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Councils and the presidency

28 September, 2011 1 comment

This year saw a considerable jump in the number of county and city councils exercising their constitutional prerogative to nominate candidates for president. In 1997, the first year any candidate secured the support of four councils, eleven of the thirty-four councils supported candidates, between Derek Nally and Dana Rosemary Scallon.

This year, that figure has jumped to twenty-five, nominating four candidates between them, Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher, David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon. The bulk of these voted for Mary Davis (full breakdown below).

So we now have a field of seven candidates, with more than half nominated by Councils rather than by Oireachtas members: Mary Davis, Michael D. Higgins, Sean Gallagher, Martin McGuinness, Gay Mitchell and Dana Rosemary Scallon.

This system of nomination for the presidency has long been criticized. In researching the elections, I came across a report from The Irish Times of 26 May 1973, in which Labour Chief Whip Barry Desmond said of the “rather outdated Constitutional requirements … I would hope that in any further revision of our Constitution this question will receive objective review … with a view to broadening the democratic aspects of the scope of the nomination”.

Throughout the years, candidates who had made their wishes to contest known and who have received national media attention have failed in their attempts to win the support of councils: Alfie Byrne in 1938, Patrick McCartan in 1945 (who later secured the signatures of Labour and Clann na Talmhan TDs in an individual capacity), Eoin O’Mahony in 1966 and 1973 and Dana in 2004.

Michael Gallagher recently outlined alternative methods of securing based on signatures. If we were to move towards linking PPS numbers with the electoral register, it should not be difficult to prevent duplication and fraud, if signatories had to sign in with ID and be crossed off a database at their local Garda station. I don’t think our current system, with some sort of vetting procedure is so outrageous by international comparisons, but there is clearly demand for a change to the system to be explored. And particularly if the size of the Oireachtas is to be reduced, it will be more difficult yet to reach 20 Oireachtas signatures. We might consider a figure such as 20,000 electors, as is the case in Finland, or 50,000, which was the number who could force a referendum under the Constitution of the Irish Free State.

But while we have the current system, aspiring candidates should treat the system respectfully. Cllr Paul McAuliffe’s speech last night highlighted perhaps the biggest problem David Norris faced with councils. While his supporters had taken the time to write to him, he had not heard from Norris himself. While one might not agree with the current system, it does put either Oireachtas members or councillors in a position where they have to publicly consider the merits of a prospective candidate. Nominations from Councils are more anonymous on the nomination form, they are listed by locality, rather than specifying any voting record, making them amenable to Independents, presumably designed with that in mind. While we do have the system, we should consider what it does mean for a representative at local or national level to take their Constitutional obligation seriously, while retaining an expectation that they would facilitate a candidate in most cases. Had Norris picked six councils, which based on political alignment he believed he would have had the best chance with, and taken the time to meet with sufficient councillors there, he would likely have secured his nomination with greater ease. It would have been harder for the councillors in South Dublin or Cork to have voted against him had they had a meaningful conversation with him. Though it would have taken effort, it is how Mary Davis managed to secure such support.Here is a table summary of the Councils which nominated candidates in 1997 and for this year’s election:

1997
Derek Nally Carlow, Clare, Kildare, South Dublin, Wexford
Dana Rosemary Scallon Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Longford, North Tipperary, Wicklow
2011
Mary Davis Galway, Galway City, Kerry, Limerick, Louth, Mayo, Monaghan, North Tipperary, South Tipperary, Sligo, Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow
Sean Gallagher Cork City, Clare, Leitrim, Meath
David Norris Fingal, Laois, Dublin City, Waterford
Dana Rosemary Scallon Carlow, Donegal, Offaly, Roscommon

Sources for the table: Wikipedia, contact with Aisling Kerr in Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

Facilitating an Independent for president in 1945

11 September, 2011 1 comment

The leading parties this year differ from those in 1945, the first contested election, but as the only election to date where an Independent candidate secured a place on the ballot by canvassing the support of Oireachtas members, and with reports today that David Norris could well be successful in his attempts to secure a nomination in this way, it is interesting to read back on this year.

Seán T. O’Kelly, then Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, was chosen as the Fianna Fáil party candidate. Fine Gael had been declining in support, losing seats and votes at each election since 1933, and at the outset were reluctant to contest. On 11 April, The Irish Times reported that the only likely candidate was Dr Patrick McCartan. This report also included a statement from Labour that “no member of the Labour Party in the Oireachtas may sign a nomination on behalf of any Presidential candidate or associate himself in promoting any such candidate”.

Patrick McCartan had been a member of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Dála, elected in 1918, 1921 and 1922. He reluctantly voted for the Treaty, and soon after retreated from political life, not contesting the 1923 general election. By 1945, he was associated with anti-de Valera Republicans, and received the support of the Old Comrades’ Association of the IRA (Irish Times, April 1945). McCartan had to secure the support of either four County Councils or 20 Oireachtas members; he fared poorly with the former, while working quietly on the latter.

The prospect of an Independent candidate spurred Fine Gael to action, who nominated Seán Mac Eoin, an IRA leader during the war of independence. His paper was submitted on 6 May 1945 with 17 Fine Gael signatories, as well as Independent TDs Alfie Byrne, Thomas Reilly and Richard A. Anthony.

On 15 May, Labour Party then reversed their decision, and allowed their members to sign a nomination form, perhaps concerned by then that a straight contest between the two largest parties would give Fine Gael too much of a dominant position within the opposition. Patrick McCartan was nominated with the support of 9 of the 11 Clann na Talmhan TDs, 5 of the eight Labour TDs and 6 Labour Senators. His Labour nominees included future leader Brendan Corish. This year, it is the many Independents, Fianna Fáil, Socialist Party and People Before Profit TDs and Senators who are free from any direct order as to who to nominate, while it is still not precisely sure what Sinn Féin will do.

The high salary of the president, at £22 000, was an issue in the campaign; Clann na Talmhan had agreed to sign McCartan’s form on the condition that he would accept a reduction to £5000 with expenses of £2500.

Patrick McCartan performed reasonably in the election, and transferred relatively strongly to Seán Mac Eoin, despite ideological differences, presaging the success of Clann na Poblachta in 1948 and the formation of the Inter-Party government.

Candidate First Count Second Count
Vote % Transfers % Total
Patrick McCartan (Ind) 212,834 19.6% -212,834
Seán Mac Eoin (FG) 335,539 30.9% +117,886 55.4% 453,425
Seán T. O’Kelly (FF) 537,965 49.5% +27,200 12.8% 565,165
Non-transferable +67,748 31.8%

So Seán T. O’Kelly was elected on the second count and was unopposed when he nominated himself for re-election in 1952, serving till 1959.

Sinn Féin’s bailiff dilemma

9 September, 2011 Leave a comment

Gerry Adams resigned his seat from the British House of Commons on 26 January 2011, and in accordance with the rules and customs of Westminster was granted the position of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead in order to facilitate this. This was wrongly reported as a barony by David Cameron; a baron is a member of the British nobility, while a steward and bailiff is more akin to a groundskeeper. Adams is no longer the bailiff, as the position was granted in April to Labour MP Peter Soulsby.

In any case, a point made on Twitter by mgconnor (of iCampaigned) was that Michelle Gildernew, should she be interested in standing for the Irish presidency, as is speculated, would similarly be expected to resign her seat. It was easy for Adams, as it was a near certainty both that he would succeed Arthur Morgan in Louth (he topped the poll) and that Sinn Féin would win the Belfast West bye-election (Paul Maskey won with 70%).

Neither would be true in the case of Gildernew, who is quite unlikely to win, while she won the Fermanagh–South Tyrone seat for Sinn Féin in 2010 by only 4 votes. Will anyone ask whether she should resign as Adams did, or would she respond that it’s equivalent to Gay Mitchell continuing as an MEP while standing? While that could be fair, it won’t always be as easy for Sinn Féin to transfer representatives across the border as between West Belfast and Louth.

A more pressing issue is how any Sinn Féin candidate would be nominated. With 14 TDs and 3 Senators, they are three short of the 20 Oireachtas members which would nominate a candidate. They could appeal to certain members of Fianna Fáil, particularly as they are not running a candidate, and that there are Fianna Fáil senators who owe their seats to Sinn Féin voters. I’m not sure what the relations are now between their former party colleague, Independent TD Thomas Pringle, but he would be a possibility.

Even at the 10% Sinn Féin achieved at the general election in February, it would be 10% more than Fianna Fáil will receive in this election. Add to that Socialist and People Before Profit voters who would be glad of a left-wing anti-bailout candidate, and they would probably reach around 15% at a first reasonable estimate.

Freedom for religion

3 September, 2011 3 comments

This week, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Sean Brady, claimed that proposals that would remove the legal exemption from the confessional seal represent a challenge to the right of freedom of conscience and to the basis of a free society.

To my mind, this misunderstands what a free society and the free exercise of religion means in its traditional sense. Or at the very least, is not the most classical interpretation of the republican ideal.

The principle of a free and equal society is characterized well by Atticus Finch, who in response to his daughter’s query of the meaning of democracy in To Kill a Mockingbird answers “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none”. In other words, law must apply to every citizen, without a rational basis for distinction such as age. What is lawful for one, is lawful for another; what is wrong for one person to do, does not become right when done by a group.

What does the principle of not prohibiting the free exercise of religion mean in conjunction with the equal right of all? In the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, where it was first most clearly formulated in a legal context, it is linked with the right of free assembly and free speech,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This should be considered in its context in 1789, and in the context too of John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration of 1689. The case then was against the established Church of England and the establishment of particular religions in some of the US colonies. Coupled with establishment had been a legal intolerance for the religious assembly of dissenters.

The free exercise of religion guarantees that a meeting of a community which would not otherwise be challenged cannot be prohibited simply that it is a religious meeting. It does not give a cleric the legal right to evade prosecution for not reporting a crime because of the strictures of canon law, just as it would not give an imam the right to oblige members of their community to be subject to Sharia law to their detriment.

As outlined in the Constitution of Ireland, this is even clearer, with a qualification for public order and morality:

44.2.1°

Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.

It is apparent to me that the code that would allow for the horrific incident outlined in The Irish Times editorial on Thursday, where a priest received absolution on 1,500 occasions for sexually abusing children, lacks basic concepts of morality. But we need not go as far as Australia to find a cleric who would have been charged has a law such as is proposed been in place.

As Carol Hunt recently reminded us, in comparison with another case, Sean Brady was in 1975 party to swearing two children not to reveal that Brendan Smyth had abused them, a man who continued to rape and abuse children until his arrest in 1991, after the Roman Catholic Church moved him from parish to parish. Brady’s fears of the implications of such a new law holding everyone, be they priest or layman, equally accountable for crimes they are aware of, have to be seen in the context of his own digression. It is indeed difficult in this context to understand how he can lay claim to speak with any authority on the subject of morality, or more importantly, how it is that continues to receive an audience.

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