Friday 20 September 2019

This one-man crusade makes little sense for Fianna Fail

Jim O'Callaghan is locked in the basement of Leinster House fighting Shane Ross on behalf of the legal elites

'But when it comes to Justice the party continues to flounder, with Jim O'Callaghan locked in the basement of Leinster House debating 190 amendments to a bill few care about except Shane Ross.' Photo: Tom Burke
'But when it comes to Justice the party continues to flounder, with Jim O'Callaghan locked in the basement of Leinster House debating 190 amendments to a bill few care about except Shane Ross.' Photo: Tom Burke
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Over the past fortnight the battle lines have been drawn for the next election. Fine Gael wants to paint Micheal Martin and his troops as an outdated party that doesn't 'get' Twitter videos, needs to do something about the Eighth Amendment and which might be tempted to get into bed with the Sinn Fein.

For its part, Fianna Fail is trying to fend off suggestions it could do business with Gerry Adams's "serpents" while labelling the Taoiseach as nothing more than a spin merchant.

Fine Gael is the party for people who get up early in the morning. But Fianna Fail is struggling to identify what it stands for.

To the left it is fighting Sinn Fein, who Meath TD Shane Casssells rightly pointed out last week "would ultimately seek to destroy" the party of De Valera.

To the right is the energetic and photogenic Leo Varadkar who has adopted a 'take no prisoners' approach to debates since becoming Fine Gael leader.

Caught in the middle, Fianna Fail is trying to be the catch-all party again.

Many feel it had a moral victory in last year's election with its 'An Ireland For All' campaign. The slogan was retained for the party's Ard Fheis which took place in the RDS last weekend.

So what would middle Ireland make of Fianna Fail now? Well, they would like its attitude to education where Thomas Byrne pushed for the lowest pupil-teacher ratios on record.

In the area of social protection, Willie O'Dea is credited with getting pensioners a fiver in Budget 2017. That set the agenda for more increases in 2018.

Michael McGrath and Dara Calleary are widely recognised in Leinster House as having fought a good battle with Paschal Donohoe. And Barry Cowen has a very hands-on approach to marking Eoghan Murphy in the Department of Housing.

But when it comes to Justice the party continues to flounder, with Jim O'Callaghan locked in the basement of Leinster House debating 190 amendments to a bill few care about except Shane Ross.

This week, O'Callaghan went back into battle for the elites of the Four Courts.

It's well documented that Ross has a problem with the way judges are appointed. He made judicial reform a central demand when agreeing to go into government with Fine Gael.

It's safe to say Ross probably isn't a fan of my columns, but on this occasion his proposals have some merit.

His bid to change the way judges are appointed is not perfect but the logic behind it is sound. He wants to distance the process from politics. For decades, rising legal eagles have attached themselves to political parties in the hope it will advance their careers. It was the way business was, and still is, done.

What the Transport Minister has proposed is a new 11-person body with a lay chair and majority who will be in charge of appointing new judges.

It's hardly a revolutionary idea - but given the resistance being put forward by Fianna Fail, you would think it was going to change the world.

Having lost the battle to ensure the chairperson would be the chief justice, Mr O'Callaghan came up with a new trick. He tried to amend the proposed legislation to allow the chairperson be a recently retired member of the judiciary. Retired judges are in hot demand these days - but Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan doesn't want them for the judicial appointments commission.

O'Callaghan said: "Just because they were formerly lawyers does not mean they are currently lawyers.

"As I mentioned in the Dail, nobody would call the minister, Deputy Ross, a stockbroker. The fact that he was a stockbroker does not mean that he is a stockbroker. There is no reason to exclude somebody who previously practised or worked as a barrister or solicitor."

Flanagan saw through the back door that was being opened.

"Can I say that I think it is challenging to sustain a position that a member of the judiciary, who for one reason or other steps down from that position, can suddenly be categorised as a non-legal person. I think that is a challenge in terms of public perception," he said.

The legislation does allow somebody who has not practised as a barrister or solicitor for a period of 15 years to be considered a lay person.

"On balance, this is a proportionate provision and appropriately reflects what I believe to be an accepted sense of what we mean by 'lay person'," the minister said.

Of course, O'Callaghan himself is far from a 'lay person' as defined in the legislation. In fact, he is still spending part of his week working in the courts, while simultaneously representing the people of Dublin Bay South and acting as Fianna Fail's justice spokesperson.

In the past he has denied a conflict of interest on the issue, saying: "My job is as a barrister, and I've never hidden the fact I'd remain a barrister as well as being a public representative."

But how can he not? Things are bad when even Mick Wallace agrees with the minister.

He told an Oireachtas Committee that former judges were still regarded as legal people when they retired.

"We see them as being more on the legal side than the lay side."

O'Callaghan has said in the past that "decent members of Fine Gael" are not supportive of Ross's plans.

They'll support them all right but it keeps Shane Ross happy and therefore Leo Varadkar in power. But what does Fianna Fail get out of this one-man crusade? It wasn't a topic for discussion at the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis last week and neither is it a burning issue in middle Ireland.

Most people never want to have to deal with a judge and most people would like to think they weren't hand-picked by their mates or by politicians.

Sunday Independent

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