Tuesday 11 December 2018

The AG and a salmon luncheon that turned into a dog's dinner

Attorney General Seamus Woulfe
Attorney General Seamus Woulfe
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

At one point, Séamus Woulfe noted that there was "very little" written about the Attorney General.

"It's probably better it stays that way," he said to approving laughter from the small gathering in the Georgian Suite at Buswell's Hotel last Friday afternoon.

Perhaps unfortunately for him, he had said something about five minutes earlier that was going to land in the headlines.

There was nothing at all unusual about the collection of journalists, PR executives, and selected others who turned up to hear a rare public speech from the AG.

The Association of European Journalists has regular luncheons in Dublin and the guest speakers tend to offer a mix of on- and off-the-record commentary on events of the day.

And before some people jump to conclusions, a glass of wine with a plate of salmon was as boozy as it got. Most people were rushing back to work afterwards.

As acknowledged by Mr Woulfe during his speech, the Attorney General is something of an unknown entity in Irish politics.

There are actually no specified criteria laid down to qualify for the job, although the former vice-chairperson of the Bar Council of Ireland reckoned it "would be a help to have some legal background".

He set about explaining his role as legal adviser to the Government, using Article 30 of the Constitution.

The average punter would probably have needed the second glass of wine - but he worked in a few anecdotes to dilute the legalise. Quoting ex-UK AG Patrick Hasting, Mr Woulfe remarked how for some "to be a law officer is to be in hell".

"Thank God it's not so bad anymore. Perhaps when Paul Gallagher was there on the night of the bank guarantee, or perhaps for Máire Whelan at the time of the Fennelly Commission when it was all kicking off, might have been in hell," he said. "Now that things are a little bit happier in the system and the politicians are happier, I'm not completely in hell all the time at least."

There was mention of jokes made with Independent Alliance Minister Finian McGrath about how Mr Woulfe might one day challenge him for his seat in the Dublin Bay North constituency.

On the issue of Cabinet confidentiality, he mused that the principle was "difficult to fully apply in a modern world where ministers and their advisers brief journalists".

"On the pure theory of Cabinet confidentiality, nothing said at Cabinet can be disclosed. No discussions...But sure every week you see in the papers that so and so said this or that. So the constitutional theory is still there, but there's a real mismatch between the constitutional theory and operation of practical politics," he said.

And then of course there was the "complete dog's dinner" that is Transport Minister Shane Ross's legislation on judicial appointments.

Lest some take the cheap and easy version of what was said, Mr Woulfe specifically blamed Opposition TDs for making a mess of the bill. He mentioned Fianna Fáil's Jim O'Callaghan, whom he considers a friend, by name.

What is now being seen as a 'gaffe' was not in his script but neither did it look as though the AG was speaking off the top of his head.

Later, in a show of just how small the Dublin legal field is, he referred to Mr O'Callaghan again.

"My kids said to me 'dad, how long is this new job'...They are friendly with Jim O'Callaghan's children as well.

"They said, 'Luke's dad, is he going to kick you out of your job?' I said, 'Maybe in the autumn'.

"They saw Jim on the 'Six One News', of course, with the Frances [Fitzgerald] business and weren't too impressed."

And with that he finished by saying: "Sorry folks for rambling on a lot."

There followed a short Q&A session that was off the record and, as should be the case, I'm going to respect that. But Mr Woulfe now faces a few days in hell as the Government and Opposition try to digest it all.

Irish Independent

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