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Column: Cutting judges’ pay has a price – and it’s not worth it

A Yes vote on Thursday won’t benefit anyone much – but it will mean a serious compromise to our constitution, writes Sinéad Keogh.

Sinéad Keogh

WHAT VERY FEW people – media, political or otherwise – have focused on in the past number of weeks is that the upcoming presidential election is to be served with a side order of referenda. And one of the two proposed amendments is rather galling (actually, they both are, but to be angry about both simultaneously would become rather muddled. So let’s focus on judges’ pay this time around).

The government would like your permission to amend the constitution. They are currently not allowed to decrease the pay of judges. You might remember the kerfuffle and requests for judges to voluntarily stump up a percentage of their pay a ways back. Some did, some didn’t and the media duly reported their numbers at arbitrary and pointless intervals with obligatory subtext from which you could infer messages like ‘what a bunch of gits those rich old judges are’.

The fact is that we have and do spend money on a lot of pointless things in this country, and every now and then someone cops it and some drop in the ocean is targeted. Only, when the protection of judges’ pay was targeted, it wasn’t targeting spending on pointless things, rather it was targeting something behind which stands stacks of logic and reasoning. Yet, because for once a government could say ‘well actually, it’s not our fault that we can’t do anything about that one’, they did.

What we have seen so far with regard to this amendment is little debate, even less understanding and a complete lack of acknowledgement of the gravity of the matter from all sides. When you do take the time to read up on the proposition, you should find that the arguments for voting ‘no’ build up faster than you can say ‘we’ve been had’.

Firstly, symbolism would triumph at the expense of the protection of the legal system. The reality is that cutting judges pay might, according to figures quoted by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter in The Irish Times three months ago, save us around €5.5 million per year. The per year part of that should be taken with the knowledge that it applies only to serving judges because new appointments can be brought on stream at a lower salary level anyway. Essentially, it’s a problem that will go away with time, unlike messing with your constitution for the sake of €5.5 million. €5.5 million, with the mess we’re in?

‘It’s like saying your child was mostly eaten by a shark’

Were I to suggest an equivalency for the sake of analogy, that’s like saying your child was mostly eaten by a shark but you saved an arm. What you’ve saved is barely worth saving, and you’ve put yourself in danger to get it back. Yes, every little helps, and the government are eroding plenty of cornerstones of belief, cut by cut, from decreasing SNA’s in schools which compromises a child’s right to an education (and often by extension, their right to dignity and so many other things) to giving themselves the right to reduce the pay of judges which compromises the standing of the judiciary by putting their fate in the hands of the Oireachtas in a way that it never was before.

The difference here is that for once you don’t have to march or write letters or get your injustice in the papers and then still potentially suffer anyway. This wrong was considered so wrong, it is thought so stringently that it should not happen, that it has been given protection in the Constitution, and we are presented with that very rare situation in which if the people decide that they don’t want it, it ain’t happening, and there’s stuff all the government can do about it.

Second of all, we can look to the origins and evolution of the situation. The target is arbitrary. Sure, maybe judges’ pay should be cut in line with other pay cuts, but given the solid standing of the reasons why the government didn’t have that power, who perpetrated the witch hunt? It might be easy to look to the media, but it’s also accurate. Find an upper middle class grouping, tell lower middle class people, working class people, unemployed and overtaxed people that they’re being jipped by same, toss all of them into a cauldron and stir. It’s all too easy to upset people who are struggling by showing them the false injustice of someone who isn’t.

‘Oh no wait, it’s an Irish government’

It’s a cut the government have the people on side for so they’re primed to go ahead and make it happen. Surely, surely, they will acknowledge the importance of dealing with a constitutional matter? Surely they’ll farm it out to an independent body, create one, recognise why they ought to tread carefully? Not put themselves in a position of power over what should be an independent judiciary? Oh no wait, it’s an Irish government. What they’ve actually done is present us with a poorly-worded amendment that is as ambiguous as it is insulting.

Judges pay may be decreased by ‘proportionate reductions’ if the pay of others of a comparative class who are also paid from public money is also reduced. Oh can it? Great. So is that a percentage? Is there a limit to the cut? What’s a comparative class? And why are you the one cutting it, Oireachtas? Don’t you get how very much lacking in impartiality you are? Don’t you know anything about the importance of the separation of powers and why these protections were enshrined in our constitution in the first place?

Worse still, that same media who stirred us up to be annoyed about the situation are nowhere to be seen in analysing the proposed constitutional amendment. They’re running around after the seven wonders of the ancient world that are contesting the presidency and trying to stir up their latest round of acrimony (easy to stir, it must be said) and focussing on a position of little power while the threat to positions of real power seem to bother them but not at all.

Oh sure, Morning Ireland had the head of the Referendum Commission on, but if you listen to Morning Ireland you’re probably already politically aware, and we’ve got those ads and those pamphlets in the post, but where’s the debate? Where’s the outrage at being handed something substandard? Where’s our concern for the failings of this candidate for change that we’re supposed to vote yes to? The government are failing us, the media are failing us and we’re failing ourselves.

‘You don’t stand to benefit’

So thirdly, if we acknowledge that the Oireachtas shouldn’t have the power to cut judges pay in order to maintain the integrity of our legal system, but we might also say that judges pay in itself should be cut in line with similar cuts, where do our options lie? Well actually, we find ourselves in agreement with the judiciary. They wrote a 12-page document on the matter, objecting to the wording of the amendment and the manner in which the cuts are to be made but crucially, did not show as much concern for the cuts themselves. They produced that document in July, before the final wording of the amendment was agreed, and yet we find ourselves poised to vote on what remains a flawed proposition.

If your child was mostly eaten by a shark and there’s nothing you can do about what’s gone, then maybe you should look at who the shark represented in that analogy and not be so concerned with saving a severed arm. Vote ‘yes’ to the judicial pay amendment and the salary of the most senior judges will be cut by around 23%. The state coffers will be richer to the tune of €5.5 million per year, for a few years. But not your coffers. You’re not the shark, the state is. You don’t stand to benefit. You’ll still suffer cuts and taxes and degradation of services. Taking money from judges doesn’t mean anyone is being saved from a nasty nip/tuck budget. Worse still, not only are you no better off but in fact you’re worse off, because now you live in a state where the separation of powers doesn’t seem so important anymore.

‘Cold comfort, so send back the plate’

What’s been served up in the form of the judicial pay amendment is a not-even-particularly-well-presented attempt at cold comfort, so send back the plate. They can’t kick you out of the national restaurant they can only try again and present something hotter next time around because you’re a paying customer and you’re paying bloody dearly.

Yes to making cuts at the top instead of the bottom and yes to reform but no to tokenism, no to half-measures, no to compromising the Constitution, no to giving the Oireachtas power it shouldn’t have, no to a lack of debate, no to a shoddy effort by the Referendum Commission, no to being treated like you will lap up any old crap that’s put in front of you. This proposed amendment is nobody’s best work, D- for effort but can do better, and it’s not good enough when it’s the work of the state who owes us a damn better offering.

Perhaps there has been no outcry because we’re too busy watching the seven ring circus that is the presidential race, or perhaps we just don’t care because we think it’s only to do with taking a few quid off some Mr Justice we’re never likely to meet and nobody gets all stirred up about protecting the overinflated pay of an upper middle class lawman who hasn’t felt the bite of recession since his favourite €200-a-plate fundraiser was cancelled due to poor ticket sales when there are more important things.

But actually, it’s about Bunreacht na hEireann, flawed and all as it’s been known to be, and you ought to care about that, because it’s not only Dana’s blanky or some last bastion against the forward march of Europe, it has some ideals in there that we used to stand for and we don’t need a recession of intellect to add to the economic one.

Sinéad Keogh is Commander-in-Chief of pop culture blog Culch.ie and a regular print and broadcast contributor. She edits books as her main job and likes politics, poker and knitting. She can be found on twitter @sineadkeogh.

  • Do you think we should vote ‘Yes’ to the motion on judicial pay? If you’d like to argue the case for a Yes vote in this space, email news@thejournal.ie.

Read more: What are the two referendums about? Your guide to the 27 October ballot>

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Sinéad Keogh

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