Judicial Independence 1, Irish Government 1: How not to run a referendum campaign

The voters of Ireland have been busy. On 27 October they elected a new President, Michael D Higgins (who was inaugurated last Friday – more on this election in a moment). They also voted in two constitutional referendums that dealt with the relationship between judges and politicians (the Twenty-Ninth and Thirtieth Amendment of the Constitution Bills respectively). The proposed Twenty-Ninth Amendment sought to introduce a rather complex mechanism by which the pay of judges could be reduced (as the pay of all other Irish public servants has been in recent years). The proposed Thirtieth Amendment sought to create a robust power of parliamentary inquiry.

The Irish electorate voted yes to the Twenty-Ninth Amendment (and by quite a margin – roughly 80%-20%). This proposal was the subject of a previous post of mine (which can be read here). In very brief summary, while I don’t think there can be a problem with the general principle that judges’ pay can be reduced in a crisis, the wording of the amendment is very vague and, for that reason, potentially a threat to judicial independence in future.

By contrast, the electorate voted no to the Thirtieth Amendment (by a narrower 53%-47%). This would have conferred a power to conduct inquiries into ‘any matter’ and allowed the Oireachtas to make findings of fact. It also included what could potentially have been an ‘ouster clause’ excluding these inquiries from the oversight of the courts.*

What explains the differing results? For some, the prospect of more robust parliamentary inquiries in general suggested a move towards a sort of neo-McCarthyism. This is perhaps a little unfair, but given that the government was proposing that one of the first subjects to be inquired into would be the Irish banking crisis (arising out of which criminal prosecutions are still expected) this was not so unlikely as to be dismissed as nonsense.

The results perhaps also disclose a general hostility to authority – particularly to the political and legal elite – in the midst of the current crisis. Whilst the electorate were happy to reduce the pay of the legal elite without bothering unduly about the niceties of constitutional law, they were hostile to the demands of the political elite for additional power in the midst of the crisis, for which politicians are widely perceived to bear the lion’s share of responsibility. As the inquiries amendment was framed, it appeared that this power came at the expense of the rights of the individual citizen.

A lot must be attributed to the nature of the campaign, however. The referendums ran alongside one of the most colourful and controversial presidential election campaigns Ireland has ever had, featuring no fewer than seven candidates. One candidate was repeatedly quizzed on letters of support he had written to an Israeli court on behalf of his former lover, who was convicted of the statutory rape of a teenage boy. One candidate suggested darkly that a minor car accident that turned out to be the result of an accidental tyre blow-out was in fact sabotage and part of a campaign against her. One candidate was Martin McGuinness. Against this lurid backdrop the referendum campaigns competed vainly for attention, and did not indeed get any until the dying days of the campaign. One lesson for future referendum campaigns, then, is to hold them by themselves.

The government’s case was not assisted by delaying publication of the text of the proposed referendums until the last possible moment, just weeks before voting day. It was also not helped by its combative attitude to criticism of the referendums. A late intervention by eight former Attorneys General emphasising the threat to the rights of the citizen and urging a no vote on both proposals was dismissed by the Minister for Justice as ‘nonsense’ spoken on behalf of vested interested in the Courts and the legal profession. Given that the concerns expressed were about the attitudes of the Government this did not inspire confidence.

This mixed result could have been avoided by making the amendment process more open. If members of the public (including lawyers and anyone else interested) had been allowed to participate in the formulation of the text of the amendments, rather than being presented with a badly written fait accompli at the eleventh hour, the resulting text of both amendments would likely have been better and the result for the Government and for the Irish Constitution more favourable. With any luck, these lessons will be taken on board for the Government’s promised, but still elusive, Constitutional Convention.

* This was proposed as a means of overruling a Supreme Court decision that restricted the power of the Oireachtas (parliament) to hold inquiries. In the Abbeylara decision (Maquire v. Ardagh [2002] IESC 21) the Supreme Court held that the Oireachtas has no inherent power to conduct inquiries that make adverse findings of fact against individuals, and can only do so where a specific power is conferred by statute or the Constitution.

The text of the potential ouster clause ran: ‘It shall be for the House or Houses concerned to determine with due regard to the principles of fair procedures, the appropriate balance between the rights of persons and the public interest for the purposes of ensuring an effective inquiry’.

2 thoughts on “Judicial Independence 1, Irish Government 1: How not to run a referendum campaign

  1. Pingback: Constitutional Round-up [18/11/11] | The Constitution Society: Working to promote informed debate about constitutional reform

  2. Pingback: Constitutional Round-Up – [08/03/12] | The Constitution Society: Working to promote informed debate about constitutional reform

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