Nothing illustrates the abandonment of core Fine Gael values under Leo Varadkar’s leadership better than the Justice Minister from the law-and-order party being afraid to face down the Shinners on the independence of the judiciary.
Principle is replaced by spin and spinelessness.
Helen McEntee’s job as Minister for Justice is to stand by the institutions of the State, not hide behind the Constitution of political cover.
Imagine the great Paddy Cooney shirking from an opportunity to restate his firm views on the justice system and its role in upholding the law of land in the midst of criminal or subversive threats.
The Fine Gael Minister for Justice under Liam Cosgrave’s Fine Gael-Labour coalition from 1973-1977, he epitomised his party’s law-and-order approach in response to the growing threat of paramilitary violence by the Provisional IRA. He also stood squarely by the Garda Síochána in its duty. His approach wasn’t always popular and he lost his seat in the next election.
The likes of Cooney confronted far greater challenges than facing a few questions in the Dáil about the appointment of a judge.
How the mighty have fallen.
McEntee’s behaviour has been an embarrassment to the office she holds and those who went before her and served the State with distinction.
Aided by Tánaiste Varadkar, the minister has attempted to evade scrutiny on her appointment of Séamus Woulfe as a Supreme Court judge.
The minister brought his name alone to Cabinet for approval, so it’s her responsibility to explain the decision. She has yet to give a satisfactory account of her failure to disclose the existence of other applicants for the position to the Taoiseach and Cabinet colleagues.
In the election, Varadkar claimed he led “the party of law and order”. The party’s core values extend beyond being purportedly tough on crime. It’s about upholding the institutions of the State.
Since coming to power almost a decade ago, Fine Gael’s record in the justice area has been nothing short of calamitous.
Two Fine Gael ministers have had to resign from office, although both were subsequently exonerated. Alan Shatter was treated particularly badly by his own party and the government he served in and has successfully challenged sections of a report concerning the former minister’s handling of complaints made by Garda whistleblowers.
Enda Kenny’s resignation as Taoiseach can, in part, be attributed to controversies in the justice portfolio. Frances Fitzgerald got caught up in a political maelstrom which forced her from office. She has been vindicated by the Disclosures Tribunal report.
Setting aside the politics, the damage done in the public eye to An Garda Síochána is still being repaired.
On Fine Gael’s watch, we are now seeing the good name of the judiciary being dragged through the mud.
The current minister is seemingly incapable of seeing the bigger picture of the principles of judicial independence and adherence to the law, rather than the process of appointing a judge.
The most important part of Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s statement on behalf of the Government on the Woulfe affair this week came when he said: “The independence and the integrity of the judiciary is of paramount importance. The judiciary has played a vital role in supporting the democratic and constitutional traditions of the State since its foundation and has ensured respect for the rule of law which underpins those traditions.”
Likewise, the former justice minister Charlie Flanagan went along similar lines when he addressed the controversy around the previous appointment of former Attorney General Máire Whelan to the court of appeal three years ago. “Since 1922 this State has had a robust and independent judiciary. I am pleased to underline the widely-held view that the Irish judiciary is now, and has always been, one of the great successes in our history.”
Sinn Féin’s justice spokesman, Martin Kenny, very politely asked the present incumbent to address the process of appointing judges at the Oireachtas Select Committee on Justice to try and clear up the furore around the Woulfe appointment. The minister seemed more concerned with being accused of not answering questions.
Waffling on about a “clear process”, she didn’t once take the opportunity to speak of the importance of the judiciary and its vital role in maintaining the rights of citizens and upholding the laws our democracy is built upon.
The appointment of judges by the Government is a profound function under the Constitution. It is fundamental to maintaining public confidence in our judiciary. Long after Seamus Woulfe is gone, long after Helen McEntee is gone, this will remain the primary objective.
The Justice Minister’s tactic of trying to hide away during the Woulfe fallout has backfired badly. The minister has finally realised it is not for her to decide whether questions about an appointments process are appropriate.
That is a matter for the legislature, which holds her as a minister of the Government to account. Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Feargháil made it clear this week he didn’t see why the minister could not face questions. In her request to move her regular minister’s questions slot forward, she is simply bowing to the inevitable.
McEntee’s ‘policy-by-press release’ strategy in her department shows no overarching vision being illustrated by her.
The minister says she will publish a new Strategic Plan for her Department by the end of the year.
The plan is supposed to set out how to tackle crime, improve access to justice, strengthen community safety, make the immigration system fairer and so on.
Let’s await the outcome to see if this minister puts a stamp on her portfolio and does “lead a programme of change and reform across the justice sector”, as she promises.
Her handling of the Woulfe affair and the judgement she has shown hardly instils confidence.