“This was an insider appointment that stinks to high heaven.”
The line could have easily been lifted from the tetchy exchanges during a protracted hacking away at Taoiseach Micheál Martin, in the Dáil on Tuesday, on the appointment of Seamus Woulfe to the Supreme Court.
One by one the opposition lined up to take further chucks out of Martin’s argument that the “separation of powers” precludes him, or indeed Justice Minister Helen McEntee, from answering the many questions that remain around the appointment process.
“We are going to have to do this slice, by slice, by slice for as long as it takes,” said Labour leader Alan Kelly in the cold, calculated tone of an executioner.
Sinn Féin, Solidarity-PBP, the Social Democrats, and a clatter of Independent TDs have made it clear that they have no intention of letting the matter rest and have insisted McEntee be hauled before the Dáil for questioning.
But that opening blow was not taken from yesterday’s Dáil exchanges on Woulfe’s appointment, which sparked heckling, finger-wagging, and refusals to let the issue slide.
Instead, it was taken from a contribution made by Martin himself back in 2017, when, as leader of the opposition, he launched a blistering attack on then-taoiseach Leo Varadkar over his Government’s decision to select Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal.
A row erupted at the time when Martin made a highly personal charge in the Dáil, claiming the former attorney general was no match to some previous judicial appointments.
Describing it as a “squalid” appointment, Martin insisted Varadkar “address the controversy and explain to the Dáil what and when he knew”.
Fast-forward three years and Martin, now in the Taoiseach’s seat, doesn’t want to explain and it appears he certainly didn’t want to know anything about the latest appointment to the Supreme Court when it was being mulled over by the justice minister.
This inconsistency of approach from Martin has not been lost on the opposition.
“Apparently the Taoiseach, and the leader of the Green Party, were not aware that at least three judges — we have to assume either High Court or Court of Appeal judges — had applied for the position,” Sinn Féin’s whip Pádraig Mac Lochlainn told reporters outside Leinster House before the grilling inside the chamber had even started.
Mac Lochlainn pointed to the fact that, as leader of the opposition in the last Dáil, Martin had pressed Fine Gael on the appointment of Whelan. “There was quite a row between himself and the then minister for justice, Frances Fitzgerald, about this issue. So he has history on questioning the process of appointments, yet he doesn’t appear to have raised any concerns this time.”
Why did McEntee not consult Martin before she handpicked Woulfe from a list of at least four candidates who had put themselves forward for the Supreme Court opening?
Were no questions raised with the minister when Woulfe’s name was put forward to Cabinet, especially since he had recently sat around that very table as attorney general in the previous government?
Despite the protestations of the opposition, which consumed Dáil proceedings for almost an hour and forced two votes on the order of business, there was no sign of McEntee.
The Government has strongly argued that she simply cannot bow to opposition demands to explain how she selected Woulfe as it would be crossing the line which ensures separation between the judiciary and the Oireachtas.
This argument was dismissed as a “complete misunderstanding of the separation of powers” on the Government’s part.
Even former minister Finian McGrath said he believes there is no impediment to McEntee coming before the Dáil.
“I think any Minister of Justice should be well able to stand over their appointments, and I have absolutely no problem with them going into the Dáil,” he toldon RTÉ radio.
Fine Gael Minister of State Colm Brophy towed the party line and rowed in behind his colleague, claiming it would not be appropriate for McEntee to explain the appointment.
“I’d have grave reservations about the idea of the Dáil engaging in a process which effectively is second-guessing the appointment of a serving member of the Supreme Court,” Brophy said, his explanation appearing weak and unconvincing.
In the Dáil, the Taoiseach provided a more robust explanation, but it still didn’t quell the calls for a full account from McEntee.
“There is a clear process for the appointment of a judge by the Government, as set out in the Constitution and in law. That process has been fully complied with in this case,” Martin told the Dáil.
If all the correct procedures were followed, what is preventing the justice minister from explaining her decision in the Dáil and putting the issue to bed for once and for all?