A war of words has broken out between Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan and Transport Minister Shane Ross over the Judicial Appointments Bill.
Mr Flanagan has said in recent days that the current system of appointing judges has not been subject to any “undue interference”, but Mr Ross has said it is “totally unsatisfactory”.
The bill was passed by the Seanad before Christmas, only after the Government guillotined the debate following a 100-hour filibuster. It returns to the Dáil this month for completion.
In his comments, Mr Flanagan made clear that he strongly disagrees with Mr Ross’s belief that the system needs to change to remove political patronage and favouritism.
“I firmly state that whether through the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board [JAAB] process, or otherwise, to my knowledge, there has not been any undue interference in the process, as has been alleged by people outside this House,” he said in reference to Mr Ross.
We have had a JAAB process for in excess of 20 years and I do not believe, in the context of any appointments of members to the Bar or the profession of solicitor, that there was any case in which the Government disregarded the advice of the JAAB.
“I acknowledge that the JAAB process was never bypassed.”
Mr Flanagan said that, under the Constitution, it is essential that the independence of appointments is fully subscribed to and recognised.
However, Mr Ross hit back by insisting that the system of appointing judges needs to be overhauled to remove the ability of political parties to appoint their friends to the benches.
Mr Ross said he has found the current system to be “totally unsatisfactory” and in dire need of reform.
“The passage of the bill is very welcome, despite the filibuster, the long filibuster,” he told the Irish Examiner. “The whole point of the bill is that politicians, from whatever party, are no longer able to exercise political patronage, or favouritism, in the appointment of judges.
“For many years, I have found the JAAB process totally unsatisfactory.”
The bill remains deeply divisive, even within Government, with many in Fine Gael opposed to it.
Mr Ross has said he has ensured that he has had an effective veto on judicial appointments while the bill has been going through the Oireachtas.
“All judges are given to me in advance to look at — maybe two or three days — which means that we are, basically, proofing them from political favouritism,” he said.
I get their name and I get their identity and I look at them, and if there was someone who looked to be chosen for other reasons, there would be serious objections.
In the Programme for Government, Fine Gael and Independent TDs agreed to introduce legislation to replace the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board with a new Judicial Appointments Commission.
“We will reform the judicial appointments process to ensure it is transparent, fair, and credible,” the parties agreed in 2016.
The Independent Alliance previously withheld approval for some judicial appointments, in order to force the pace of progress on the bill, which has met substantial establishment resistance.
During tetchy exchanges in the Seanad final hearing, Mr Flanagan moved an amendment that reinforced the right of the Government to appoint judges without the need to seek approval from this new commission.
Senators Michael McDowell, Ivana Bacik, and David Norris said this amendment represented a “filleting” of Mr Ross’s pet project and made them ask what they had been debating for a year and a half.
“It is a monumental U-turn to save this bill,” said Mr McDowell. “So what was this all about? Why were we kept here, debating this for so long? “And the answer is that one man’s vanity had to be appeased.”