Craic & Codology

FF JUDICIAL BLUNDER

A RAFT of ‘eminent’ figures made fools of themselves in the furore over the government’s Judicial Appointments Commission Bill in the past week, chief among them being justice minister Charlie Flanagan. But Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesperson, Jim O’Callaghan, has inflicted serious damage on his own party, by diverting attention from the government as Fine Gael began to fight with Shane Ross’s Independent Alliance over the bill.
In political crises involving security and the law, O’Callaghan has shrunk from challenging authority and has reverted to legalistic arguments, firstly to defend Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and now the judiciary. He has successfully positioned his own party alongside Fine Gael’s discredited ex-justice minister Frances Fitzgerald in the garda scandals by refusing to demand the commissioner’s resignation and, when forced to do just that, by stating that FF still would not vote for it. Now O’Callaghan has pushed his party to the right of the supposedly reactionary Blueshirts with Law Library rhetoric about disrespecting judges, in particular Chief Justice Susan Denham.
Party leader Micheál Martin appears to be in thrall to O’Callaghan’s gravitas and plummy tones but not everyone in FF is pleased to see their party position itself on the same side as judges against the government, Sinn Féin and most left wing parties and TDs in the Dáil. Such law and order arguments may play well in parts of Jim’s Dublin Bay South constituency but most FF members and many frontbenchers are unimpressed.
Flanagan’s recent appointment as justice minister appears to have gone to his head as he delivered a gung-ho statement to party TDs and an even more provocative Irish Times article (he implicitly compared Ross to subversive elements). The article read like a swingeing attack on the rationale behind the new bill that the justice minister himself was introducing. A blustering Flanagan also made it known he would not be subject to demands from Ross; nobody said he would be. The minister said he wanted a “full debate, an open ended debate”; whoever demanded otherwise? And while he solicited speeches from his party TDs – as opposed to Ross – he added meekly that he was not saying he would take any amendments. Flanagan issued a contrite, ‘clarifying’ statement within 24 hours stating he was fully behind the bill while Varadkar’s office denied the Taoiseach had instructed him to do so.
Chief Justice Susan Denham did not cover herself in glory either. A week ago she lectured politicians about the separation of powers between politicians and judges during the Máire Whelan controversy. Five days later, without blushing, Denham appended her name to a statement from the presidents of the five courts divisions criticising the judicial appointments bill. It may be that such as High Court president Peter Kelly applied irresistible pressure on Denham; whatever, she looked foolish.
Most startling was the public intervention this week of former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness who was very cross indeed with Ross and his critique of the system of judicial appointments. Catherine was elevated to a series of high profile positions by successive FF administrations, led by Charlie Haughey, then Albert Reynolds and, finally, Bertie Ahern whose government appointed her to the Supreme Court in 2000. Catherine does not believe there is a need for a judicial appointments bill.
Varadkar, Flanagan and Ross will push through the bill, Ross will claim a victory and they will make up until the next inter government spat. But O’Callaghan and Martin will face an angry parliamentary party and grassroots membership unless Jim changes tack on justice issues.