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18 Jan 2022

Supreme Court judge gives evidence of ‘hazy knowledge’ of Covid guidelines before golf dinner

Supreme Court judge says he had  ‘hazy knowledge’ of Covid guidelines before golf dinner

A Supreme Court judge has given evidence in the trial of four men accused of breaching Covid-19 regulations, saying he had a “hazy, broad knowledge” of guidelines for the reopening of the hospitality sector.

Seamus Woulfe told the trial of two politicians and two hoteliers the guidelines were Government approved.

The former Attorney General was appointed to the Supreme Court in July 2020, a month before the controversy over his attendance at a golf club dinner.

Galway East Independent TD Noel Grealish, 55; former Fianna Fail senator Donie Cassidy, 75; and John Sweeney, 60, and his son James Sweeney, 32, who own and run the Station House Hotel, are on trial accused of illegally holding the Oireachtas Golf Society event.

All four face a single charge that, on August 19 2020, they organised an event that contravened the Health Act 1947, as amended, to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of Covid-19.

The alleged offence relates to a dinner which took place at the hotel, in Clifden, County Galway, and was attended by 81 people.

Prosecutor Eoghan Cole said it is the state’s case that the indoor event was organised and attended by more than 50 people, which was a breach of the then Covid laws.

All four men deny the charges, saying they complied with the regulations.

Mr Justice Woulfe, who was Attorney General until the end of June 2020, said Covid regulations were complied by the Government, with further guidelines fleshing out the rules agreed by sector representatives and Government officials.

He told Galway Court he had a “clear recollection” of a “conscious” decision to implement a more liberal view that “would allow for multi-gatherings, not one gathering of 50 people” in a venue.

He said, however, that he did not see the detailed guidelines as to how the gathering of those 50 people were able to operate.

“I had never seen them but I knew immediately from my time as Attorney General that there was a pilot guidelines fleshing out the regulations because there were ambiguities in the regulations,” he told the court.

“They were almost impossible to draft in a comprehensive way, given the time pressures.

“I was aware that, along the way, when those regulations were being done, there was an ambiguity about what was a gathering.

“Was a gathering 50 people in one room, or was it 50 people on the premises, or 50 people in the building or if a hotel had two buildings, was it 50 people in the overall hotel premises?”

He continued: “When it came to reopening, my understanding was the hotels were saying if it’s 50 in total in the whole premises they won’t be able to reopen.

“Given the urgency, it wasn’t possible to iron out all those ambiguities. What happened instead was various sectors got involved in drafting of these guidelines. They are there to assist in reopening.

“The guidelines were in conjunction with lifting of restrictions.”

Mr Justice Woulfe told the court it was “significant” that the Government of Ireland harp was on the front page of the guidelines published by Failte Ireland.

He said these were Government-approved guidelines to help the hospitality sector reopen.

“I have a clear recollection there was a conscious policy to go for a more liberal view that would allow for multi-gatherings, not one gathering of 50 people.

“The guidelines allows for multiple gatherings in venues’ facilities.

“They are only permitted provided conditions were meet and they were in separate defined spaces (with) a system to prevent intermingling.

“This wasn’t an accident. It’s not as if after the golf event somebody turned to these and said there was a peculiar guideline, this was a deliberate policy applying to all hotels across the state.

“The guidelines were done by civil servants. I would have had a hazy, broad knowledge of the nature of guidelines.”

Mr Justice Woulfe was invited to attend the event by a friend.

He said there were “a couple of complications” before attending the event as he was recently appointed to the Supreme Court.

“When I satisfied myself (by) having had a word with the chief justice, it seemed OK to go as a judge to the social event,” he said.

He told the court that, when he became aware of the dinner on the day of the event, he contacted a friend about it.

“I queried it in my own head,” he said.

“It was first of those kinds of dinners I had been to since things opened up.

“I queried about it being a group dinner and I was told that the organisers had consulted with the authorities and everything was in order with the guidelines.

“I would have been aware there were detailed guidelines backing up the whatever the strict numbers rule was.

“At that split second moment did I know if it was 40, or 50, or 60? I’m not sure.”

Mr Justice Woulfe said there were around 40 people in the room where he was dining.

He told the court he sat with his back to the retractable wall, saying he was not aware of people in the other room.

On the second day of the trial, the court heard from Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer.

Mr Buttimer, who resigned from his position as leas-cathaoirleach of the Seanad following the event, said the hotel was “very Covid compliant”.

“I was impressed by the standards of the hotel for Covid compliance,” he added.

He said he was not aware of another room and did not see anyone mingling in the area and that guests had to use a separate area to access the bathrooms.

Edward Walsh SC, for hotel owner John Sweeney, asked Mr Buttimer whether he was aware the Government had been working with industry representatives to compile the guidance.

Mr Buttimer told the court the presence of the Government of Ireland logo led him to believe it was an official document.

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