At a little after midday on Monday, John Wolfe and a friend step up towards the front bench.
A crowd of black-cloaked lawyers from the previous case depart the courtroom en masse, with a haul of heavy boxes on trolleys, and a suitcase with wheels. A rack of clouds blocks the sun through the skylight, and the room darkens as if somebody has found the dimmer switch.
Wolfe and his friend are about the only people not wearing black in the courtroom at the Court of Appeal this morning. Wolfe is in a peach-and-blue pinstripe shirt and zip-up navy-blue top. Lay litigant attire.
He is also on a mission to tackle corruption in Irish politics through the courts and his first target is what he sees as the bulky travel expenses of Dáil members.
“All rise please.”
Everyone stands for the entry of Ms Justice Finlay Geoghegan, Ms Justice Irvine and Mr Justice Hogan. The three judges take their seats under the metal harp on the wall.
John Wolfe’s Mission
It’s been three years since Wolfe began his quest to look into the travel expenses of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
First, through a Freedom of Information request, Wolfe learnt that Ahern was claiming €1,000 in travel expenses each month for commuting to the Dáil after stepping down as Taoiseach. But as the former Taoiseach, he also benefited from the use of a state car whenever he wanted.
In effect, Wolfe believes claiming these expenses while also using a state car funded by the taxpayer amounted to fraud. He passed this information to the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation, the Garda Commissioner and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) back in 2013.
In court, he said that under Section 19 of the Criminal Justice Act 2011, he had an obligation to do so. But a year later, DPP Claire Loftus independent.ie/irish-news/politics/bertie-cleared-of-making-up-false-expense-claims-30602931.html">said she would not be prosecuting Ahern as there was no evidence he had done anything wrong.
At the time, Ahern independent.ie/irish-news/politics/bertie-ahern-did-meet-gardai-over-expenses-fraud-claims-30916032.html">told the Sunday Independent that his expense claims were all legal and above board.
You might have expected Wolfe to stop then.
Instead, he tried to find out if these bodies had investigated his complaint, but struggled to get any information. Through correspondence with the fraud squad, he discovered the incident hadn’t even been recorded on the Gardaí’s Pulse system.
Frustrated, he felt his complaint wasn’t being taken seriously, so he applied for a judicial review, citing the fraud squad, the DPP and the Garda Commissioner.
When the High Court heard the case last December, it decided against granting this, because the judge said it was too late to make the application.
On Monday, he appealed this decision.
A Lawyer in the Making
Wolfe has spent years researching law, an interest that grew after he was taken to court himself in 1993. He wanted to educate himself, he said, so that he could protect himself in future.
After retiring from his lengthy career as a builder, he enrolled at Dublin Institute of Technology and completed a diploma in legal studies nearly two decades ago. “I love civil law with a passion,” he says post court appearance, at a nearby cafe.
Shortly after he got his diploma, he took an English cruise company to court over racial harassment and anti-Irish jokes. The case was settled out of court.
Since then, he has often advised people who have been cheated by builders or developers and cannot afford legal aide. But his recent High Court appearance was just his second time before the bench.
He was nervous at the appeal, but at least he got to talk and argue his case this time, he said.
He didn’t have much luck.
After 20 minutes of deliberation, the court of appeal upheld the decision not to grant a judicial review; the three judges said the case was taken too late.
“Your application is refused, that will be the order of the court,” said Geoghegan.
Wolfe argued that he couldn’t take a case until he gathered information and evidence, but the trio agreed it should have been submitted within three months of when grounds for the application first arose.
This was back in February 2015 at the latest, when the DPP said it would not give any further comment or information on the subject, said Geogeghan.
“I’m a bit down. A lot of work has gone into it, you know,” Wolfe said after. “It was a technicality.”
“When you’re going into something you’ve never done before, knowing the law is great but knowing the procedures is another game again, as you saw in court this morning,” he says. “I can only try and do the best that I can do.”
He’s not sure whether he’ll continue to pursue the case, to try to kick it up to the European Court of Human Rights, for example. “I’ll sleep on it,” he says, with a smile.
Wolfe has a thick binder with him, full of the years of work that he has put into taking the case so far. And it’s not the only thick binder he has.
He is also preparing for a case challenging the Chief State Solicitor’s Office on the issue of TDs’ expenses, and is expecting a date to be set in the coming months.
In tax law, he says, it’s clear that workers — whether they’re self-employed or working under the PAYE system — cannot be paid substantial travel expenses without being affected by significant tax as well. But in the case of most TDs, they receive bulky, unvouched expenses without tax implications.
He believes this is contrary to Article 40.1 of the Irish Constitution, which ensures that all citizens be held equal before the law. The article has been used in different ways over the years.
In the Adoption Act of 1974, a widower could only adopt a child if he already had one, but this condition didn’t apply to widows. In 1985, a case was taken against the Attorney General and it found this law was repugnant to Article 40.1.
Wolfe hopes that the court will find that allowing TDs to avail of significant tax-free travel allowances is discriminatory to other workers.
Wolfe describes himself as an anti-corruption campaigner, determined to have a hand in holding politicians who abuse public office to account. Corruption in Irish politics is “endemic and systemic”, he says, echoing the words of the Mahon Tribunal’s findings.
“I can’t just stand back and watch it. Somebody has to speak out,” he says. “If I succeed in getting something, that’s great, but so what if I don’t. I’ll try anyway, it’s as simple as that.”
It was travelling the world, he says, and seeing other political systems, that left him with a sharp sense that Ireland faces significant corruption.
The country might not rank highly on global corruption indicators, but Wolfe insists that it’s a big problem.
“I believe corruption in Ireland is endemic throughout all of society. A load of [countries] are corrupt but there’s sanctions when you’re caught. In Ireland, there’s no sanctions and it just goes on and on and on,” he says.
“In Ireland there’s the connected and the unconnected. In other countries, the law is the law. If you get caught, you’re gone … In Ireland, if you get caught and you’re well connected, you don’t go down.”
His dislike of fraud isn’t a recent occurrence. Back in the 1970s, after returning from Rhodesia, he joined Fianna Fáil for four years, but decided to leave and never looked back.
“I was high up in the Fianna Fáil party then,” he says. “But I resigned in ‘79 because of the corruption of Charlie Haughey.”
He says he knew of this corruption well before people spoke about it. “But I was proved right in the end, Justice Mahon proved that,” he says.
At one time, he thought about jumping into politics. He ran as an independent candidate in the 2009 local elections for Fingal County Council, but doesn’t plan to run again.
“The wife said no more after that,” he laughs. “You learn that when you get older, you need your wife behind you no matter what you do.”
Instead, he says, he’ll keep filing cases in court.