We just knew that the best interests of the operation of the gardaí would conflate with those of Lord Ross, writes Michael Clifford.
Nobody should be surprised that Enda Kenny tried to pull a stroke as he was going out the door. It’s in the man’s nature. He was schooled in politics at a time when the good burghers of Fine Gael used to envy the skill and panache deployed by Fianna Fáilers in stroking. Since assuming the role of taoiseach six years ago, Kenny showed that he could stroke with the best of them.
No, the worrying thing about the nomination of outgoing attorney general Máire Whelan as an appeals court judge is that everybody else went along with it. Kenny’s departure was supposed to usher in a new dawn, out of which mists would appear the young, fresh-faced Leo Varadkar.
Yet nobody in the Cabinet, all of whom remain at the table under new broom Varadkar, thought there was anything off about the nomination. Maybe they were all just waiting to be shunted into line by the conscience of the Cabinet, the Minister for Transport, Tourism, Sport, Judges, and Stepaside, Shane Ross.
Maybe frontline politicians around the Cabinet table were blinded by the dazzling Kenny, and sought refuge in the certainty that at least Ross would have the cojones to stand up and slay this blatant stroke. After all, isn’t his political compass directed towards snuffing out jobs for the boys and girls everywhere, particularly when it comes to judges?
Has he not cast his role in Cabinet as the representative of the man and woman in the street, keeping an eye on these insider politicians with his self-styled outsider’s eye?
Last Tuesday, faced with this blatant stroke, Shane did… nothing. Et tu, Lord Ross? Your kingdom, your credibility, your legacy, all for a higgledy-piggledy Garda station?
Ross’s capitulation to this stroke must be seen in context. He stated in the Dáil on Wednesday that the nomination of Whelan for appointment had nothing to do with the same day’s announcement that Stepaside Garda Station in his constituency would be reopening. We will take him at his word on that and put the whole thing down to coincidence.
Soon after assuming office last year, Ross let the transport, tourism, and sport elements of his portfolio take a backseat as he concentrated on judges and Stepaside. He had secured agreement with Fine Gael for reform in the appointment of judges to the bench.
Reform was certainly required. Since the foundation of the State, governments stuffed the bench with their own supporters. Then, in 1995, in the wake of a scandal involving the appointment of another attorney general — Harry Whelehan — to the bench, a new regime was put in place.
The Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB) was tasked with filtering out applications and forwarding seven names to the justice minister for consideration. The minister could ignore the seven and appoint somebody else, but reasons for doing so would be required. In essence, the system of appointments had changed little. The JAAB was just a morsel of transparency to throw out to the great unwashed.
Ross got the go-ahead for a new judicial appointments commission. Then he insisted that the commission had to have a lay majority, including a lay chairperson. Having ensured that politicians would no longer stroke favoured lawyers onto the bench, he wanted to ensure that sitting judges could not do likewise.
This, of course, assumed that sitting judges, including the chief justice, would be in danger of sacrificing objectivity to manoeuvre friends or acquaintances onto the bench.
On a matter of principle, Ross would not allow such a scenario to arise. In that vein, a row developed over whether the chief justice should chair the body. Ross, with his Trumpian disdain for the judiciary, said “no way”. He told RTÉ last November that judges lead a “charmed” life. Unlike presumably himself, with his private schooling in England and stockbroker/journalist/politician career.
Such was Shane’s insistence on demoting the chief justice that at one point he said no new appointments to the bench could go ahead until the new bill was made law. This would have discommoded thousands who use the courts, but sometimes the great unwashed must accept that they have to pay a price to be graced with a politician of principle.
In the end, he relented on the moratorium on appointments. Meanwhile, far from the high moral ground, he had also secured a review of the decision to close 139 Garda stations during the recession. Five would be reopened as a pilot project.
Soon after that decision was made, this column predicted Stepaside would be among the five chosen ones. This was a prediction I shared with the dogs in the street. We just knew that the best interests of the operation of the gardaí would conflate with those of Lord Ross.
The odds in favour of Stepaside were shortened further as controversies mounted for Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. Her authority weakened, can you imagine the reception if she went back to Government and announced that Stepaside was, in her operational opinion, not among the five to be reopened? Only a commissioner with absolutely no political antennae would be unaware of what exactly was expected once the review was set up.
So it came to pass that, last Tuesday, around the time that Whelan’s nomination was announced, the decision to reopen Stepaside leaked out.
None of this is Whelan’s fault. She was offered a job and she is qualified to do it, as are dozens of others, not least those already judges of lower courts. But the manner in which she was nominated is a complete throwback to the past.
Maybe Ross’s sudden loss of principle was a coincidence. Maybe he was gearing up to call out Kenny’s stroke when he heard Stepaside was going to reopen. No favours asked or given. Maybe a warm, fuzzy glow descended on him and he realised this was what power meant, that hereafter he would be greeted as a saviour anytime he sallied forth on the mean streets of Stepaside. What, when you get down to it, is an appeals court judge between friends?
In his book, The Bankers, Ross laid out how the system of insiders operated.
“The politicians looked after the mandarins. The mandarins looked after the central bankers and the regulators. And Ibec looked after the government.”
Maybe he should rewrite it along these lines: “Enda Kenny looked after Máire Whelan. The Cabinet looked after Enda Kenny. A mockie-ah review of closed Garda stations set up by Enda Kenny looked after Shane Ross, and Shane Ross looked after Enda Kenny and Máire Whelan. The voters in Stepaside will look after Shane Ross.”
Yesterday afternoon, he called for a review of the Whelan nomination but it looks like that horse has bolted.
Who is going to look after the man and women in the street, now that their self-styled champion, Lord Ross, has been shown to be a just another back-to-the- future politician?
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