New Taoiseach is castigated in Dáil over judge’s appointment
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has pledged to fast-track a new law for the independent appointment of judges – and also promised other changes to avoid a repeat over the current bitter row on the issue.
Taking his first session of questions in the Dáil, the new Taoiseach faced scathing criticisms from the Opposition over the way former Attorney General Máire Whelan was made a judge of the Court of Appeals.
The Taoiseach also faced fierce criticism for suggesting it may not be right for the Dáil to debate the controversial appointment due to the special position of the judiciary under the separation of powers.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin dismissed the Taoiseach’s arguments saying: “You, Taoiseach have already embroiled the judiciary in controversy.”
The Taoiseach countered that there was a long-standing tradition of the Dáil not discussing individual judges’ appointments.
Micheál Martin said the appointment procedures were completely wrong and so was the haste with which Ms Whelan was appointed on Monday by President Higgins.
“It was slipped in at the last minute at the last meeting of Cabinet. This was an insider appointment and it stinks to high heaven,” Mr Martin said.
The Fianna Fáil leader also said Ms Whelan should have left the Cabinet room while the appointment was being dealt with by Ministers. He also believed the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, which was sidelined, felt the Court of Appeals job should have gone to an experienced High Court judge – not a newcomer to the judiciary.
Mr Varadkar defended the decision to appoint Ms Whelan and said she was extremely well-qualified as a lawyer and served as the Government’s chief law officer for six years. He cited several previous appointments made at times when Mr Martin himself was a Cabinet member.
These included Judge Frank Clarke to High Court, and barristers Adrian Hardiman and Donal O’Donnell who were made Supreme Court judges without being judges of a lower court. The Taoiseach also mentioned former Attorney General John Murray who was directly appointed a European Court judge.
Mr Varadkar also insisted he had put no pressure on President Higgins to formalise the appointment of Ms Whelan on Monday and his only role was to tell the President that he was available to attend the appointment ceremony that day.
The Taoiseach again insisted that the appointment of Ms Whelan was completely lawful and correct in line with law and the Constitution. He said a new law to make a more independent system for appointing judges would come before the Dáil next week.
Mr Varadkar also said there would be a review of procedures by the secretary to the Cabinet. This would aim to minimise the number of times items for decision were brought forward without prior notice to individual ministers.