Thursday 17 January 2019

'An unholy alliance' - 'Flanagan faces backlash over vetting deal with Sinn Féin on judges

Row over pact on Ross's appointments bill

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan (Brian Lawless/PA)
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan (Brian Lawless/PA)
Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh claimed judges in the Special Criminal Court have shown “anti-republican bias”. Photo: Tom Burke

Kevin Doyle, Laura Larkin and Cormac McQuinn

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan is facing a major backlash after doing a deal on vetting future judges with Sinn Féin.

As significant changes to the way judges are selected neared completion, Sinn Féin's chief whip Aengus Ó Snodaigh claimed judges in the Special Criminal Court have shown "anti-republican bias".

But Fine Gael is determined to press ahead with a behind-closed-doors deal with Sinn Féin to ensure the Judicial Appointments Bill, championed by Transport Minister Shane Ross, is passed.

Fianna Fáil's Thomas Byrne last night described the arrangement as an "unholy alliance" and said Sinn Féin's motivation in supporting the bill may be to "get revenge on the courts system".

There is deep unease within Fine Gael over its new-found relationship with Mary Lou McDonald's party, leading Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to tell a private party meeting last night that there is "no deal".

But Ms McDonald's party has backed the legislation in return for an assurance from the Justice Minister that he will introduce sentencing guidelines.

She said it is important for her party "to get a result" in this area "because we have been very conscious that serious crimes against the person, particularly sexual crimes, were carrying sentences that frankly were raising big concerns and questions in the public mind".

Mr Ross has made the ending of political power over the appointment of judges a red-line issue for his participation in Mr Varadkar's minority Government. A key component of the law is that the advisory committee that will recommend judicial nominees to Cabinet is to have a lay-person majority.

During a debate on the issue, Mr Ó Snodaigh said judges in the Special Criminal Court had shown "anti-republican" bias and while, he said, the proposed advisory committee would not necessarily address the issue, he welcomed the idea of a lay majority as "they come with a different view of the world".

Mr Flanagan has denied there was any deal struck with Sinn Féin and said the Government must work with people from all parties and none to promote its legislative agenda.

He dismissed calls to "collapse this enterprise" and return with a reworked piece of legislation down the line.

At a private meeting of TDs and senators, the Taoiseach said there is no cosying up between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin on this issue. He also referenced the recent Seanad by-election when Sinn Féin helped get his nominee, Ian Marshall, over the line.

Meanwhile, Mr Flanagan also sharply criticised the allegations made about the Special Criminal Court as "groundless allegations".

Despite Government insistence that no deal was struck, Sinn Féin's justice spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said the party "sought and secured this commitment on sentencing guidelines".

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said he would "prefer" if the Government didn't have to rely on Sinn Féin, when asked if he was comfortable with the arrangement.

"Fine Gael will not be going into government with Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin vote against Fine Gael and our party, far more often than they vote for us. And indeed if you look at voting intentions in the Dáil, I would have thought that a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition is more likely in the future, given the way they regularly vote together," he said.

Meanwhile, Ms McDonald yesterday attempted to distance herself from her chief whip and defend him at the same time.

She said the important thing for her party was "to get a result" in relation to sentencing guidelines.

Asked directly whether she agrees with Mr Ó Snodaigh, she replied: "The Special Criminal Court has a history of itself. I am not interested in rewriting and revisiting the history books on this matter. We have every interest in due process and the sound and fair administration of law and for us at this moment a really critical issue has arisen around sentencing guidelines."

Irish Independent

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