LawSoc welcomed the Irish Attorney General Seamus Woulfe to UCD last Thursday to speak to the society. Mr Woulfe who has been Attorney General since June 2017 was being awarded an honorary life membership of the society, joining others such as former President Mary McAleese, current President of the EU Council Donald Tusk and former head of the ECB Jean-Claude Trichet.
Seamus Woulfe originally a Legal Science graduate from Trinity College was first called to the bar in 1987 and more recently raised to Senior counsel in 2005. He has previously acted in the Beef Tribunals of the early 90s and later would take the Irish Government to the European Court of Human Rights due to delays in being paid by the state. He also made an appearance in the infamous X Case which led to two referendums on the right to travel and right to information regarding abortions in Ireland.
Mr Woulfe spoke extensively about his role, its history and how it has evolved over the years. Speaking first as to the nature of the role Mr Woulfe spoke to how the role had was set out in the preamble of the constitution as the Government’s primary legal advisor, and drafter of legislation. The role is also set out as a protector of the common good and the constitution.
He spoke of how the role of Attorney General has existed in some form or another since the 1300s, starting first as the so-called ‘Kings Attorney’. However, the first person in Ireland to hold the role formally was Hugh Kennedy in 1922 in the provisional Government, though the role was not formalised in the Free State till the Ministers and Secretaries Act in 1924.
Even then the role was notably different from the modern interpretation. Mr Woulfe spoke as to how the role was previously not protected by the constitution and used to be responsible for bringing criminal cases for the people. This second role was only taken over by the Director of Public Prosecutions in 1974.
Since the 1937 Constitution, the Attorney General has been a constitutional role, one that has been acknowledged as an inherently political one. Up until 1977 all those that had held the role of Attorney General had also been TD’s. This practice in the view of Mr Woulfe been discontinued due to the growing body of law and work that the Attorney General was required to know and take on. The last to hold the joint role of TD and Attorney General was John Kelly.
With regards to the role and how one is taken aboard for it, Woulfe said he himself only receives 24 hours notice of the fact he was being brought into the role. This was not uncommon as the role is tied to that of the Taoiseach, meaning that as new ones were voted in new Attorney Generals would be too. He also remarked how typically the role was filled by a barrister and a senior counsel at that, with some, even being promoted to the positions of senior counsel on the day of their appointments to the attorney general role. It has also nearly always been the case that the person appointed by their nature is involved in party politics.
Woulfe took and answered a number of questions after his initial speech, on topics ranging from the unexpected aspects of the job to more in-depth questions about policy. Mr Woulfe says he was subject to a ‘culture shock’ moving from what as in effect a sole trader as a barrister to an office manager surrounded by staff. He went on to say that perhaps the most frustrating part of the role was the slow progress of certain projects or legislation. This particularly is evident in the Private Members Bills that have been brought before the Dáil in greater numbers than ever before in the last two years.
A large part of the reason that so many of these Bills have been trapped in certain stages of the legislative process was the difficulty in writing legislation is often underestimated. This has lead to a number of recent discussions between the Government and the Opposition in an effort to resolve this, and an agreement may be reached soon with the goal of addressing these problems. The compromise, of course, may lead to a reduction in the number of Private Members Bills being brought to the Dáil, however, it will be in exchange for more of these Bills progressing further in the process.
Speaking to the Tribune after the event, LawSoc Auditor said that ‘We were honoured this week to award Séamus Woulfe, the Attorney General, Honorary Lifetime Membership of the society. Mr Woulfe has been a longtime contributor to the Irish legal system, both as Attorney General and while serving as a barrister in numerous high-profile cases, making him an obvious and incredibly deserving choice for LawSoc.’
By Aaron Bowman – CoEditor