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Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions (Continued)

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1002 No. 7

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Alan Kelly: Information on Alan Kelly Zoom on Alan Kelly]   Unfortunately, I want to return to the appointment of Séamus Woulfe. More than 300 documents were released to me and also to The Irish Times last night. The Irish Times reported that the newly appointed Minister for Justice requested the Woulfe appointment be brought to Cabinet on 6 July. By the Minister's account to the Dáil, that is a full five days before she consulted the Government leaders about it between 11 and 14 July, as required by the Cabinet handbook. How is it possible that a memorandum, which I have in my hands, could be commenced early in the morning and signed off at 11.17 a.m. on the day of a Cabinet meeting, five days before the Minister said she consulted the three leaders of the Government? A memorandum for the appointment commenced at 7.45 a.m. and was signed off by the Minister at 9.34 a.m. It was then pulled by the Department of the Taoiseach. The Minister for Justice, therefore, was intending to appoint the Supreme Court justice but she had not disclosed this to the party leaders, according to her own timeline. Her spokesperson, however, told The Irish Times that the Minister had been told it was urgent. Who told her it was urgent? Who tells the Minister for Justice the appointment of a Supreme Court judge is urgent?

  In the Dáil, the Minister said a draft memorandum was submitted to her office on 6 July. It was beyond that; it was actually signed off by the Minister and put forward by the Department of Justice to the secretariat of the Cabinet, which is run by the Taoiseach. This was not told to us three weeks ago.

  I have a number of questions for the Tánaiste. I appreciate this documentation only emerged last night. On what date did the Tánaiste tell the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, that Séamus Woulfe would make a good judge? Timelines are now becoming critically important. Prior to 6 July, who told the Minister this appointment was urgent? Most importantly, how could a Minister for Justice sign off on the appointment of a Supreme Court judge, Mr. Justice Woulfe, on 6 July and have a speaking note prepared on it when, by her account to the Dáil, she only consulted the three leaders of the Government between 11 and 14 July?

The Tánaiste: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I am afraid I am not in position to answer the Deputy's questions. I have not seen these documents. The Deputy said there are 300 of them. I understand none of them relates to me or communications involving me. It is difficult to answer a question about documents I have not seen and do not contain any communications involving me.

From the documents and what I have read in the newspapers, I understand it was indicated that the appointment might be made at Cabinet on 6 January. In the end, it was not. There were several Cabinet meetings after that. The Minister for Justice had time and, indeed, consulted all party leaders and the Attorney General before making the appointment. The Deputy will know from his time in Cabinet that it is often the case that something is put on the agenda but then not taken or withdrawn for many different reasons.

My understanding is that the Chief Justice had written on several occasions asking that this appointment be made. He felt there was a vacancy in the Supreme Court that needed to be filled. As the outgoing Government, we took a view that we were not going to make that appointment and that it was a matter for the next Government. I might speculate that the source of the urgency was that this was an appointment that the Chief Justice wanted to be made.

In terms of the date, I do not know the exact date but I recall that, in questions that I and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, answered before, we gave the range during the period of dates where we would have had that conversation, which would have been, obviously, after her appointment as Minister for Justice and before that decision was taken to bring that appointment to Cabinet.

Deputy Alan Kelly: Information on Alan Kelly Zoom on Alan Kelly I genuinely appreciate the Tánaiste's honesty. I accept that this documentation is not related to him. However, this is a serious issue for the Government and these questions will have to be answered pretty quickly. I have a real issue here. One of the central themes of what the Minister continuously says is that she followed the Cabinet handbook to the letter of the law. If, however, she followed the Cabinet handbook, why, all of a sudden, very early on the morning of 6 July, did she start a process to bring a memorandum to Cabinet to appoint Mr. Justice Woulfe, considering the Cabinet handbook says she must consult the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister, Deputy Ryan? That is a complete contradiction. Second, subsequent to that, after this was pulled by the Taoiseach for some reason we do not know and which we need to know, why was the appointment of a Circuit Court judge added to the Cabinet agenda? Third, why did the previous Minister for Justice and Equality, in the middle of a general election campaign, ask for the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, JAAB, to meet to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, but went against the advice of his officials who felt there was not an urgency in the appointment of that position and that it would be unusual for Department of Government to make such an appointment?

The Tánaiste: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar Again, these are questions that do not involve me directly so they are difficult and impossible for me to answer. What I do know is that the memorandum was not taken to the Cabinet meeting on 6 July. It was two or three Cabinet meetings later that the memo was taken. At that point, the Minister for Justice had, of course, spoken to the Attorney General and all the party leaders, and came forward with one name which she recommended to Cabinet. That was agreed by Cabinet unanimously. I know from my experience as a Minister that it is often the case that one tries to get a matter on the Cabinet agenda and somebody comes back, maybe one of one's own officials or the Department of the Taoiseach, and says we are not ready for that, hold it off or carry it over. I do not know what the particular circumstances were in this particular case but I do know that appointment was not made on 6 January. Several Cabinet meetings passed before it was made.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall On behalf of the Social Democrats, I wish the Ceann Comhairle, all Members and all Oireachtas staff a happy and restful Christmas. It has been a rough year for everybody and that includes everybody associated with the Houses of the Oireachtas. Let us hope for better times in 2021.

I raise with the Tánaiste an interview Mr. Paul Reid did on the "This Week" programme last Sunday. He was asked about a contract worth €14 million that the HSE had entered into for ventilators. It seems there were serious problems with that purchase. As I understand it, the ventilators have never been used in a clinical setting. There were quality issues about the ventilators in question. That raises a large number of issues. I fully accept that this was a pressurised period. Everybody was stressed about the situation and there was a rush to get medical equipment. It raises questions, however, about procurement and financial controls, and those are important at any time.

One must wonder how this contract came to be placed. It was placed with a company called Roqu, which had previously only been known for event management and organising festivals in the Middle East. It had a residential apartment address in Dublin city centre and one employee, who was the owner of the company, Mr. Robert Quirke. How much does the Tánaiste know about the awarding of this contract, which resulted in the taxpayer being caught for huge figure of €14 million? What does he know about contacts between the owner of the company, Mr. Quirke, and the HSE? Who contacted whom? Was there any contact regarding this with either the then Minister for Health, the Tánaiste, who was Taoiseach at the time, or anybody else at a political level? How did it come about that contact was made and then the subsequent order was placed? There are serious concerns about this and how it came about. What approvals were required? Were political approvals required for placing that order? I would appreciate if the Tánaiste could answer those questions. We know that a subsidiary of the company in question, another Roqu company, went on to do the testing in County Roscommon and was also involved in developing the health passport app. One wonders how these contracts were awarded to a company with no history and, apparently, no expertise in the health products area.

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