Daniel McConnell: Angst within the ministerial ranks after yet  another farcical week 

Government's failure to shut down the Séamus Woulfe issue is revealing. It's time to answer the questions
Daniel McConnell: Angst within the ministerial ranks after yet  another farcical week 

Minister for Justice & Equality Helen McEntee TD will take questions on the appointment of Seamus Woulfe next week after days of ridicule and criticism from the Opposition. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Why can’t the Government simply admit the truth?

It is clear as day.

But rather than simply admit that Seamus Woulfe’s nomination to the Supreme Court was part of the price of government formation, we have had a week of farcical and preposterous arguments about the separation of powers between politicians and judges.

We have had both Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar get themselves tied up in knots over whether or not Justice Minister Helen McEntee could come into the Dáil and answer questions as to her role in Mr Woulfe’s elevation from Attorney General to the highest court in the land.

All week, we have heard about the Government’s grave concerns that the manner of Dáil debate being proposed by the Opposition on judicial appointments could generate inappropriate comment around serving judges on the floor of the House.

Such commentary on individual judges is a no-no as it could be perceived as politicians encroaching on the independence of the judges, so they say.

Nonsense, hogwash, piffle.

After days of the matter dominating the domestic political agenda, late on Thursday night, the government appeared to be making its latest U-turn in a bid to quell what has been yet another self-imposed controversy as it emerged that McEntee had written to the Ceann Comhairle Sean Ó Fearghail.

After days of ridicule and criticism from the Opposition over a continued refusal to answer questions as to her role in the Seamus Woulfe saga, Ms McEntee had said she was now willing to take questions on the matter.

She said that as Minister for Justice, it is her duty to respect the independence of the judiciary, a cornerstone of our State and system of government.

“The grave concerns, as outlined by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste this week, are shared across Government. However, I am also conscious of the responsibility of ministers to be accountable to the Dáil. Deputies can table parliamentary questions and oral questions to me and Government colleagues on numerous issues,” she said.

“I would ask the business committee to reschedule my next session of oral ministerial questions, currently due to take place on December 15, to a date that meets the satisfaction of members.

“The process of oral questions will ensure that members can raise concerns across numerous issues within the parameters of normal parliamentary procedures,” she concluded.

Amid much nervousness within Government about the whole affair, her letter was a clear attempt to draw a line in the controversy which has dragged on for weeks at this stage.

Within minutes, it was clear that the statement did not have the desired effect. Opposition party leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Alan Kelly rejected McEntee’s offer as a “spurious stunt”.

Labour Party leader Alan Kelly TD: rejected McEntee’s offer as a “spurious stunt”.
Labour Party leader Alan Kelly TD: rejected McEntee’s offer as a “spurious stunt”.

Kelly said: “This is a completely spurious suggestion from the minister and changes nothing. It’s laughable. She has no choice but to answer her normal PQs. The Minister for Justice and the Government must now end this charade and agree to make a statement to the Dáil on Tuesday afternoon followed by a Q&A with opposition spokespeople.

“It is highly misleading for the minister to present her request for the rescheduling of her standard oral question session which covers all matters under her brief as some kind of concession to the calls from the Labour Party for nearly a week now for her to answer specific questions in the Dáil on the Supreme Court appointment process."

McDonald wrote on Twitter: "The government still circling the wagons. Their 'grave concern' is a self-serving desire to avoid accountability. A full statement from the minister followed by questions is what is required. Nothing short of this will suffice.” 

Seamus Woulfe,  safe from impeachment, is set to take his seat on the bench next February. Picture: Maxwell’s
Seamus Woulfe,  safe from impeachment, is set to take his seat on the bench next February. Picture: Maxwell’s

Weeks ago, senior government sources had sought to take this column to task for suggesting Woulfe’s appointment was in some shape or form part of the formation talks ahead of the new government taking office on June 27.

I was told that was not part of the Programme for Government, which is true, and was not part of any deal between Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar.

“It was a Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) recommendation and we can’t go against JAAB,” was the mantra repeated to me from several senior quarters.

Last week, after the Irish Times reported that three sitting members of the judiciary had expressed an interest in the post, Taoiseach Micheál Martin made clear he had not been told about the other candidates. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said likewise.

On Tuesday, Kelly posed the following conclusion. Either McEntee went on a solo run and kept her own Taoiseach in the dark, or this was, as I have suggested above part of a side deal between the leaders ahead of the government being formed.

A number of matters back up this scenario.

Most importantly, it is the most obvious answer.

Secondly, Leo Varadkar, on Thursday in the Dáil, revealed that a conversation occurred between the leaders the “week before” the new government was formed on Saturday, June 27 where it was agreed the position of Attorney General would rotate with the position of Taoiseach.

“It was the week before the new Government was formed that the party leaders discussed whether Séamus Woulfe would be reappointed as Attorney General or whether there would be a new Attorney General. We decided collectively that there would be new Attorney General and that Séamus Woulfe would not be reappointed as Attorney General and, at that point, for transparency and information, I informed the other leaders that there was a vacancy, that Séamus Woulfe had been recommended by the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, JAAB, as suitable for that vacancy, and that was the end of the conversation,” he said.

He claimed he did not know the names of the three other candidates who sought the vacancy in the Supreme Court, putting the onus on McEntee to explain why he did not know.

What has been fascinating is that several members of Cabinet are furious at Varadkar’s perceived throwing of McEntee under the bus when many of them believe he had full knowledge of what went on.

As Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats said, it does appear as though  once the decision was taken that Woulfe was not going to remain as Attorney General, his nomination to the Supreme Court was “a foregone conclusion”, no matter who else applied for it.

The failure of Martin and Varadkar to shut down this issue after over a week and the continued nervousness within the Cabinet ranks as to where this story could go is remarkably revealing.

The angst within the ministerial ranks as to the failure to contain this or allow McEntee take questions long before now also exposes how divided this Cabinet really is.

Woulfe, safe from impeachment, is now set to take his seat on the bench next February. 

He has left one holy mess behind him in Leinster House and the deal done to get him to the Supreme Court is not some major threat to the separation of powers, but rather a throwback to the shady politics of the past. The sooner we consign such practices to the past, the better.

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