From top; Chief Justice Frank Clarke and Supreme Court Justice Séamus Woulfe; Deputy Bríd Smith
At the Dáil at the Convention Centre.
Solidarity–People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith discussed the inner workings of the Irish bar during questioning of Minister for Justice Helen McEntee over the appointment of Séamus Woulfe as a Supreme Court Justice.
Deputy Smith Said:
“One of the most amusing statements today came from the Minister, who said the great strength of the Judiciary is its non-political character. I was in knots of laughter when I heard that comment.
In essence, many Deputies are expressing outrage that the Government used a vacancy on the Supreme Court to appoint a politically connected person because that person was politically connected rather than because he was the best or most suitable person for the job. I have a newsflash; all our top judges are, effectively, political appointees.
When Fianna Fáil is in government, we get judges with Fianna Fáil connections; when Fine Gael is in government, we get judges with Fine Gael connections; and the odd time, if Labour is the extra wheel, we might get one of their mates. This time we have Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in government and Fine Gael got to appoint the judge.
Perhaps the outrage expressed is because this is a glaring example of a political appointment, as opposed to the more normal and subtle way of appointing judges via the old boys’ network. Is the outrage because the person appointed was not a barrister? [Woulfe is a barrister; perhaps judge was intended] The normal route to the court is through a judicial system dominated by a very small and self-perpetuating elite.
The judicial system and barristers are drawn from a small pool, largely controlled by the Honourable Society of King’s Inns, set up by none other than Henry VIII to ensure controlled access to the Bar, and initially to keep out Catholics. This is the only place where somebody can become a barrister.
Judges are not exclusively but are overwhelmingly barristers. The Honourable Society of King’s Inns is the only place that trains barristers but there is no statutory basis for this in any law made democratically by us. It owes its origins to Henry VIII and was set up to ensure that a small, well vetted elite controlled who could become a barrister or who would be kept out. It is still doing that.”
“Inside the Honourable Society of King’s Inns there is another secret society, known as the Benchers. There is an inner bench and outer bench. Anybody who is made a judge automatically becomes a member of the Benchers. They have secret dinners about which nobody finds out. These happen regularly. I wonder if some of the outrage is caused by the fact that Séamus Woulfe was not even a Bencher.
The idea now is the Minister for Justice has appointed a candidate because he was a Fine Gael activist. We are now in for a bigger shock, so we should get the smelling salts ready. Here is another newsflash. There is no such thing, in reality, as the separation of powers.
We have a political system dominated by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, with a splash of Labour and this time around the Greens have been thrown in. We have a judicial system dominated by the friends of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, with the odd Labour appointee. In expressing outrage about such a fiasco.
I say to the other party leaders, including Deputies Mary Lou McDonald, Alan Kelly and Catherine Murphy, that next week they will have a chance to demonstrate outrage by supporting the motion tabled in the name of People Before Profit by Deputy Paul Murphy to remove Séamus Woulfe for stated misbehaviour.
Those Deputies can demonstrate that we are serious about the separation of powers and democracy. Just as important, we are serious about demonstrating that we recognise the major sacrifices of the Irish people over the past nine months in abiding by public health guidelines. It would show that these guidelines were not made just for the little people but were also made for the great and the good, whether they came from the Benchers club or not.
Is the Minister aware that Séamus Woulfe is a former branch secretary of Fine Gael in Dublin Bay North? Is she aware that Mr. Justice George Birmingham, who sat on the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, JAAB, which recommended Séamus Woulfe, was a former Fine Gael Minister of State?
Is she aware that Séamus Woulfe sat on a previous JAAB that recommended Mr. Justice Birmingham for a position as President of the Court of Appeal? Does she believe there is a danger of “you scratch my back and I will scratch yours”?
Did she know Mr. Justice Frank Clarke, who also sat on JAAB that recommended Séamus Woulfe, was a former Fine Gael candidate for the Seanad? The Minister should have found it distasteful that a body with so many Fine Gael connections should itself recommend somebody with a Fine Gael connection.”
Yesterday: Appointing Séamus
Transcript via Oireachtas.ie