Shortage of judges highlighted as pensioner seeks to have appeal heard in Irish

The President of the Court of Appeal has said he is having enough difficulty finding three judges to speak English, let alone Irish, due to a shortage of judges in Ireland’s appeal court.

Shortage of judges highlighted as pensioner seeks to have appeal heard in Irish

by Ruaidhrí Giblin

The President of the Court of Appeal has said he is having enough difficulty finding three judges to speak English, let alone Irish, due to a shortage of judges in Ireland’s appeal court.

Mr Justice George Birmingham made the remark in relation to the upcoming appeal of a pensioner, whose trial for putting a bomb on a bus during the Queen of England’s State visit to Ireland, was heard in both Irish and English.

The pensioner is seeking have his appeal heard in Irish, which will require three Irish speaking judges from the available pool, of whom Mr Justice Birmingham is one.

On Thursday, Mr Justice Birmingham said the Court of Appeal was faced with an “immediate crisis” because two of the court’s ten judges retired this year and have not been replaced while three more are to retire in the coming weeks and months. That left just five judges to sit on an unrestricted basis, he said on Thursday.

Dónall Billings (67), with an address at St Bridget’s Court, Drumlish, County Longford, was found guilty by the non-jury Special Criminal Court of possessing an explosive substance at Longford railway station car park on May 16th, 2011.

He was further convicted of making false reports on May 16 and May 18, 2011, that bombs had been placed at Busáras and Sinn Féin's headquarters in Dublin and that two mortars were set for Dublin Castle.

Billings was also found guilty of making a false report on May 20th that two bombs had been placed in the toilets at Cork airport. The Queen of England was visiting Ireland at the time.

Sentencing him to eight-and-a-half years imprisonment, Mr Justice Tony Hunt, presiding alongside Judge Martin Nolan and Judge Cormac Dunne, said that Billings was "perfectly entitled to hold a low opinion" of Queen Elizabeth and her visit to Ireland but "not entitled to express such an opinion by engaging in criminality". He was given concurrent jail terms for making false reports.

Billings has lodged an appeal against his conviction and sentence.

During case management procedures in the Court of Appeal on Friday, barrister Lyndsay Duffy, for Billings, formally applied to have the case heard in Irish by three Irish-speaking judges.

"If you read the newspapers, you would know I have difficulty finding three judges to speak English," Mr Justice Birmingham said, in reference to his reported comments on Thursday that the court was faced with an “immediate crisis” due to a shortage of judges.

Mr Justice Birmingham said he would put the case back to the next list to fix dates in July. "Hopefully by then the court will be back to a full composition" and "by then I'll know what the linguistic capacity of the court will be".

Ms Dufffy, who is lead by senior counsels Martin Giblin and Ronan Munro, said her client had a right to a trial in Irish and one of the issues in the appeal would be Irish rights.

The Special Criminal Court heard that a phonecall was made to Longford garda station on May 16, 2011. The caller said there was a bomb on a Dublin-bound Corduff travel passenger bus, a second bomb on a bus at Busaras and a third bomb at Sinn Fein headquarters in Dublin.

The Corduff travel bus was stopped on Station Rd, Maynooth, and searched by gardai, who found a suspicious object, comprised of gunpowder and a two-litre bottle of petrol, in the luggage compartment.

Mr Justice Hunt said that Billings had placed a highly dangerous explosive on a public transport vehicle containing an innocent driver and many passengers.

This was an "outrageous, highly irresponsible and dangerous act", the judge said, which "recklessly exposed passengers, staff and members of the emergency services to very significant risk of serious injury or death".

The bomb, the judge added, was intended to give credence to further hoax calls Billings planned to make.

A further phonecall was made on May 18th, threatening two mortars were set at Dublin castle for 8pm that evening.

The time and place coincided with a state banquet in the castle for Queen Elizabeth.

The caller said, "I'm a member of the Republican Brotherhood, Squad A. Two mortars are set for Dublin Castle at 8pm."

"This is for the Queen of blood and war of Iraq."

Searches were carried out but nothing was found.

A third phonecall, made at 3.15pm on May 20th, threatened two bombs at Cork airport. Queen Elizabeth was due to fly out that afternoon from the airport. After a search, nothing was found.

The investigations led to Billings being identified as a suspect.

Referring to Billings’ garda interviews, Mr Justice Hunt said that the "lies told by the accused were rather obvious and unsophisticated".

Billings has two previous convictions, from Northern Ireland in 1973, for possession of explosives.

Jim O'Callaghan
Jim O'Callaghan

Meanwhile, in a statement today Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Justice and Equality Jim O’Callaghan TD called on the government to appoint judges to the Court of Appeal immediately.

“When government fails to appoint judges the people who suffer are the citizens who are entitled to have their cases heard, and the victims of crime who are entitled to see prosecutions concluded. We know from yesterday‘s comments by the President of the Court of Appeal that citizens cannot get their appeals heard and are having hearings cancelled because of the absence of judges.

“The government has a responsibility to ensure that when judges retire they are promptly replaced. Two judges have retired from the Court of Appeal and no replacements have been appointed.

“Unfortunately, Minister Flanagan and the government have allowed all aspects of their policy on the Judiciary to be hijacked by the Minister for Transport. For too long the government has allowed Minister Ross to dictate policy in respect of the future appointment of judges. This deferential attitude of the government to Minister Ross is not only delaying our justice system, it is damaging its efficiency.

“If Minister Ross continues to block the government from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to appoint judges then the Taoiseach should stand up to his Transport Minister and insist that judges are appointed immediately”, concluded Deputy O’Callaghan.

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