One of the enduring features of governance in Ireland is the symbiotic relationship between politics and judicial advancement. The other is the great lengths to which both politicians and lawyers go to deny any such connection. Thus we hear plenty of sanctimonious guff about the separation of powers; the need to keep politics immune from the judiciary, the better to ensure that the pristine quality of the law remains untainted by close contact with the dark side of politics.
This is what makes a brouhaha like the Séamus Woulfe controversy as amusing as it is unseemly – as well as explaining why the political establishment would rather run a mile than get involved. To depict the row as having no connection to politics is, as always, an attempt to convince Seán Citizen that judges, the judiciary and judicial appointments are on a higher plane completely. The Chief Justice gives a public dressing down to Judge Woulfe in an exchange of correspondence, which, to the average punter, would suggest that the two could be little more than strangers to one another.
But then we read, thanks to the homework of some diligent left wing TDs, that Séamus Woulfe was a Fine Gael activist who was a former branch secretary of the party in Dublin north. And that the current President of the Court of Appeal, George Birmingham, was a Fine Gael TD in that same constituency and that, another surprise, the current Chief Justice, Frank Clarke, was Birmingham’s election agent.
Frank Clarke, in turn, was a former Fine Gael candidate for the Seanad. All three sat on Judicial Appointment Advisory Boards that recommended each other for office at different times.
And there we were, thinking they only bumped into each other being fitted out for their wigs and gowns.
Not that the close connection between politicians and judiciary has not caused plenty of grief.
For the embattled Séamus Woulfe, there have been precedents aplenty where accident-prone judges have managed to burn the house down as a result of one misstep or another. A previous Attorney General, Harry Whelehan, brought down the Government of Albert Reynolds in 1994 when the then Taoiseach, in defiance of the wishes of his Labour Party coalition partners, appointed Whelehan as President of the High Court. His tenure lasted two days, until a storm over the botched extradition of a paedophile priest did for them both. Reynolds said he regretted ever making the appointment, Whelehan was pressured to resign, and pretty soon the Taoiseach went the same way.
Four years later, Justice Hugh O’Flaherty of the Supreme Court was forced to resign over his ‘unwise intervention’ in the case of a driving conviction for a Dublin architect. Initially he refused to go but, having changed his mind, he brought down with him another High Court judge and the Dublin County Registrar.
But that was not all. Shortly afterwards, Finance Minister Charlie McCreeevy – tin eared beyond belief – announced his decision to nominate O’Flaherty as vice president of the European Investment Bank. So great was the level of public outrage at this benevolent gesture that Mr O’Flaherty withdrew his name in the public interest.
There have been many other sticky moments when the interlock of politics and judiciary did not go as smoothly as hoped for. But even recalcitrant judges can sense when the game is up. There has never been a successful impeachment of a judge in the history of the State.
And Séamus Woulfe is unlikely to be the first.