President Higgins was forced to rush through the €180,000-a-year appointment due to the sudden and unexpected pressure placed on him by the new Taoiseach.
Mr Varadkar, in London yesterday, acknowledged the scandal has overshadowed his first week in office, saying: “I would not have liked to have my first week in office to have been affected by a controversy over a judicial appointment.”
It is understood that, just after 6pm on Sunday, a senior official in the Department of the Taoiseach wrote to Áras an Uachtaráin on behalf of Mr Varadkar.
The letter, which is confidential and known as a “warrant of appointment”, insisted President Higgins ratify Ms Whelan’s role in the appeals court immediately.
The unpublished letter is understood to have included a “specific” demand that the appointment be made on Monday morning, despite the fact the timeline had until then not been the subject of any discussion.
While no formal reason was included in the letter explaining the schedule being sought, sources close to the process said they believe the timeline was put forward to ensure the position was set in stone before any Dáil or Cabinet criticism today.
A spokesperson for President Higgins last night said Ms Whelan’s appointment, and its timing, was made “at the request of the Government and in accordance with article 35.1 of the Constitution”.
Mr Varadkar said he stood over the appointment, which he said was lawful and in line with proper procedure.
“Maire Whelan... is somebody who is uniquely qualified for the office that she has been appointed to,” said the Taoiseach.
He said he was not “washing his hands of the decision”, given he was at the Cabinet table when it was made.
“Having looked into it, I can say what was done was lawful in accordance with the constitution and the law,” said Mr Varadkar. “It is precedented and it is similar to appointments in the past, and also proper procedure was followed.
“The Minister for Justice had all the applications and she made a recommendation to the Cabinet and as is the normal process and procedure, one name was brought to Cabinet for approval.
“The Cabinet never discuss a short list or is informed of who may have applied for a position and didn’t get it. This is a good appointment, it was lawful and I stand over it.”
Despite his comments, Opposition parties yesterday intensified pressure on Mr Varadkar over his decision to “ram through” Ms Whelan’s appointment, saying “cronyism” undermines public trust in politicians and the judiciary just when it is needed most.
While Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan yesterday warned his party may be unable to “live” with the confidence and supply deal breach and that the Government appointment “circumvented” a 22-year-old law, they are not prepared to bring down the coalition.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, Education Minister Richard Bruton, and Government chief whip Joe McHugh continued to defend Ms Whelan’s appointment.
However, Independent ministers appeared less convinced, with Independent Alliance TD and Transport Minister Shane Ross due to put forward plans for a review of the controversy at Cabinet today.