Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has told the Dáil that she took on board a comment from Tánaiste Leo Varadkar that Seamus Woulfe would "make a good judge", but said she uses her own judgement when making decisions.

Ms McEntee was answering questions in the Dáil on the appointment of Mr Justice Woulfe as a Supreme Court judge.

Paul Murphy of Solidarity-PBP asked if Taoiseach Micheál Martin was made aware that other names existed regarding an appointment to the Supreme Court.

Ms McEntee said that she had already made clear that she only recommended one name to Mr Martin.

She said she did take on board her party leader's comment that Mr Justice Woulfe would make "a good judge".

But it was her understanding that Mr Varadkar was not aware that there were other names put forward for the position.

The minister said that there were five expressions of interest, plus the name put forward by the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB).

Mr Murphy asked if she made the decision "100% by herself" and Ms McEntee said that she has already said that this is what happened.

Ms McEntee said that she did not tell Mr Varadkar that there were other expressions of interest.

She told Mr Murphy that she takes her job seriously and that she took the decision of who to appoint to the Supreme Court "very seriously".

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has called on Mr Varadkar to respond to Ms McEntee's explanation of his involvement in the process.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Drivetime, she also called for Mr Martin to respond to the statements.

"It also raises a question for me for Micheál Martin, as the head of Government as Taoiseach, what is his view of this? Now that we know that Leo Varadkar shared his view with the Minister for Justice," she said.

Ms McDonald described the explanation given to the Dáil today as "far-fetched".

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Earlier, Ms McEntee explained that she was informed by officials in June of a Supreme Court vacancy when she was appointed as minister.

She said that a draft memo was submitted to her office in July with expressions of interests from serving judges.

The minister said the practice in relation to appointments is that only one judge's name is brought to Cabinet by the Minister for Justice and she said that this practice is important in relation to judicial appointments.

Ms McEntee said an open debate would amount to a "complete politicisation" of the judicial appointments process.

She said it was the duty of the Minister for Justice to propose to Cabinet the best person for the particular judicial vacancy, and the Government then decides. She said that this is what happened in this case.
 

The Sinn Féin justice spokesperson told Minister McEntee that he expects her to "explain how four names were whittled down to one".

He asked her why the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader was not informed of the other names put forward for a position on the Supreme Court.

Martin Kenny said that giving a job on the Supreme Court to Mr Justice Woulfe was a "Fine Gael appointment".


Focus turns to Varadkar after McEntee's Dáil comments


Labour Party's justice spokesperson Brendan Howlin told the Dáil that from his experience in three coalition governments it was always the case that the appointment of senior judges drew considerable scrutiny by those in government.

Mr Howlin said that it was never the sole right of a minister for justice to choose and appoint a judge.

He told Minister McEntee that it appeared to him that she presented the name of Mr Justice Woulfe as a "done deal".

He questioned if Ms McEntee was aware that the previous Government, led by Fine Gael had established a non-statutory advisory group, outside of JAAB, to assist in choosing people for judicial appointments.

Mr Howlin said that the her explanation of the process used to select Mr Justice Woulfe was not credible.

Ms McEntee said that when she made the recommendation to the Taoiseach he "did not object".

Mr Howlin asked why the names were not discussed by the other Coalition leaders. The minister responded that it was her job to recommend a name and "that is what I did ".

Both Mr Howlin and Labour Leader Alan Kelly expressed frustration that Minister McEntee did not answer questions to their satisfaction.

Co-leader of the Social Democrats Catherine Murphy asked the minister what criteria was used to evaluate candidates for the Supreme Court.

The minister said that she could not get into criteria, as indicated by the Ceann Comhairle, which provoked heckles from the Dáil.

Ms McEntee said that there was "no specific criteria for me" and that she uses her own judgement.

Ms Murphy said that a "scoring system" existed for "any job you go for". She questioned why there was not a metric and if this allowed for an "emotional decision" to be made.

Bríd Smith of Solidarity-PBP told the Dáil that she believed Minister McEntee used a vacancy on the Supreme Court to appoint a politically connected person. 

Ms Smith said that it was her belief that judicial appointments were often political. She said that there is "no such thing as the separation of powers".

She appealed to TDs to support her party's motion to remove Mr Justice Woulfe from the Supreme Court.

Independent Catherine Connolly said that it is regrettable that it has taken "this much effort to have this limited debate".

She said that she put the blame "squarely on the Taoiseach" and that he has learned nothing.

Ms Connolly said that Minister McEntee had been given a "hospital pass" and that Mr Martin should be answering questions.

Ms McEntee said that she looked at "all names put before me".

She said these names included the name recommended by JAAB, five expressions of interest and a long list that changes of eligible judges who did not express an interest, but are recognised as being capable of doing the job.

Aontú's Peadar Tóibín asked the minister who told her initially that a position needed to be filled.

Minister McEntee said that the Chief Justice informed the previous minister, Charlie Flanagan, that a vacancy had become available.

With regard to the second vacancy on the Supreme Court, Ms McEntee said that she would fill the vacancy when she is asked to do so.

Mr Tóibín said that it should be the minister who pushes for such a vacancy to be filled.

Mattie McGrath of the Rural Independent Group asked why there was a 14-week gap between Mr Flanagan receiving Mr Woulfe's name through JAAB and his appointment.

Ms McEntee said that the decision was made within two to three weeks of a new Government being formed.

Mr McGrath questioned if the delay in the previous Government was due to Shane Ross being a member of the Cabinet.

A plan was agreed last night where oral statements would be made followed by a 35-minute question and answer session.

The Minister, Tánaiste and Taoiseach had strenuously opposed this process over the past week in the face of intense and unified opposition pressure.

Despite agreeing to the process, Minister McEntee said she continues to have grave concerns due to the effect the session could have on the independence of the judiciary - a stance dismissed by the Labour leader as completely bogus.

The Government argues that this process mirrors a similar Dáil session a few years ago, also involving an attorney general appointment to the judiciary, save for the fact that this question-and-answer session is ten minutes longer.

Opposition parties and Independent groupings are still deeply unhappy with the Government's approach, with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald arguing the coalition continues to dodge accountability.

Reporting Paul Cunningham, Aisling Kenny and Tommy Meskill