstalk Breakfast.

“I don’t think he should be commenting from the sidelines.” By doing so, he was interfering in the democratic system with regard to the drawing up of new legislation, she added.

The chairman of the Joint Oireachtas committee on justice and equality, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin of Sinn Féin, also described the Attorney General’s comments as “inappropriate” when speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

He sits at the captain’s table. The language of the Attorney General was inappropriate and unnecessary,” he said, adding it was unusual for the Attorney General to give advice “by megaphone.

However, such calls for Mr Woulfe to consider his position have been rejected by ministers.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has said he would not have used the Attorney General’s “colourful language” but agreed the Judicial Appointments Bill was “in a difficult place”. He described the bill as a case of “too many cooks have spoiled the broth”.

Suggesting it was important to have a period of reflection, he added: “I don’t accept that the bill has to be scrapped or restarted.” The minister said the bill can be implemented but not without “due care and consideration”.

Mr Flanagan pointed out that almost 200 amendments had been tabled to the bill, of which 67 were passed. However, he felt that “half a dozen” of these were constitutionally unsound.

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty said the opposition should stop calling for heads to roll.

“I get the privilege of working with Seamus Woulfe on a weekly basis, sometimes on a daily basis. He’s an incredible help in an advisory capacity,” she said.

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