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Saturday 23 September 2017

Ahern was lobbied for promotions to judiciary

Ex-Taoiseach 'snowed under' with requests, says High Court Master

Ronald Quinlan

Ronald Quinlan

THE Master of the High Court Edmund Honohan has revealed that the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern complained to him that he was "snowed under" with requests from lawyers who wanted to become judges.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr Honohan -- who, it emerged last week, sought appointment in 2008 as Ireland's judge at the European Court of Justice -- expressed the view that prospective judges should in future have to be approved by a Dail committee to "re-establish" the stature of the judiciary in Irish society.

Referring to the lobbying he says Mr Ahern had experienced from lawyers looking for preferment, Mr Honohan said: "Bertie once told me, of all the tasks, the one he hated the most was judicial appointments because he was snowed under with requests for appointments.

"His attitude was he would take the advice of the Attorney General, although the Attorney General technically doesn't have the legal function to advise on appointments. He only has the function to advise them in relation to law."

While Mr Ahern was unavailable for comment on Mr Honohan's claims, informed sources confirmed to the Sunday Independent that the former Taoiseach had been lobbied "frequently" both directly and indirectly by lawyers seeking positions at District and Circuit Court level.

Lobbying in relation to appointments to the High Court and above had been less common one source with knowledge of the matter said, and was reduced with the establishment of the Judicial Appointments Board. Commenting on this, the source said: "Once we put the board in place, it dampened that caper down a good bit."

Mr Honohan's call for a debate on the subject of judicial appointments comes at an especially sensitive time for the Government, which has already clashed with the judiciary over its proposals to hold a referendum on judges' pay. Chief Justice John Murray has already expressed the view that the proposed referendum is "fundamentally deficient" and would compromise "judicial independence".

While there is no suggestion that any of the judges appointed during Bertie Ahern's 11-year tenure as Taoiseach lobbied him personally for their positions, Mr Honohan's claim will increase pressure on the Department of Justice to quickly complete the review recently ordered by Justice Minister Alan Shatter into the current system of judicial appointments.

Commenting on what he sees as the inherent danger of lawyers lobbying a serving Taoiseach on the matter, Mr Honohan added: "If that became known, that [this was] one way of achieving the target of getting a judicial appointment, then it narrows into a small group of intellectual or closely connected establishment lawyers.

"There's where the public interest should be concerned. How can the public be assured that the full range of available talent is considered?"

Offering his own proposals for reform of the system, he said: "It may well be that the judicial appointments board, which applies to most judicial appointments, is a step in that direction. But it's also possible that in relation to Supreme Court decisions, potential appointees should be subject to a Dail [committee] hearing . . . I can see no difficulty in that, and indeed if we are to move forward into the 21st Century and re-establish the judges' stature in Irish society, then we need to blow the cobwebs off this."

Asked for his response to the publication last week of his own letter to Mr Ahern in which he asked to be considered for appointment as Ireland's judge at the European Court of Justice, Mr Honohan said: "I was happy to see the fact that I applied for a job back in 2008 brought to the public's attention in the hope that it would open up a debate on how we appoint judges. I think it's a debate we should be having."

He objected to his application for the €228,000 job being "characterised" as lobbying, however, adding: "To suggest that it's a revelation is to suggest that there is some wrongdoing. Then there's the question of characterising it as lobbying when it's just an application. The use of the word 'lobbying' suggests that you're using back-door methods, that it's nearly something reprehensible or dishonourable."

Sunday Independent

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