Who’s 
afraid 
of Justice Seamus Woulfe?

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The wild Atlantic winds whipping in were playing havoc with players heading out for the second day of the Oireachtas Golf Society outing at the Connemara Championship Golf Links.

“The weather was foul. It was howling wind. Jesus, I hit a shot and it barely made it to the ladies’ tee box. I thought the ball was nearly going to come back and hit me,” a player on that fateful day in August recalled.

Holidaying with his wife, Sheena, and teenage children Grace and Alex, in Donegal, Séamus Woulfe travelled down to Galway the night before. Due to the weather, he didn’t even get to finish his round of golf as his group retired to the club house.

Later that evening, the players had to move on to travel 20 minutes away to a dinner at the Station House Hotel in Clifden.

Independent TD Noel Grealish, the captain of the golf society who was hosting the event in his Galway West constituency, had rather naively printed out the table plan with the names of all the attendees and put it up on the entrance to the dining room on public display.

All hell broke loose 24 hours later when those names emerged.

The attendance of Woulfe, a newly-appointed Supreme Court judge, at the function remains the lingering hangover from the event.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin will meet with opposition party leaders today to brief them on what Attorney General Paul Gallagher has described as “serious constitutional issues” after Justice Woulfe’s fellow judges said he needed to resign.

All three branches of the State – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary – are running scared from taking on the judge, who now quite firmly has the wind at his back.

Chief Justice Frank Clarke sparked the crisis by telling Justice Woulfe he and his colleagues on the highest court in the land felt he should stand down over the affair. The only way to remove a judge from office is through impeachment by the Dáil and Seanad for “stated misbehaviour or incapacity”.

After a flurry of threats earlier in the week about a process being initiated, impeachment is fast dropping way down the list of options, with significant concerns about the separation of powers.

“Impeachment is something that should be avoided. There is less of an appetite for that in the Oireachtas than people think,” a senior Government source said.

The Government is caught between standing by Chief Justice Frank Clarke and being powerless to act on Justice Woulfe.

In Leinster House, there are doubts if an impeachment process would even get going with questions over what Justice Woulfe would be charged with.

Moreover, there is a nervousness about the Oireachtas going down a costly legal route with no outcome.

The successful case taken by former Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins has called a halt to TDs deciding to play up for the cameras inside committee rooms.

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court found the Dáil Public Accounts Committee had effectively broken the law and had trampled on the rights of Ms Kerins in its deliberations in 2014. At the time, Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness was chairman and the membership included future ministers Simon Harris and Shane Ross and Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald.

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Feargháil has issued an apology to Ms Kerins, who will now be paid substantial damages as a result of her treatment at the hands of a star-studded committee. Notably, the highly outspoken members of the committee from the time have been dead silent since the Supreme Court lashed their behaviour for acting outside the committee’s terms of reference. While some members made names for themselves on the committee that is supposed to scrutinise waste of money, the taxpayer is left with the bill.

“The Angela Kerins case has already cost Leinster House about €2m in legal fees alone. That’s for starters and a settlement still hasn’t been reached,” a senior politician noted.

A Star Chamber is a costly exercise.

The Ceann Comhairle has cautioned TDs about any utterance about Justice Woulfe that “could give rise to any perception of bias” in case the Oireachtas needs to step in. However, Sinn Féin has said Justice Woulfe should go and numerous other TDs have made comments on the Oireachtas Golf Society event, all of which would be dragged up again.

Justice Woulfe would be entitled to challenge an impeachment every step of the way. The former Attorney General has a heavyweight legal team behind him. Starting out his career, he worked under fellow future Attorney General John Rogers on the X case in 1992, representing the 14-year-old girl who was pregnant as a result of rape but was being denied an abortion on the grounds that her life was at risk from suicide.

Now right behind Justice Woulfe, Mr Rogers is well acquainted with challenges against the powers of the Oireachtas. The Senior Counsel defended then Circuit Court Judge Brian Curtin, who faced impeachment proceedings after charges of child pornography possession were dropped. Mr Curtin faced a subsequent Oireachtas investigation into the discovery of child pornography on his home computer.

Mr Curtin ultimately resigned on health grounds days before he was to give evidence in private to an Oireachtas committee.

The Oireachtas inquiry never actually held public hearings or got to quiz Mr Curtin personally and was bogged down in legal challenges for two years.

Intriguingly, Mr Rogers also headed up Ms Kerins legal team in her ultimately successful battle with the PAC. No better man to strike fear into the Leinster House legal team.

“Is there a will to impeach him? I don’t think so. You can’t ask questions outside of certain parameters. Who would you call as a witness? The Chief Justice? It would be a joke. What’s the offence?” a veteran Fine Gael figure said.

Besides, the politicians feel the judiciary has made a mess of the saga and are not impressed at being asked to clean it up.

“It’s snobbery in the Four Courts that he jumped the queue to get on to the Supreme Court. They’re after making a right hoop of it,” the Fine Gael politician added.

Friends of Woulfe say he won’t be relenting. The 58-year-old would be looking at 12 more years on the bench, along with pension entitlements. Walking away leaves him with no income.

“He’s not resigning. He will go back. If he has to sit there reading papers, so be it. He can’t afford to go. He is getting huge support from inside Fine Gael,” a friend said.

In the likely event of the Government and Oireachtas throwing its hands up and saying there’s nothing they can do, the judge would be due back for duty to hear cases in the Supreme Court in February. A report by former Chief Justice Susan Denham concluded Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the dinner was not a resigning offence. Somehow the implementation of her suggestion of an informal resolution to tidy matters up has resulted in all out Constitutional crisis.

All sides agree it should never have come to this and a way to dial down the tension is being sought.

The manner in which the Chief Justice and his colleagues on the bench have handled the affair is certainly raising eyebrows.

Down in the Four Courts, the excuses are already being lined up. Legal sources point out the Supreme Court judges never said they wouldn’t serve with him on the court, but that it was their personal view that he should resign.

“There doesn’t seem to be any personal animus. They wanted the public to know they don’t approve of the way he carried on and this is their view. This is the public dressing down,” a senior legal source said.

Source: Irish News