Wednesday 13 December 2017

Fine Gael's alliance with Ross and Sinn Féin risks enraging its lawyer supporters

Shane Ross Picture: Tom Burke
Shane Ross Picture: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

There was a time when the term "blueshirt barrister" was entirely tautological. Let's be clear that we are not talking about matters sartorial here - rather the colloquial term for Fine Gael activists, a group once deemed to be very numerous in legal circles.

Yes, there were Fianna Fáil lawyers and even, in latter decades, Labour lawyers. But those of us who encountered lawyers, through reporting the courts we stress, found it safe to assume that very many tended towards the Fine Gael side in their politics.

Now, in what is a very unlikely "populist alliance" - involving of all people Shane Ross and Sinn Féin - Fine Gael is going against a chunk of its long-time traditional base: the lawyers.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, himself an original Fine Gael solicitor, has introduced the Judicial Appointments Bill in the Dáil, which has been sought by Mr Ross since the Government was formed last year. For various reasons Fianna Fáil is adamant it will vote against it. But as Fianna Fáil steps out - Sinn Féin will step in again and vote for it.

The bill aims to reform the way judges are appointed, introducing a new appointments board with a majority of non-lawyers and a non-legal chairperson. It is strongly opposed by the barristers, though largely endorsed by solicitors.

It is vehemently opposed by the judges. We know that because the judges from the Supreme, High, Appeals, Circuit and District Courts have taken the rare move of coming out publicly against the plan. Irish public life is in a very strange place right now with a very oddball Dáil alliance making judges issue press statements.

Read More: Flanagan offers olive branch to end Government's row with judiciary

It is accepted on all sides at Leinster House that the persistence of Independent Minister Mr Ross has brought the draft law to this point and it will now be passed. It comes after two weeks of acrimony between the senior judges and the political leaders. The ham-fisted way the former attorney general Máire Whelan was appointed to the Court of Appeal was deeply unhelpful and set a very bad tone.

It is equally unhelpful that none of the Fine Gael ministers likes Mr Ross. It is noteworthy the Justice Minister had reserved some of his best invective in recent times past to denounce Mr Ross.

But in politics, more than in many other walks of life, you must often work with the ones you dislike.

And the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has all the signs of embracing the new changes - irrespective of annoying barristers and infuriating judges. He argued that the changes follow international practice that having a lay chairperson of the selection commission was not unusual.

"It is the case in England, for example, and it is also the case in Scotland where there is an equal number of legal and non-legal members," the Taoiseach told the Dáil. He said it was also the modern way of appointing people to public office.

The secretaries-general of government departments were selected through the Top Level Appointments Committee and in other walks of life the most eminent people face independent outside or interview boards.

He said this legislation would end canvassing.

It made many wonder how we lived without it to date.

Irish Independent

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