THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION isn’t the only national vote being taken on 27 October: voters around the country will also be asked for their decision on two referendums proposing changes to the Constitution of Ireland.
On Sunday, constitutional law lecturer Dr Donal K Coffey argued the case for a ‘Yes’ vote on the Constitutional amendment on extending powers of Oireachtas committees. Today, independent TD Stephen Donnelly gives five reasons why he wants us to vote ‘No’ on that issue.
1. This amendment will give unprecedented powers to politicians to investigate anyone for anything, once the government of the day deems it to be necessary in the public interest. And the people being investigated may not be able to go to the courts to defend their rights. The amendment will “make it impossible for the courts to protect the substantive rights” of people before inquiries, says Professor Gerry Whyte. Who’s he? He’s the foremost academic authority on the constitution in the country.
2. Experts disagree, say the government, and they roll out their own. So, let’s see if there are any official experts on referendums… Ah! The Referendum Commission – they’re appointed by the government, and tasked with giving an independent assessment. What do they say? They say they don’t know if the courts will be allowed intervene to protect people’s rights. The Commission’s chairman, Judge Bryan McMahon, has said it will be “very difficult” for the courts to review the inquiries’ decisions.
3. The government says they are acting based on the Attorney General’s advice. But eight of her predecessors have just come out against the amendment, saying it “seriously weakens the rights of individual citizens”.
4. Elected politicians should be able to hold inquiries into issues of public interest, summon people before them, conduct investigations, and make findings. We’re all agreed on this. The problem is that their track record of doing this fairly is appalling. In the 1971 Haughey inquiry (not about Charlie Haughey), the Abbeylara inquiry, and the Ivor Callely investigation, Oireachtas committees made a complete hash of it, trampling all over people’s rights and costing the State more money in the process. The government’s response, in this amendment, isn’t to look at what the politicians got wrong in these cases – it’s to cut the courts out of the process altogether.
5. We all want to investigate the bankers. Myself and Shane Ross campaigned on the issue of accountability. We want to hold a public inquiry into the causes of the economic crisis and the role played in that by the bankers and others. Would this amendment allow us do that? Yes. But, might it be abused in the future, by a new government that’s less circumspect about using these powers? Absolutely.
Shane Ross wrote the book on the bankers; if he believes this amendment isn’t worth it, there’s clearly something wrong. Bertie Ahern said last week he thought the media should be investigated for having allowed themselves to be distracted from the economy by their interest in his finances. Is it fanciful to imagine that a future government, under pressure from the media, might be tempted to use this power against their critics?
There are others reasons to vote against – the rushed drafting of the amendment (three drafts since July), the inadequate debate (five hours total in the Dáil), Pat Rabbitte’s admission that tacking it onto the presidential election was a mistake, because the presidential election has drowned out all else.
But the core reason is very simple. There is no downside to voting No, but there is to voting Yes. As the above demonstrates, there is severe disagreement about what this amendment means and what its implications are for our rights, as citizens. Voting No allows us press the “pause” button. This is the Constitution we’re talking about – there’s no need to do this whole thing in less than two months. We should review it, get it right, and bring it back for a new vote, alongside the promised children’s rights referendum, in the new year.
This position seems to me to be moderate and reasonable, and my concerns are based on those of the most eminent experts in the field, as far as I can judge. But Government TDs have responded to these concerns with contempt and arrogance. Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice, has accused us of “extraordinary, unprecedented hypocrisy”. Fine Gael junior minister Brian Hayes described our arguments as “red herrings” and “populist rhetoric”, and accused me of being “utterly facile”. Labour TD Michael McNamara accused me of “blatant scaremongering” and being “sensationalist”. All for citing the Referendum Commission, former attorneys general, and the author of the leading text on the Irish constitution.
These are members of the government with the largest majority in Irish history. Does this suggest that, when it comes to using their new powers to investigate, they will be circumspect and non-partisan?