Alison O'Connor: Ball is in Seamus Woulfe’s court - he should do the right thing

Woulfe's troubles have spread far and wide, taking in the Government and his colleagues in the Supreme Court, most particularly the Chief Justice Frank Clarke. 
Alison O'Connor: Ball is in Seamus Woulfe’s court - he should do the right thing

Former EU commissioner Phil Hogan bowed to mounting pressure and resigned his position  after the Golfgate scandal; not so for Mr Justice Seamus Woulfe. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Leaving the lunch, as is customary and polite, I said my goodbyes to those seated at my table. Those were the days when you could have lunches, sit in close quarters, and indeed shake peoples’ hands.

My final farewell was to the man who had been the guest speaker. I hadn’t been sitting beside him, but from our initial introduction and the brief exchanges we’d had, he seemed most convivial and a very agreeable lunch companion.

As we shook hands, not long after he had finished speaking, he said something along the lines of him believing he had not said anything controversial during that speech, nothing that would make the news headlines anyway. 

I remember trying hard at that moment to keep my game face on as the then attorney general Seamus Woulfe made that remark. It was almost as surprising as his speech a short while earlier had been.

I had actually been seated right in front of the rostrum when he had stood to speak at that lunch hosted by the Association of European Journalists in March 2018. 

I vividly remember my effort to keep my game face on at that moment when we were saying goodbye, because 10 minutes earlier, in the middle of his speech, I had been feeling a compulsion to jump up and say: “For God’s sake Seamus, will you sit down, you’ve said enough.” 

Why would I have had such an urge? Well looking back on it maybe it was because he had seemed, during our very brief acquaintance, to be an affable guy, who seemed rather sweetly pleased to find himself in the company of those gathered, and that he had been the one asked to give an address.

Beside me, as he got deeper into his speech, journalistic colleagues were sitting straighter and straighter in their seats, trying not to visibly react to what we were hearing — worried in case the “material” would dry up.

After he concluded his talk on that Friday afternoon, and then conducted a question and answer session that was off the record, the then attorney general (AG) sat back down at the table. 

However, it was not long before any working journalist present made their excuses and left. They were contacting the office to report that, amongst other things, the AG had just said a Bill championed by then minister for transport Shane Ross to reform the way judges were appointed had become a “complete dog’s dinner”.

Mr Woulfe did lay the blame for this state of affairs on the opposition, saying amendments they had made were “contradictory and inconsistent and unconstitutional”. 

His troubles began with his comments on that legislation and they would build further over that weekend when The Sunday Times reported on other subsequent comments he had made during that off-the-record Q&A session. 

He expected the Supreme Court would not rule in favour of Angela Kerins, the former Rehab Group chief executive in her case against the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC). 

But as it happens. over a year later, that appeal, in a landmark case, actually found the PAC acted unlawfully in its treatment of Ms Kerins in acting outside its terms of reference and of its invitation to Ms Kerins to appear before it.

That day and since, I can’t quite get my head around someone in as politically sensitive a position as that being such an apparent innocent abroad. 

In the end what it comes down to is judgment, purely and simply. 

It wasn’t just an attorney general commenting on a “live” political issue but also one that was deeply controversial. It was backed by a minister who was an independent, and who did not shy away from making his feelings on matters known, while his Fine Gael cabinet colleagues felt they needed it all like a rash.

There is much troubled water under the bridge when it comes to Seamus Woulfe since that lunch over two years ago. He now has an infamous dinner in Clifden in August to add to his tricky resume of social appearances. 

His troubles have spread far and wide taking in the Government and his colleagues in the Supreme Court, most particularly the Chief Justice Frank Clarke. 

For all his other political faults, Shane Ross was on the button when he said the manner in which we selected our judges needs an overhaul.

The latest offshoot of this seemingly neverending controversy is one where the opposition is attempting to bring scrutiny to the timeless nod-and-wink element of Government formations – matters such as paving the way judicially for an attorney general once his time is done with Government.

We have Taoiseach Micheál Martin portraying himself as nearly having to reach for the smelling salts at the prospect of Justice Minister Helen McEntee coming into the Dáil and explaining the decision to appoint Seamus Woulfe, who had no judicial experience, to the highest court in the land while “expressions of interest” from three other sitting judges who would also have fancied the job, were not shared with the Cabinet. This is simply the way it always been done.

This is a controversy that has been ongoing now for more than 13 weeks. It was in late August that this newspaper broke the news of that Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Clifden. 

We had the almost immediate resignation of then agriculture minister Dara Calleary, followed by the rather more tardy one of former EU commissioner Phil Hogan. 

Dara Calleary did show very poor judgement in attending that dinner and giving a speech. But his judgement was certainty itself with his speedy resignation and the manner in which he explained himself. It is easy to imagine his ministerial career being resurrected at some point.

Not so for Phil Hogan. But a man of his experience and contacts will no doubt be able to pick up the pieces of his career and be very successful at whatever he chooses to do in the private sector.

Over three months in and it can certainly be argued that Seamus Woulfe’s reputation is in the poorest shape of the three. It was his decision not to resign immediately, at a time when it seems entirely feasible he would have been able to return to have a good career at the Bar. 

It was not his decision to publish the transcript of his conversations with Chief Justice Frank Clarke. However there is simply no escaping the fact that his reputation has been significantly further damaged by this.

During the week in the Dáil, Social Democrats joint leader Catherine Murphy said the controversy was “undermining both the House and the Judiciary” — both sides have tried to get the other to sort it out, and failed.

The ball lies in Seamus Woulfe’s court. His actions that night in Clifden were not worthy of an impeachment motion in the Dáil. However these are not ordinary circumstances or ordinary times. 

In the days following the US election the mayor of Philadelphia Jim Kenney told US president Donald Trump to "put his big boy pants on" and accept his election defeat. The same can now be said to Seamus Woulfe. He should do the right thing.

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