This Thursday the Irish electorate go to the polls for both the presidential election and the 29th and 30th proposed ammendments to the Constitution. These votes are not without their significance for Northern Ireland.
Seven candidates are vying to become the 9th President of Ireland. The sucessful candidate will replace Mary McAleese, of Northern Ireland, who has held the post for the past 14 years. The theme of her presidency has been ‘building bridges’ and to this end she has regularly visited Northern Ireland, has officially celebrated the Twelfth of July as well as St Patrick’s Day, has received communion in an Anglican Church and perhaps most memorable, she invited Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland for a State visit in 2011. Her visit in May of this year was the first visit of a British monarch to the Republic of Ireland. It was on this occassion that President McAleese gave what many consider to be her finest speech, no small feat from the reknowned orator (the speech can be watched here.) Beyond this work on building bridges, she has shown the potential breadth of the role of President, twice exercising her power to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court for consideration of its constitutionality before signing it into law. In 2000 she referred the Planning and Development Bill & the Illegal Immigrants (Trafficking) Bill simultaneously and in 2004 the Health Ammendment (No 2) Bill. An interesting documentary on her last year in office, which gives an insight into the role, was broadcast this week on RTE and can be watched here.
The current candidates are Michael D. Higgins, Sean Gallagher, David Norris, Dana Rosemary Scallon, Mary Davis, Gay Mitchell and Martin McGuinness. Mr McGuinness has of course temporarily stepped aside from his role as Deputy First Minister and would have to stand down from his post were he elected. However, if current polls are any indication then it looks unlikely that he will be elected. Opinon polls at the weekend placed independent candidate Sean Gallagher firmly in the lead, although a number of allegations in the last day or two, culminating in the final presidential debate last night, appear to have dented this somewhat. There will not be any further opinion polls conducted before Thursday’s vote though it’s interesting to note that some bookmakers are now favouring Michael D. Higgins, former Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht.
While the presidential election may have been perceived as having the greatest potential for direct relevance in Northern Ireland the referenda should not be ignored. The 29th ammendment would allow for the reduction of judge’s pay in certain circumstances. To promote the independence of the judiciary the Constitution currently sets out that a judge’s pay cannot be reduced while in office and concerns in relation to this arose when a pension levy was introduced for public sector workers but could not be applied to judges. 85% of judges have voluntarily returned a portion of their salary to the state. The ammendment would enable the application of such reductions to judges while in office. Reservations have been expressed, often relating to the wording of the ammendment which is not entirely clear. The School of Law in UCD have produced an excellent guide which considers the pros and cons of the debate and you can read arguments for and against in a number of opinion pieces.
The 30th ammendment is proving even more contentious. In 2000 members of the Emergency Response Unit within an Garda Síochána shot dead Mr John Carty, who had barricaded himself in his family home with a shot gun and emerged firing the gun. The Barr Tribunal investigated the death and subsequent to this a parliamentary sub-committee was tasked with considering the report. This committee set out its procedures and stated that it would make findings of fact. A number of guards challenged this approach and the Supreme Court ruled that the parliamentary sub-committee did not have powers to make decisions which could affect the constitutional rights of individuals. The current ammendment proposes to give the Houses of the Oireachtas (parliament) the power to conduct such inquiries and make findings of fact.
The concerns regarding this proposal are strong and primarily stem from the level of power this affords to parliament. Are politicians best placed to be making findings of facts against individuals? Do we not have a strong judiciary tasked with this function? As it stands parliament can hold inquiries, they are just not permitted to make findings of facts which may affect an individual’s constitutional rights. Is this extension justified or warranted?
From the perspective of people in Northern Ireland it might be worth remembering that a number of inquiries in Ireland over the last decade have been of direct relevance to Northern Ireland. A weapons find considered by the Morris Tribunal occurred in Strabane and the ongoing Smithwick Tribunal is considering collusion in the killing of RUC Chief Superintendent Breen and RUC Superintendent Buchanan in 1989 following a meeting with members of an Garda Síochána in Dundalk. Just yesterday Mr Buchanan’s family appealed for members of the RUC/PSNI to cooperate with the inquiry. Is it possible that some future parliamentary sub-committee may be tasked at looking at looking at the Smithwick report and as to make findings in relation to it, possibly concerning persons from Northern Ireland? Or in relation to another matter which spans the two jurisdictions? Again the UCD guide on this issue is most helpful. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has launched a campaign for a No vote on the 30th amendment.
Polls open this Thursday morning with the count beginning on Friday morning.