It was half past 10 in the morning and the first witness of the day had given his evidence.
Counsel for the prosecution Eoghan Cole BL faced the bench and solemnly announced: “Judge, the next witness will be Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe.”
For it was He.
“Okay,” said Judge Mary Fahy, matter-of-factly. Another day, another sitting of Galway District Court.
There was a short delay, a pregnant pause in the silent courtroom. It did wonders for the dramatic tension.
And then in ambled Séamus Woulfe, judge of the Supreme Court, with a stack of files under his oxter. He entered the box and took the oath.
“Good morning, Judge Fahy, ” he said breezily, in a way other witnesses don’t.
“Good morning, Mr Justice Woulfe,” replied district justice Mary Fahy.
“Good morning, Mr Cole.”
“Good morning. Thank you, Judge.”
For the next hour the decorum was only dripping from the walls.
As a freshly anointed Supreme Court justice and former attorney general, Séamus attended the celebration dinner held by the Oireachtas Golf Society in August 2020 which led to this week’s criminal trial in Galway. In the ensuing national uproar over whether the event and its politically connected guests had breached Covid restrictions during a national emergency, Justice Woulfe adopted a more reticent approach than the other big-name diners, keeping a very low profile while others fell over themselves explaining and resigning.
During a turbulent few months, he kept his counsel and he kept his job.
He slipped past the fuming photographers on his way into the building through the back door, but once inside the courtroom he was mad to talk – cocooned, perhaps, in familiar territory. The law courts are his bailiwick, although he was unfailingly solicitous of Judge Fahy, endeavouring to be of assistance with his knowledge of guidelines and statutory instruments while not in any way “wishing to trespass on the judge’s functions”.
First, he explained what little bit he knows about the Oireachtas Golf Society. He joined a few outings because he was asked by his acquaintance, former senator Paul Coghlan. He agreed with Eoghan Cole that the society is an avowedly non-political body.
“I was given the impression that they [the golf outings] were a good way of breaking down any kind of political rivalries or rows that might happen; to develop friendships and relationships between people from all parties.”
How interesting. Is there anything to be said for getting Micheál and Mary Lou and Leo out to play a few rounds? Throw in Eamon Ryan to make up a fourbawl. Maybe instead of interminable Coalition negotiations, Donie Cassidy could organise a few outings for the negotiators. We’d have the new government in no time.
The Oireachtas Golf Society certainly hid its light under a bushel. Woulfe – talking away in the witness box – informed his charmed inquisitor that he heard the society was revived at the time of the Arms Trial in 1970 “and had helped defuse tensions between politicians and so on”.
Has nobody told Diarmaid Ferriter about this?
There was some discussion of the one-event-into-two-rooms conundrum and the small matter of the physical division of the large banqueting suite into two smaller spaces and whether people mingled via a gap in the wall.
Unfortunately, Séamus couldn’t provide much assistance. “I had my back to the retractable wall behind me.” And then he had his back to the wall for a long time afterwards until he was finally able to take his place on the Supreme Court bench.
He was in agreement with other witnessess who told the trial, which began on Thursday, that the event observed all the Covid protocols and he attended having been given assurances that it was in compliance with the current regulations. Not only that, but as he had just been made judge he “checked with the chief justice” who gave him the green light, and he checked with his wife, who let him off to the golf in Ballyconneely and the do afterwards in the Station House Hotel.
But Séamus was really keen to talk about the “guidelines” issued to the hospitality industry by the Government, which are central to the case. He made a couple of attempts to divulge the contents of his ring binder file and eventually succeeded.
Could he perhaps raise them now “in conjunction with my thought processes”?
“Absolutely, if that’s what you wish,” said barrister Cole.
Justice Woulfe said it fitted with “the chronology”. And could he “come at it in this way, do you mind? It might help the judge.”
Then he explained, in some detail and then some more, about the “ambiguity” at the time over guidelines and what constituted a gathering in hotels. The defence is placing great emphasis on them.
Eddie Walsh SC, for hotel owner John Sweeney, must have been delighted to hear him expounding on the subject as he has been brandishing a photocopy of the guidelines at witnesses throughout much of the hearing. Look at the logo, he tells everyone. “Rialtas na hÉireann.”
Séamus seemed to bear him out. “It is significant that the Government of Ireland harp is on the front page,” concluded the Supreme Court judge.
“I did notice that,” chimed in Judge Fahy, having mentioned this the previous day. Eddie was beaming.
Marks & Spencer route
Justice Woulfe then went down the Marks & Spencer route. These are no ordinary guidelines, he declared, drawing on his experience as attorney general to the government which produced them. “They are Government guidelines, or Government-authorised guidelines.”
They moved on. Who were the people sitting at the judge’s table? Junior Counsel Eoghan delicately broached the issue.
He understood eight people sat at his table. “And you are in a position to say who they were, are you comfortable to say who they were?” he wondered.
“Well, I don’t know, I mean, if you ask me I’ll tell you.”
Judge Fahy sounded nonplussed. “You asked him was he comfortable?” she repeated.
The barrister explained he was asking if he was comfortable naming the guests, clearing up any confusion as to whether he might have been inquiring about how comfy he was in the witness box. “If he is comfortable to give that evidence or not.”
On the previous day the barrister just asked the question straight out and witnesses replied, straight out.
Proceedings moved on so Séamus never got the chance to explore his comfort zone.
Colm Smyth SC, the only lawyer wearing a wig, asked some questions of behalf of his client, Donie Cassidy. He ended up having a very lawyerly exchange with Justice Woulfe on the legalities surrounding unofficial circulars and guidelines. Woulfe quoted from a book on administrative law.
“Absolutely,” murmured Colm, mentioning government pay talks and how they can be binding but not enshrined in law.
Outside, the photographers had split into two groups and were now staking out the back door as well as the front.
Finally, licensing law expert Eddie Walsh got his chance. Up he got, waving the industry guidelines in the air. “It seems utterly remarkable” that the DPP is conducting a prosecution while ignoring them. “The imprimatur of the Government of Ireland affixed to the bottom left-hand corner.”
Séamus had lots of sets of guidelines in “his book” and he ran over some relevant dates with the sitting judge.
After an hour, he beetled from the box and it was nearly half an hour before he left.
Oysters were served before the starters.
Justice Woulfe surprised the photographers by suddenly appearing through the front door, beanie hat on his head, coat buttoned up, face mask on and head down. He hurried to his waiting car, a member of the staff carrying his bag. The Supreme Court judge then ducked into the vehicle and was driven off.
“That’s one of the fastest getaways I’ve ever seen,” marvelled one of the photographers.