Late in the day as it is, I want to urge people to get out and reject both referendums. There is a lot of confusion about them, I do not think government has paid sufficient attention to explaining them – in itself a reason to refuse their request for a change – and in particular there seems to be misunderstanding over the judges’ pay issue with many associating it with the exorbitant legal costs, of the Tribunals in particular.
The legal profession does need to be reined in, but this amendment simply has nothing to do with that. It is the fees charged by barristers and law firms that make legal action so expensive. Judges are paid by the state, and the cost of employing them is almost trivial by comparison.
Of course reducing their pay would save some cash. But not a lot, and it would come at the price of a very important principle. What is there to stop a future government, with a bill being tested in the Supreme Court for constitutionality, threatening judges with drastic pay reductions? If this amendment passes, nothing.
As for the other amendment, I think the Oireachtas should have the power to hold parliamentary enquiries. But I would rather we did without them for a bit longer than give excessive powers to government. This amendment seems very vague, and I simply can’t believe that broad new powers for TDs and Senators won’t end up being abused for political ends. We need to examine this more carefully.
And as for the Presidency, that’s turned from a fun game into a desperate last-minute attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of Fianna Fáil. You may not be a fan of Michael D., but he’s the only one now who can prevent our next President being a man who, increasingly, looks like a new Bertie Ahern.
You’d hardly notice, but we’re being asked to change the Constitution this Thursday. Twice. Yet nobody is acting like this is much of a deal. The amendments are being thrown in with the Presidential election like some sort of democratic side order, and getting about as much attention. This despite the fact that a Constitutional amendment actually, you know, changes something, while a ceremonial President – in spite of the impression they try to create in their election campaigns – can change about bugger all.
These are not trivial matters either. One would remove the bar on reductions to the pay of judges, something placed in the Constitution deliberately to prevent the sitting government pressuring the judiciary. The other would allow the houses of the Oireachtas¹ to conduct their own quasi-judicial investigations. That would seem to give them quite a lot of power. How much? Well according to part of the proposed amendment:
4º 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 into any matter to which subsection 2º applies.’
So only the Oireachtas can say how much power it can give itself. Though it is of course restricted by law. Which the Oireachtas also creates.
Yes parliaments often have powers of investigation, but this seems very broadly drawn, and likely to make power in this country even more unbalanced. Government in a democracy is generally divided into three main branches: The executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. There is meant to be a measure of conflict between these roles, in order to ensure that everyone is watching what everyone is up to.
We’re a parliamentary democracy though; that immediately reduces internal contention because it means there is no effective difference between the executive and the legislature. Unlike countries with an executive presidency such as France or the US, the legislature elects the executive – which then pretty much dictates everything else the legislature does.
Another safety mechanism is a bicameral legislature; two houses each with oversight of the other – House/Senate, Commons/Lords, etc. Our upper house though is effectively the creation of the executive, which appoints the majority of its members. So no balance there either; whatever party wins most seats in an election just sweeps the board of executive and both houses.
That only leaves the judiciary as an independent power, and we are being asked to pass two amendments to our constitution, one of which will take away its chief protection against undue government pressure, the other of which will usurp some of its functions. Still wonder why I’m worried?
In the early 80’s the Hot Press, Ireland’s leading magazine of politics and rock music, had this to say on the campaign to decriminalize homosexuality:
“Irish people have nothing against Gays. They like him. They think he’s funny.”1
This neatly encapsulated the suppression of Gay culture at that time in Ireland. Senator David Norris was almost the only man in public life – certainly the only one in politics2 – openly declaring his homosexuality and campaigning for his rights. It was greatly due to his perseverance and intelligence – perhaps also, his charm and wit – that homosexual acts were eventually decriminalised.
Things have come a long way since. Up until yesterday, Senator Norris was probably the frontrunner in the race to become Ireland’s next President. Yet now it looks as if his campaign may be over.
It was revealed that in 1997, Norris’s former partner Ezra Yizhak Nawi3, an Israeli human rights activist known for his support of Palestinians, was convicted in Israel of sex with another male below the age of consent. That might not have reflected so badly on the Senator, few after all would hold someone responsible for the crimes of an ex, but he had chosen to write an appeal to the Israeli court (PDF) on behalf of Nawi for clemency.
Compounding the problem, he wrote the appeal on Senate headed paper. This is damaging because it is reminiscent of other scandals where members of the Oireachtas (parliament) have attempted to interfere in due process on behalf of friends or constituents. It makes him seem exactly what people believed he was not – just another politician. However this may really be more a problem of perception. While a politician making representations to a court or judge in Ireland would rightly be seen as an attempt to exert improper influence, an approach to a foreign court – where no improper influence is possible – is an entirely different matter.
Some have called it an ‘error of judgement’ to speak out on behalf of a convicted paedophile, but that seems to imply that he should have known better because he might want to run for President one day. It was an immensely difficult judgement call; his only other real option was not to try to help a friend and former partner. It may have been the less wise choice, but it was the most selfless one.
And it too is perhaps mainly a problem of perception. It appeared in the context of an earlier attempt to derail his campaign, by opponents who recirculated an interview4 he’d given in 2002, in which he seemed to argue against a hard-and-fast age of consent. He claimed the remarks were taken out of context, and people seemed to generally accept that, but his decision to support someone convicted of statutory rape brings his views back into question. Is it true that he doesn’t see too much wrong with sex between consenting males even if one of them is underage according to local law? Some would see that as a reasoned moral outlook.
I think though that most would reject it as simplistic, and argue instead that there needs to be a ruthlessly strict lower limit on the acceptable age for sexual activity. While it may be unfair on those who reach maturity early – or indeed, on those who reach it late – it seems greatly preferable to the the opportunities for exploitation that ambiguity could allow.
But we don’t know if that is – or was – Senator Norris’s actual belief. Poor or biased reporting may have misrepresented his opinions, he may even have been the victim of homophobia. No doubt what he really believes will come out in the course of the electoral campaign, and some quite profound issues around sex and consent may be debated.
That is, if they are allowed. Unfortunately Ireland’s constitution sets some preconditions on running for the Presidency. To be a candidate, one must have the support either of twenty members of the Oireachtas, or four city or county councils. With this shadow over his reputation it seems unlikely now that he will receive them.
And frankly, it looks like these leaks were timed to have exactly that effect.
This probably isn’t verbatim, I’m quoting from memory.
So how does a Gay Rights activist get to be a Senator in a generally conservative country? It is a product of the strange way Ireland’s Senate is elected. Without going into great detail here, Senator Norris represents a university – Trinity College Dublin.
The Wikipedia page linked does not – at time of writing – mention the statutory rape conviction. This appears to be due to partisan editing – pro-Palestinian that is, rather than pro-Norris. See the discussion page.
I will never support any TD who votes to enforce a dress code in the Dáil. A silly thing to be upset about? It is not – because this stands for something.
We voted for people who rejected the uniform. We voted for men who refused to wear suits. We voted for those who did not dress up in fancy clothes to show that they were important. This stood for something.
And now the established parties tell us, “You cannot have those people.
“You must have more people like us. You must have the obedient, the conforming, the place-holders. Your choice is what we say it is. Whoever you vote for, the establishment wins.”
This is the message the major parties want to send us. It is not acceptable.