Wednesday 22 November 2017

Taoiseach: We're not on the brink of an election over judge appointment

Maire Whelan with President Michael D Higgins in Áras an Uachtaráin. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Maire Whelan with President Michael D Higgins in Áras an Uachtaráin. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he would prefer that his first week in office had not been affected by controversy over the appointment of Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal.

Despite the storm Ms Whelan's appointment has caused, Mr Varadkar has insisted the country is not on the brink of an election.

The Taoiseach was defiant as former attorney general Ms Whelan was formally appointed as a judge by President Michael D Higgins.

He stood over the appointment insisting she is "uniquely qualified" for the position and he also said the Government's actions in nominating her were "lawful and in accordance with the Constitution".

Fianna Fáil has argued the appointment of Ms Whelan is a breach of the party's 'confidence and supply' agreement with Fine Gael, though the Government insists this only covers policy matters.

Procedures used to make the appointment have been roundly condemned by all parties and caused Independent ministers in Government to raise belated concerns.

Independent minister Shane Ross. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Independent minister Shane Ross. Photo: Steve Humphreys

The appointment, while respecting the letter of the law, bypassed an independent appointments board, which has been used since 1995.

While Fianna Fáil appears to be reluctant to push the 'nuclear button' and call an election over the issue, the matter is expected to be raised by leader Micheál Martin at Mr Varadkar's first Leaders' Questions as Taoiseach today.

Meanwhile, Independent ministers Denis Naughten and Shane Ross are set to raise the controversial appointment at Cabinet.

The furore over Ms Whelan being appointed to the Court of Appeal has overshadowed Mr Varadkar's first week as Taoiseach and he was asked about the issue in Downing Street after his meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke
Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke

He said: "I don't think we're on the brink of a general election."

But he admitted: "I would have not liked my first week in office to have been affected by controversy over judicial appointments."

Read more - Attorney General appointment: Everything you need to know about the first scandal to rock Varadkar's government

He said he had wanted the focus to be on his new Cabinet, its priorities and policies and the meetings with the main parties in Northern Ireland and with Mrs May.

Mr Varadkar also addressed his own role in Ms Whelan's appointment as a minister who was present for the decision during Enda Kenny's last Cabinet meeting as Taoiseach, saying: "It's not something I'm going to wash my hands of."

Mr Varadkar said he stood over the decision, highlighted Ms Whelan's qualifications and said that similar appointments have been made in the past.

He said: "It is appropriate and it's lawful and fair procedures were followed and therefore I stand over it."

Over the weekend, Mr Varadkar effectively called Fianna Fáil's bluff when asked about the prospect of an election over the issue.

He said: "Everybody knows that Fianna Fáil has the power to bring down the Government if they choose to do so.

"That's a question you'd have to ask them."

The statement appears to have raised the ire of some members of Fianna Fáil.

Backbench TD Eugene Murphy last night took to Twitter to hit back, saying: "If Leo Varadkar thinks he can tell Fianna Fáil to put up or shut up, then we are on the road to another election by autumn."

Speaking earlier, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan played down the storm.

"I'm satisfied that all procedures and processes have been dealt with fully, in accordance with the law," he said.

"The appointment of the two High Court judges, and the judge for the Court of Appeal, were dealt with by the Cabinet."

Irish Independent

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