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Shatter denies row as Chief Justice steps in

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Chief Justice Susan Denham speaks at Griffith College, Dublin, last night

Chief Justice Susan Denham speaks at Griffith College, Dublin, last night

Chief Justice Susan Denham speaks at Griffith College, Dublin, last night

Justice Minister Alan Shatter has denied there is any row between him and the judiciary, and dismissed suggestions of a constitutional crisis.

"There is no crisis. There hasn't been a row," he said.

His comments came after the Chief Justice announced the setting up of a new working group to repair damage between the executive and the judiciary.

Mrs Justice Susan Denham also moved to rein in the country's judges following the high-profile dispute over alleged threats to judicial independence. She paid tribute to Ireland's judges, who she said had shown "an enormous willingness to change" and were acting "patriotically" during a time of national economic crisis.

But Mrs Justice Denham, in an apparent rebuke of some of her colleagues who publicly intervened in the controversy, insisted that the traditional route of contact between the executive and the judiciary -- through the Office of the Attorney General – is the "positive and proper route".

Speaking to the Law Society at Griffith College Dublin, Judge Denham, the longest serving member of the Supreme Court, said that concerns raised by the judiciary had been the subject of regular meetings she had with Attorney General Maire Whelan.

This appears to contradict claims by the Association of Judges of Ireland (AJI), which said that all contacts – formal and informal – between the two sides had ceased.

Announcing the new working group, Judge Denham said that it was clear "new structures" were required.

Mr Shatter said it was a mystery to him how some members of the judiciary had developed the "mistaken" belief that there had been a breakdown of communications between them.

He felt it was quite bizarre to suggest a breakdown had taken place and said he and the Chief Justice continued to hold regular meetings that were productive and constructive.

The position had been addressed by the Chief Justice in her speech at Griffith College and the issue had now been put to bed, he added.

He said it was important that "we all get back to the work that we are committing to doing in the public interest".

Last week, Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Frank Clarke said that the judiciary was entitled to put forward its case. He has suggested the setting up of an overarching judicial commission – on a constitutional or statutory footing – to deal with issues such as pay, conditions and appointments.

An independent commission was rejected by the Government when it held a referendum in 2011 to overturn the constitutional ban on reducing judges pay.

The "renewal" working group, which met last Monday night, includes Martin Fraser, secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach and the country's most senior civil servant.

The Chief Justice, the Attorney General as well as judges from the Supreme, High, Circuit and District Courts – most of whom are AJI members – are also on the working group.

The group met last Monday night, hours after the AJI released a statement saying all contacts had broken down and backing High Court judge Mr Justice Peter Kelly who claimed at a private dinner that judicial independence was being demolished "brick by brick" by the Coalition.

Clarity

In Strasbourg yesterday, President Michael D Higgins said the row between the Government and the judiciary should end in a way that brings clarity on the separation of powers.

Constrained constitutionally in what he can say, the President stopped short of saying he was concerned by the dispute itself.

But Mr Higgins said he is "concerned" about the coverage of the dispute, and said he hopes it can be resolved quickly.

And he added the argument – with judges claiming their independence is being undermined, and ministers claiming it is because judicial pay is being reduced – should end with clarity on the separation of powers.

Meanwhile, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte called for a "wind down" of the dispute over judicial independence.

Mr Rabbitte said nobody in Government wanted to interfere with judicial independenceand the separation of powers was hugely important to democracy.

"My understanding as a member of the Cabinet was the normal informal channels of contact had always existed and continue to exist," he said.

"I think that's the way it should be and I think we should wind down this controversy because nobody in Government wants to intrude on judicial independence."

Irish Independent