How a luncheon turned into a Cabinet quarrel

The fallout continues over attorney general Seamus Woulfe’s ‘dog’s dinner’ remarks regarding Shane Ross’ judges bill, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

How a luncheon turned into a Cabinet quarrel

The fallout continues over attorney general Seamus Woulfe’s ‘dog’s dinner’ remarks regarding Shane Ross’ judges bill, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

Poor Seamus Woulfe.

When you are still in the news four days after you open your mouth, you know you’re in a spot of bother.

This morning, the attorney general has to face the 19 Government ministers as they gather for their weekly meeting in the Cabinet room in Government Buildings.

One wonders if Mr Woulfe will be a bit sheepish given he has been at the centre of a political storm.

A warm, engaging, and affable personality, the attorney general is a thoroughly likeable fellow.

He certainly was in good form during his now controversial appearance at a luncheon for the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) last Friday in Buswells Hotel in Dublin.

The gathering was a smattering of retired journalists, media handlers, and other interested parties to listen to a rare exploration of the job of the chief legal adviser to the Government.

I was one of a number of working journalists present at the lunch.

After a bowl of soup and a tasty salmon entree washed down with a glass of agreeable claret, Mr Woulfe was introduced by Richard Moore, chairman of the AEJ.

Mr Woulfe, a senior counsel of some distinction and card-carrying member of Fine Gael, was appointed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last June, to become Attorney General and his address was to set out what he actually does in the role of attorney general.

It was during his on-the-record address that he said Transport Minister Shane Ross’ bill to overhaul the appointment of judges is a “dog’s dinner” and needs significant work to be viable.

Mr Woulfe said the bill, the cause of a major row at Cabinet last week, is in a poor state because of amendments made by opposition TDs in committee stage. He said that many of the amendments made by the opposition were “contradictory, inconsistent, and unconstitutional”.

“It makes it a challenge to get the bill to report stage, very soon, very soon, and tidy up all that. I am sure under new politics a deal will be done involving various government ministers and opposition parties and we await with interest over the next few days how that will pan out,” he said.

Mr Woulfe spoke of how, traditionally, his office had played an important role in the selection of judges. But at committee stage, opposition TDs voted to remove the attorney general from the process which Mr Woulfe said was “an absolutely crazy thing to do”.

“The attorney has a role in judicial appointments as being a link person with the bar and knowing the people, knowing the candidates and the judges. Under the new Judicial Appointments Bill, the opposition decided to abolish me at committee stage by 5-3, to knock the attorney out. Widely thought, not just because it is me, to be an absolutely crazy thing to do down in the legal system,” he said.

“Because, hopefully, the AG is a good link person, and knows something about the candidates. But 5-3 went the votes, including my good friend Jim O’Callaghan who voted along with Clare Daly and Mick Wallace and two others against the three Government people.

“Among a whole myriad of amendments which they made which make the bill a complete dog’s dinner at the moment because a number of the amendments are contradictory, inconsistent and unconstitutional.”

As he spoke, my journalistic colleagues and I quickly realised we had a good story for the following day.

Mr Woulfe’s colourful description of the bill lent itself to a headline, which we duly put on our front page on Saturday.

His comments were just one matter of many covered during his speech, which explored Article 30 of the Constitution to explain the parameters of the job.

He said both in strict legal terms and also in terms of public understanding, the attorney general is something of an unknown beast in the Irish political system.

Paraphrasing the former attorney general in Britain, Patrick Hasting, Mr Woulfe remarked how, for some, “to be a law officer to government is to be in hell”.

He called to mind the experiences of former attorneys general like Paul Gallagher (who was there during the bank guarantee and the crash) and Máire Whelan (who was there at the time of the Fennelly commission controversy) and who became the subject of a nasty political row between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance in 2016.

“Perhaps when Paul Gallagher was there on the night of the bank guarantee, or perhaps for Máire Whelan at the time of the Fennelly commission when it was all kicking off, they might have been in hell,” said Mr Woulfe.

“Now that things are a little bit happier in the system and the politicians are happier, I’m not completely in hell all the time, at least,” he quipped.

Reaction within Government to Mr Woulfe’s comments when they appeared on our front page on Saturday morning and elsewhere was hostile and immediate. Mr Ross was said to be fuming at such a public rubbishing of the bill, while the opposition called for the bill to be scrapped.

Pressure mounted on Mr Woulfe over the weekend when The Sunday Times published a story about off-the-record comments made during the Q&A session about an ongoing court case.

It was clear to all there that the Q&A session was being held under Chatham House rules, which means they are not reportable. Even with that, one was slightly surprised how open he was in his commentary about a live case.

Yesterday, ministers were forced to rally to Mr Woulfe’s defence amid calls for him to be “given the red card”, but such an eventuality would be severe and unjust.

It was certainly a valuable exchange to hear him speak freely about a very important office of State, and I for one would think it would be very regrettable if Mr Woulfe was to rein himself in or be prevented by his political masters from speaking at such functions.

His contribution last Friday was controversial, yes, but it was certainly worth hearing.

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