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Tony Benn

I was sorry to hear of the death of Tony Benn. I had the pleasure of meeting him in early 2007, when he was one of the first first guests of my time as correspondence secretary of The Hist. So I was with him for the best part of that day, from the airport, to Newstalk for George Hook, arriving to the GMB for his talk to the Hist with little time for a snack, and then to his hotel. Though he hadn’t eaten much that day, he was happy with a short bite to takeaway to eat because he didn’t want to keep the crowd waiting. He enjoyed talking with the taxi driver, who let him smoke his pipe.

Most of the crowd were various assortments of Dublin left, the first question from the floor (I noted in my own diary) was, “I’m from Trinity Labour. What can I do to promote socialism?” The few there from the Hist Committee asked questions not on socialism itself, and he told us the figures of the twentieth century he most admired were Gandhi and Desmond Tutu.

Of course, my own political views differ from his substantially, whether on the role of unions, the control of the state on the economy, or European integration. While he at his most influential in the Labour Party, it was, I believe, far less fit to govern than in the years before or after. But underlying it, he had a democratic, republican instinct, stretching back to the old English radical tradition, which I could certainly identify with. That day in the Hist, and on many other occasions, he proposed five questions demanding accountability we should demand of all those in power:

what power do you have?
where did you get it?
in whose interests do you exercise it?
to whom are you accountable?
how can we get rid of you?

Though I would not tout many of his as the best of political ideas, in character, determinism, charm, intellectual engagement and commitment, he typified politics at its best.

Categories: British politics Tags: ,

Heed Their Rising Voices

29 January, 2014 Leave a comment

While I gather my thoughts and feelings about the live issue of free speech and suits for defamation, another case relating to free speech, the media and a suit for libel came to mind.

Fifty years ago this month, the US Supreme Court heard the cases of New York Times v. Sullivan and Abernathy v. Sullivan. On 29 March, 1960 The New York Times published a full-page advertisement from the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King. It included the names of twenty religious ministers working in the south in the civil rights campaign.

NY Times Ad
3/29/1960
Digital File name: Job 09 A2 070_021_001

The Montgomery Police Public Safety Commissioner L. B. Sullivan sued both The New York Times and four of the ministers named, Ralph Abernathy, S. S. Seay, Fred Shuttlesworth and Joseph Lowery, for $500,000, based on inaccuracies in the text of the ad. For example, the ad stated that King had been arrested seven times, when in fact he had been arrested four times. The Alabama trial court and supreme court both found in favour of Sullivan, and awarded him the full sum of money. This led to similar suits, which would have hurt both the civil rights movement and the possibility of press coverage of abuses in southern states quite severely. It was widely believed that this was the ultimate aim; not the award of money to Sullivan and others, but to ensure that they could continue to act without scrutiny.

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Prediction: European Parliament election 2014 (Irish seats)

22 January, 2014 Leave a comment

The European elections will be held on redrawn constituencies as Ireland will lose a seat, so that we have 11 rather than 12. Dublin remained as it ever has, with the rest of the state divided with line midway across, such that we in Bray share a constituency with Kerry and Limerick, and everything to our south.

We’re in the midst of candidate selection, and some of this is based on speculation, but this is my current prediction:

Dublin (3): Brian Hayes (FG), Lynn Boylan (SF), Emer Costello (Lab)

North-West–Midlands (4): Mairead McGuinness (FG), Pat The Cope Gallagher (FF), Matt Carthy (SF), Marian Harkin (Ind)

South (4): Seán Kelly (FG), Brian Crowley (FF), Liadh Ní Riada (SF), John Bryan (FG)

This would leave party totals as:
Fine Gael 4 (no change)
Sinn Féin 3 (+3)
Fianna Fáil 2 (–1)
Labour 1 (–2)
Independent 1 (no change)
Socialist Party 0 (–1)

Or in terms of European Parliament groups:
European People’s Party 4 (no change)
European United Left/Nordic Green Left 3 (+2)
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 3 (–1)
Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats 1 (–2)

A lot could change, of course, but at the moment, the one of these above I’d be least confident about is the third seat in Dublin. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that go to Fianna Fáil, who select their candidate on Sunday. They are choosing between Tiernan Brady, Geraldine Feeney, and Cllr Mary Fitzpatrick. I know Tiernan Brady, who was formerly a Donegal councillor, and has worked for a number of years with GLEN (the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network), and would be quite happy to see him take that third seat. Mary Fitzpatrick was clearly sidelined by Bertie Ahern in 2007, and so might be seen by voters as a break with the old leadership.

At the moment though, I think sitting Labour’s MEP Emer Costello will hold. She was co-opted in 2012 to the seat won by Proinsias De Rossa. A recent poll showed Labour and Fianna Fáil tied at 14% in Dublin. While Labour will not be as transfer-friendly, the votes of eliminated candidates on the left should benefit them over Fianna Fáil. If the other regions become lost causes, Labour will likely concentrate all their efforts in Dublin, which could help her over.

I’m also working from the assumption that Paul Murphy, who replaced Joe Higgins as the Socialist Party MEP in 2011, will not hold, particularly as he faces a challenge from People Before Profit Cllr Bríd Smith for the far-left vote and organisation. While Joe Higgins had a force of character and presence to win the third seat in 2009, Murphy won’t have the same advantage. He also received a lot of support from those who wanted to keep Fianna Fáil out of the third seat then, and who weren’t going to vote for Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald. Paul Murphy has been visible since his co-option, but I don’t think it will be enough to be competitive against the larger parties’ organisation.

Elsewhere, I don’t think Jim Higgins will hold up against the strong field, but I think he would do as well or better than another Fine Gael candidate. Short of a strong new force or candidate, the results in South and North-West–Midlands seem straightforward from here.

Overall, these results would be a solid election for Fine Gael, which has been the largest at a European level since 2004; a very good election for Sinn Féin; Labour would be back to their traditional place of usually having just the one in Dublin; and somewhat disappointing for Fianna Fáil.

However, European elections are of a different sort. If we want to see how party support and organisation is ahead of the general in 2015 or 2016, the locals will be where to look towards.

Reform Alliance are not the next Progressive Democrats (for me at least)

8 January, 2014 Leave a comment

The conference from the Reform Alliance later this month should be interesting to watch. I might even call in to it. While Lucinda Creighton did insist on Prime Time yesterday that it isn’t a political party, it certainly seems to be heading that way, with a date of September mentioned. If Stephen Donnelly joins them, my Wicklow homeland would become a stronghold for them. I’ve been asked more than once by friends and family if I’d consider joining them. There’s really barely a hope of that.

It’s not just that I’m enjoying my current activity in Fine Gael. If a party emerged that was closer to my ideals, and had reasonable prospects of being viable, I’d give them a fair hearing. This new group doesn’t seem likely to be either. When I spoke in favour of dissolution at the last conference of the Progressive Democrats, among other things, I said that if we were to continue, we could inhibit the development of our ideas in another political force. The Reform Alliance is not what I had in mind.

Let’s jump back to the 1980s, to the events that led to the formation of the PDs. Des O’Malley first lost the Fianna Fáil whip in 1984 because he was willing to consider political solutions in the New Ireland Forum Report other than a united Ireland (all of which gave much more power to the Irish government than the later agreements). He was then expelled from Fianna Fáil in February 1985 after he stood by the republic in the debate on the Family Planning Bill, arguing against that party’s tactical opposition to modest liberalisation of contraception laws. While an Independent TD, O’Malley led the charge against Minister for Transport Jim Mitchell’s ridiculous notion that it should be illegal to sell a place ticket lower than Aer Lingus, paving the way for cheap flights and Ryanair. Mary Harney lost the Fianna Fáil whip in November 1985 after she voted in favour of the Anglo–Irish Agreement. She and O’Malley were joined in December 1985 at the launch of the new party by Michael McDowell, a former chair of Dublin South-East Fine Gael, who was unsatisfied with the Fine Gael/Labour management of the economy. As well as realism on the national question, moderate personal liberalism and an economic focus on lower taxation rather than government control, a large impetus for the strength of the party was opposition to the politics of Charlie Haughey.

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Reaction to Seanad result

6 October, 2013 Leave a comment

I’m disappointed with the result of the referendum on Seanad abolition. There’s no point now in detailing once more why I thought this would have been a good idea and a worthy reform of our political system. The result was not what the polls predicted, and while polling firms might have found it difficult to estimate likely voters, there also was a definite swing against us. With this short time to consider the result, I think the blame for that most likely rests with the Taoiseach and his closest advisors. When he announced this in 2009, I thought (or hoped) it was a sign that he was truly embracing an element of radical and substantial political reform. Yet during this campaign, he did not show the confidence to explain and defend it to voters. I know of people who were leaning in favour of abolition but who voted against because they did not believe he should be rewarded and credited with such a change if he would not stand up for it. If it were a long-held party policy, or an initiative of another minister, it would have been fair enough to have delegated it to the director of elections, as usually occurs at referendums. But he was the one who reintroduced this to the political conversation in 2009. As the leader of our government, Enda Kenny should have explained clearly and plainly the merit he saw in this.

Party members were let down by this. A defeat in a poll is never a pleasant experience, and this is one that could have been avoided. The internal conversation and debates should have started long before the summer. And party members should have been involved in formulating our arguments. There is a time and a place for focus groups, but the political instincts of motivated and interested members should be respected and sought. We ran with poor campaign messages. The largest party in the country could never have credibility talking of the benefits of fewer politicians. The discussion of cost does have a place, but it should not have been the starting point. Not to mention some embarrassing stunts, which are probably all right as moments of levity during a campaign, but not when they become key pieces of it. We needed a wide-ranging and targeted campaign, one that showed from the start that it was a position of substance and principle, that stood up to scrutiny, based on solid research.

Fine Gael needs to learn from this. We didn’t learn from the referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries; here we are two years later with practically an identical margin against. Reform that requires constitutional amendment needs to be framed in a way that appreciates and addresses the legitimate suspicion the public have when the executive seeks to alter the arrangements in the constitution.

In the RDS count centre this morning, a non-aligned campaigner said to myself and a member of a different party that for people like us, it was a tribal matter. It wasn’t that for me. Had Fianna Fáil or any other party proposed this, and Fine Gael been against, I would still have publicly supported this. I am not right now disappointed for Fine Gael that we as a party have suffered a defeat in a poll. I am disappointed in Fine Gael, and I things change have to change.

And to those who opposed abolition, well done on a well fought campaign.

All we can determine from yesterday’s result is that the voters wanted to keep a second house. We should now think carefully and critically about how its 60 members should be selected and what their role should be.

Yes to Court of Appeal and change to One-Judgment Rule

2 October, 2013 Leave a comment

I will then vote Yes to establish a Court of Appeal (the Thirty-third Amendment of the Constitution Bill). Over the past decade, there have been considerable and growing delays in the Supreme Court hearing of appeals from the High Court. Our Supreme Court deals with much more than its equivalents in other countries. In our constitutional system, questioning pertaining to constitutional interpretation must take precedence there, such that many civil matters are delayed in their appeals from the High Court for up to four years. Ireland has been found liable in both the European Court of Human Rights and European Court of Justice on the grounds of unreasonable delay. Having a speedy process in civil cases will set us in line international obligations on issues such as extradition and child abduction, while also making us more attractive to multinational firms, who often have concerns about lengthy litigation. These problems were detailed by Susan Denham, now Chief Justice, in 2006 in the Judicial Studies Institute Journal.

The same amendment will also remove the requirement on the Supreme Court to deliver only one judgment in cases challenging the constitutionality of laws. In cases not relating to the constitutionality of laws (e.g. high-profile cases AG v. X. on abortion or AG v. Hamilton on cabinet confidentiality), and in cases relating to laws enacted before 1937 (e.g. Norris v. AG), dissenting judgments do contribute to an understanding and development of the law, without undermining the authority of the majority judgment. These development and the value of dissenting could not have been foreseen when de Valera proposed this change as one of many in the Second Amendment in 1941. (It will not amend this in the case of referrals by the president before a bill is signed, presumably on the grounds that as such a law cannot after be challenged on constitutional grounds, diverging or dissenting judgments would not be beneficial.)

Yes to Abolition of Seanad Éireann

2 October, 2013 Leave a comment

I will be voting Yes this Friday to abolish the Seanad (the Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution Bill). I have tried to encapsulate across different platforms the various reasons I have for doing so over the course of this campaign, over different platforms. In short, in these closing days, I hold that in a country like Ireland, without clear and sharp cultural or geographical divisions, we should have a single parliamentary chamber composed of representatives elected by us to pass laws on our behalf. This is something I first considered around ten years ago, and since then it had always seemed like a common sense proposal. We hear of many ideas for its reform, but that casts it as a house in search of a purpose. What reforms are proposed are ones that should be delivered for the Dáil, as our house of representatives. And even though I don’t believe political reform should stop here, I think it is a worthy reform in itself, to remove a house elected by a privileged section of society in a proportion of university graduates, of senators I’d barely recognise elected by Oireachtas members and councillors, and 11 who may or may be not be decent senators depending on the whim and needs of the Taoiseach.

I was delighted when Enda Kenny announced this policy soon in 2009, not long after I joined Fine Gael, and that he stuck with this commitment through the election campaign and into government. I would not have had the primary focus on cost that we saw from Fine Gael posters, but I think we have had a broad debate. Whatever the result on Friday, at least the people will have had their say.

Should a gay man support the Seanad?

25 September, 2013 Leave a comment

On the Future Matters blog, Rachel Mathews-McKay wrote in defence of the Seanad under the headline, ‘The Seanad has stood with our LGBT Community’. It is true that two of the most well known senators, Mary Robinson and David Norris, played crucial roles in advancing equality for gay people in Ireland. But should this lead us then to credit the institution of the Seanad for this progress and for it to be retained because of this legacy? Does my activism on gay rights conflict with my enthusiasm for abolition of the Seanad? Let’s examine the history in greater detail.

The Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform began in 1975 with David Norris, a member of the English Department at Trinity College Dublin, as it most prominent member. Its legal advisor was Mary McAleese, who was succeeded in that role by Mary Robinson in 1979. The 1885 law which had convicted Oscar Wilde, and which had been largely repealed in England and Wales in 1967, was still in effect in Ireland.

Mary Robinson had been elected as one of the three University of Dublin senators in 1969 (continuing there till 1989), but it was through her actions as a legal counsel that she was most successful in bringing about social change, whether on this question or on many others. When David Norris sued the state on the claim that criminalisation of homosexuality was unconstitutional, Robinson acted as his barrister. In Norris v. AG, the High Court ruled against him in 1980; on appeal to the Supreme Court, they too ruled against him in 1983.

They filed in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Ireland was a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1947, and Northern Ireland resident Jeffrey Dudgeon had successfully sued there in 1981 in Dudgeon v. United Kingdom to secure the repeal of the law, which still then applied in Northern Ireland. The law was changed for Northern Ireland in 1982 (a separate law had been passed to apply to Scotland in 1980).

In 1987, David Norris was elected as one of the three University of Dublin senators, in large part in recognition of his work in this campaign.

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Noël Browne speaking on Seanad abolition, November 1957

13 September, 2013 1 comment

On 20 November 1957, Independent TD Dr Noël Browne proposed a Private Members’ Motion, “That Dáil Éireann is of the opinion that Seanad Éireann as it is at present constituted should be abolished.” The motion was seconded by Independent TD Jack McQuillan (Browne and McQuillan were to found the National Progressive Democrats in 1958).

Browne continued on 27 November. On 4 December, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera instead proposed a commission to examine the method of election for senators, and Noël Browne reluctantly accepted this compromise, saying “we shall accept that position as making the best of a bad job and wish the committee to be established every success”. (Credit to John O’Dowd of UCD’s School of Law for initially pointing me towards de Valera’s response)

Browne did serve as a Senator for the University of Dublin from 1973 to 1977, as many do between time in the Dáil when they lose their seat, but bar taking account for inflation, much of his 1957 speech stands as true in today’s debate. I have reproduced this speech in full.

I move:—

That Dáil Éireann is of the opinion that Seanad Éireann as it is at present constituted should be abolished.

In moving this motion it is necessary to go over some of the history associated with the formation of the Seanad and its subsequent career. This is the second time that a motion of this nature was moved in this House. On the previous occasion, however, the motion simply asked for the abolition of the Seanad as it stood. It was moved by the present Taoiseach, Deputy de Valera, and behind him he had the backing of an effective majority, with which, there was no doubt, he intended to implement his will.

I do not intend to go into the reasons why the then Taoiseach, Deputy de Valera, insisted on the removal or abolition of the Seanad but I shall draw to a very considerable extent on many of the very cogent, telling and compelling arguments which he used at that time in order to try to persuade the House to agree that a Seanad as such or, indeed, any Second Chamber at all was neither desirable nor necessary in a democratic society. As two Independents, it is quite clear that we cannot depend on the great overwhelming majority of a Party. Possibly because of that it should be possible to get a more reasoned argument from both sides of the House, to have the motion considered in a non-Party way, and, if possible, allow the Deputies to express their viewpoint independent of the Party Whip.

To those who feel that the Seanad is serving a useful purpose as it is and do not want to have it changed, I would very much like if they would put forward their arguments and try to justify their belief. I should not like to treat the House in the positively boisterous way in which the Taoiseach, Deputy de Valera, treated it away back in 1934, when he put the onus entirely upon the Opposition to prove that the Seanad was required. He said in Volume 52, column 1809, of the Dáil Debates:—

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Vote Yes on Seanad to reassert democratic purpose of Dáil

8 September, 2013 Leave a comment

I am particularly motivated in the upcoming referendum on the abolition of the Seanad as I see it as a matter of democratic principles. It is something I have held for many years, and I was delighted when Enda Kenny announced his personal support for the reform.

The purpose of a legislature in a modern democracy is to elect representatives held accountable to make laws on behalf of the people. And in parliamentary democracies, as exist in most European countries, these elections are also when we vote on the makeup of the government. At each general election, the people decide collectively on where the balance of policy should be, whether a government deserves to be re-elected, or whether we should take the chance to kick the rascals out.

The direct involvement of the people in their governance through the electoral was a hard-fought struggle, and one which over time a growing number of people across the world have been able to enjoy.

All stages of this process, from parliamentary processes to the preferences of voters, should be subject to constant scrutiny and eternal vigilance. A recent book by Anthony O’Halloran, The Dáil in the 21st Century (2010) provides a good comparative analysis of this, drawing on international comparisons and developing theories of political science. Reading it with weeks before this poll, I couldn’t but notice the dog in the night-time, that he wrote such a thorough analysis of the democratic purpose, strengths, deficiencies and potential of the Dáil, and the importance of a vibrant, republican civil society, without any need to address a role for the Seanad.

Within the European Union, there is close to an even divide between unicameral and bicameral parliamentary systems, with a small bias of fifteen to thirteen in favour of a single house. But there is a clear population differences between these countries: the 15 with one house of parliament have an average population of 5 million, where the 13 with two houses of parliament have an average population of 33 million.

In some countries, the second house of parliament is a clear legacy of the role given to aristocratic influence, as we are familiar with from the House of Lords. In others, it is because of the importance given to federal structures, as in Austria, Germany or the United States.

Second houses do have a basis in countries with a divide that is too important to be left to a simple majority of representatives. This was a good reason for the Constitution of the Irish Free State to include a Seanad, where there had been an understanding that William T. Cosgrave would appoint a large number from outside the Roman Catholic population. Its first Cathaoirleach was Lord Glenavy, who had served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland from 1918 to 1921. There could be a good similar reasons to have a second chamber in the case of a united Ireland, but there would be other substantial constitutional amendment in such instance.

A second house, then, frustrates the primary house of representatives. It is all the worse in the case of the Seanad given how its members are chosen: 3 elected by scholars and graduates of Trinity College, Dublin; 3 elected by graduates of the four universities of the National University of Ireland; 43 elected across five panels, where councillors and TDs have a vote in each panel and invariably select fellow party members, and often those who recently failed to be elected in Dáil elections; and 11 nominated by An Taoiseach.

Not all of this is set in stone. Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn proposed the Seanad Bill earlier this year, which would give a vote to all Irish citizens. On the face of it, it seems like a democratic improvement. But I think it could be worse than the status quo, as it retains the panels of Administration, Agriculture, Education, Labour and Industry, and the concept of distinct parliamentary representation for university graduates. While the current system entrenches the influence of political parties, a national election based on candidates from these panels would entrench the role of sectoral vested interests.

There is a great democratic potential in the Dáil. Most of those campaigning to retain the Seanad say we should vote No and reform the Seanad.

I say we should vote Yes: abolish the Seanad, and then focus all further desire for political reform in the Dáil, as the democratically elected house of the people.

Value of institutions, not political settlements, in industrial disputes

Dublin Bus and its employees seem have to have come to a truce, if not a settlement, to their dispute. Others elsewhere have gone into detail on the current financial position of Dublin Buss on relative pay of its drivers and a Mazars Report on Ireland’s State-Owned Bus Companies of two years lead to believe that the Labour Court proposals which focused on allowances were reasonable in the context of both European comparisons and situations elsewhere in the public service.

But that is not what stood for me. While Leo Varadkar was criticized for not intervening, but on the News at One, he stayed firm that this was a matter between the Labour Court, the management of Dublin Bus, and the two unions, to return to discussions.

This is as is should be, and will hopefully set a precedent. The political process should, with rare exception, respect the role of institutions such as the Labour Court as an independent arbiter in such industrial disputes.

US to recognise gay marriage in 13 states at a federal level

With US Supreme Court upholding two lower court rulings, Edie Windsor has been successful in her challenge to Section 2 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage at a federal level as between a man and a woman.

This means that gay couples who marry in the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, and in the District of Columbia.

In the case to uphold Proposition 8, Hollingsworth v. Perry, which began as Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the Supreme Court ruled that Dennis Hollingsworth did not have legal standing to challenge the District Court ruling. He heads Protect Marriage, the group that pushed to get Proposition 8 on the ballot, but the Court ruled that this did not give him a right to challenge what was a state law, and therefore within the remit of the governor and attorney-general of California, Gerry Brown and Kamala Harris, to challenge the lower court rulings, and both of them support agree that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.

This decision is legally sound, and has precedent in Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona. It is almost surprising then that Court granted cert to the case, and we’ll never know which of the four decided to do so.

So gay couples will soon be able to marry again in California, having been able to do so during a few months in 2008.

I was particularly pleased that Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote his opinion based on equal protection, rather than states’ rights. This is the third major gay rights ruling of his, afterRomer v. Evans in 1996, which overturned exemptions of gay people from discrimination laws, and Lawrence and Garner v. Texas ten years ago today in 2003, which overturned remaining anti-sodomy laws. All in all, a strong ally for gay people on the bench. Will he have a chance to go one further and extend marriage for gay and lesbian couples nationwide?

We will have to wait to get a challenge from a couple in a state whose governor and attorney-general will continue to defend such a prohibition all the way to the supreme court, and preferably in a state where there is a reasonable prospect of a district or circuit court ruling in favour of equal marriage.

Do we need the Seanad?

It is unusual that a country of our population has two houses. The fifteen EU countries (including Croatia joining next month) with one chamber have an average population of 5 million; by contrast, the thirteen EU countries with two chambers have an average population of 33 million. I have not done a full statistical analysis, but population looks like one of the most likely predictors of whether a country’s parliament will have one or two chambers.

Of course, this is not reason enough in itself to support abolition of our Seanad, but it is a worthy reminder that the absence of a second chamber would not make Ireland unusual in comparative terms.

The next question is whether the current Seanad can be defended. A house of parliament, being a body that legislates on our behalf, should maintain democratic legitimacy and accountability; as far as is reasonable, it should be possible for voters to choose their representatives and then to remove them after a period of years. While this happens in the Dáil, as seen most clearly in the last general election, it is quite different in the Seanad. Forty-three are elected by elected politicians, six by a proportion of university graduates, and eleven appointed by An Taoiseach.

I believe this system in large entrenches governance by political insiders. Each new Seanad has had members who were defeated at the recent Dáil, whether among the 43 elected by Oireachtas member and councillors, or those appointed by An Taoiseach. Someone who was not successful in a general election should return to civil society, and perhaps try again at the next election, rather than receive a separate mandate to legislate from their party peers. And while I would commend Enda Kenny on the diversity of experience of his eleven nominees, this cannot be guaranteed on. These nominees are still among those who are politically connected, and broadly favourable to the government parties, even if most of them have genuinely Independent within the house.

Though a beneficiary of the graduate franchise, and was pleased to cast a vote for Jeffrey Dudgeon standing for the University of Dublin seats in 2011, I don’t see a defence of it. Nor would I consider extending it to graduates of other colleges and universities as an improvement, as it would only entrench an idea that someone is more qualified as a citizen with different levels of education.

Each of these aspects could be reformed. But I don’t realistically expect a government who has lost a referendum on the Seanad to spend much time afterwards drafting legislation to reform it; nor would I expect Fianna Fáil in government to expend any similar time on legislation, while they as much as any others have benefited politically from the current set up. Reform might sound nice, but it brings to mind the mice calling for a bell on the cat, for all that it is likely to happen.

So the vote will be whether or not to vote to abolish the Seanad as we know it, with a number of compensating measures. Reform is not in any real sense on the table.

Nor do I think I would much like to see the reforms proposed by Democracy Matters, which would give all citizens a vote in one of the vocational panels (Administrative; Agricultural; Cultural and Educational; Industrial and Commercial; Labour). I think our country has divisions enough between different sectors without these being formalised in our legislative structures.

We hear of the many admirable and outstanding current and previous Senators. But the abolition of the Seanad would not remove their voice from Irish society. I believe that is a role for the press, the universities and a vibrant civil society to play, to engage with the democratic process, while not having a direct part in it as of right.

I await to see the Amendment Bill this week, and the strength of the proposal will affect how actively I will campaign in the autumn, but as of now, I would need a very strong reason to support retention of our second house.

Outcome of the abortion bill

The Heads of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill seem to fulfill minimal requirements of legislation in line with the ruling in Attorney General v. X.

In the wording of the first paragraph of Article 40.3.3°,

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

there are two clauses that the government had to consider in drafting this legislation, ‘equal’ and ‘as far as practicable’. It also had to be considered the ruling of the Supreme Court that ‘the risks to the life of the mother which should be considered by the Court included a real and substantial risk that the mother might commit suicide’.

In all cases, the meaning of Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. Article 34.4.5°–6° is itself explicit in this regard. Their ruling in 1992 meant that a risk of suicide has been grounds for abortion, not just from that date, but from the insertion of 40.3.3° into the Constitution in 1983. A doctor could have taken it upon themselves to administer an abortion in response to a diagnosis that there was a real and substantial risk that a woman might commit suicide. This legislation does not grant or remove additional rights to either the mother or the unborn; legislation tightly within the framework of Supreme Court interpretation of the Constitution cannot do this.

It may not have been the only measure permissible; someone might reasonably ask whether the government’s defence in D. v. Ireland, that there could be a recourse under Irish law for a termination in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities, could have been included in this bill. There might also have been flexibility in terms of the nature and composition of panels in the bill.

There will be some members of Fine Gael who break ranks to vote against this. The debate in the coming weeks will show how many they are, but I expect that the bill will come into law in a form not that far from this.

I do not expect that without further constitutional amendment, this bill lead will lead to more than a minimal increase in the number abortions performed in Ireland. Unlike measures in Britain and California from 1967, this bill refers only to situations that threaten the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother. It is not a small thing for a woman to declare that she is suicidal, and it is not something that the medical system takes lightly. The consequences for her personal freedom after such a declaration would be such that for many women seeking to terminate their pregnancy, travelling to Britain would be a preferable outcome.

While campaigners against abortion have resisted legislation in line with the X Case till now, and sought to amend the constitution in 1992 and 2002 to overturn it, I would expect that to largely die away as a focus, given the small scale of the change. Similarly, while legislation for the X Case has served as focus point for those seeking for more widespread access to abortion, that will shift to an amendment to remove 40.3.3, as advocated this week by Labour Cllr Jane Horgan-Jones, which would make legislation on abortion a matter for the Oireachtas, and not a constitutional matter. However, I cannot imagine that referendum occurring for quite some time.

A change in tone in the campaign for marriage since the Convention

23 April, 2013 2 comments

We try in political debate to maintain a level of goodwill between those who hold different but legitimate points of view. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the back and forth of debate, it is important to remind ourselves that usually all sides do mean well.

But while that might be true of contests between parties in elections, or of a referendum campaign such as on a European Union Treaty, there are opinions on some issues that must try our patience, when it is our very lives and personal relationships and the value of someone as a parent that is questioned. And from now on those in positions of influence who carelessly condemn those whose sexual orientation or gender identity places them in minority are going to be called on this. Two days before the convention convened, Una Mullaly wrote in The Irish Times in response to her friend Buzz O’Neill who was beaten up on George’s Street for being gay. She challenged the idea of balance in the media, the way in which the media feels that because it is a matter of constitutional debate, an advocate of equality must be matched against an opponent,

The main problem with how the Irish media frames the debate is around a skewed view of what ‘balance’ is. ‘Middle Ireland’, the ‘silent majority’, the ‘mainstream’, gay people are told, are not ready for something so drastic as equality. I don’t know about you, but I never actually hear that middle ground. What I hear again and again is yet another articulate gay person trying to hold their temper while they are subjected to ignorant and juvenile arguments. And I hear an opposing view, generally one from the far out end of Catholicism, blustering about children’s rights (which Civil Partnership denies, thank you very much), and trying desperately to fight against equality with arguments based on their own personal belief systems or grievances. I don’t hear middle Ireland.

Then we had the Convention itself, a great day with 79 votes to 18 in favour of amending the constitution to read that the state shall enact laws providing for marriage for same-sex couples. Though the result shouldn’t have been surprising as it reflected most of the recent opinion polls on this question, it was more meaningful for having followed a weekend of deliberation and considered discussion. After that, the response of some of the leading opponents was not just to say that the only poll that matters is the one on the day, but to criticise the process they had taken part in, as seen first with Sen. Rónán Mullen tweeting less than an hour after the result was announced:

Then David Quinn blogged about the result, ‘Ireland a step closer to rejecting the value of motherhood and fatherhood’. What stood out for me here was his criticism of Frances Fitzgerald, ‘One of those politicians was Children’s Minister, Frances Fitzgerald. It is truly an astonishing turn of events when a minister for children is willing to sign away a child’s right to be raised by a mother and a father.’ He is not simply accepting her views as an alternative conclusion, but one that is obviously anti-child. Just as his fellow Iona Institute patron Breda O’Brien was to do days later, when she wrote in Saturday’s Irish Times, he ignores entirely the contributions on the Saturday of the convention, which he was there to witness, of the real life of children headed by same-sex couples. Watch Conor Prendergast and Clare O’Connell, talking about their family lives, both raised by lesbian couples (at 23:30):

or watch Colm O’Gorman, talking the conventional life he leads, raising two children, with the man he has married (at 38.30):

David Quinn talks about burden of proof. I would argue that the burden of proof is on those who claim this country should not allow these families to be recognised as married. What possible reason could there be for denying this in law?

Iona and their claims of research

This is before we delve into the controversy of the research the Iona Institute claimed on their side. As has been well documented, their submission to the convention was misleading as they quoted a single piece of research written in 2002, from Child Trends, ‘Marriage from a Child’s Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children, and What Can We Do about It?’. The section from the Iona Institute submission read,

The social sciences confirm what every known society in the world has known instinctively, namely that marriage between a man and a woman is uniquely beneficial to society and to children. This is the case even though some individual marriages may be dysfunctional and harmful to children (as can any other type of family).

One of the most important child research organisations in the United States is Child Trends, which is centrist in its politics and ideological outlook.

It produced a paper in 2002 called ‘Marriage from a Child’s Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children and What Can We Do About It?’

This summarises what the social sciences have to say about the matter (emphasis added).

The summary is as follows: “Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage…There is thus value in promoting strong, stable marriage between biological parents.” A great deal of additional material is available that attests to this fact.

A reasonable person reading the Iona Institute submission would assume that by the matter, the quoted study discussed same-sex parents. There is in fact no reference either to same-sex parents, or to adoption or assisted reproduction by heterosexual couples. It is a comparison between instances where parents are married on the one hand, and single parents and step-parents on the other. A very similar study from 2003 by Mary Parke for the Center for Law and Social Policy, ‘Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? What Research Says About the Effects of Family Structure on Child Well-Being’, explains such a conflation in its first endnote,

The reference to biological parents is to distinguish between biological/adoptive parents and step-parents. Most studies that include data on adoptive parents include them in the biological parent category. Adopted children have very similar outcomes to children raised by both biological parents.

The Iona Institute is not the first anti-equality group to claim the Child Trends research as an argument on their side. Earlier this year, the House Republicans cited it in their brief against repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, and Child Trends intervened there. Tired of this constant quotation out of context, they added a statement to the online version of the study, as can be seen in the link above,

Note: This Child Trends brief summarizes research conducted in 2002, when neither same-sex parents nor adoptive parents were identified in large national surveys. Therefore, no conclusions can be drawn from this research about the wellbeing of children raised by same-sex parents or adoptive parents.

I wrote to Child Trends to let them know that their research was cited by both the Iona Institute and the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, sending links to their submissions, after reading these, Child Trends felt it was appropriate to write a formal letter to the Convention. David Norris raised this in the Seanad,

After a lengthy Twitter exchange, in which I engaged myself, beginning with the persistent Paul Moloney:

David Quinn attempted to backtrack on what he meant by the citation, to claim that the study showed there was not enough research on the question of same-sex parenting. It doesn’t, because it was not the subject in question. Or at least, no more than citing a study of Afghanistan since 2001 shows that there is not enough research on Iraq since 2003. There is plenty of research on this question, as documented by several professional medical, psychological and sociological associations, none of which indicates any reason for concern about the implications of same-sex parents. It just happens that for whatever reason, it is not a question Child Trends have ever studied. What is relevant is that it was after reading the submissions that Child Trends felt their work was misrepresented, and felt it incumbent on them to write to the convention. This has also been well documented and commented on blogs Geoff’s Shorts, Bock the Robber, in Skeptic Ink by Humanisticus, and in Eile by David Gormley. All worth reading if you have the time.

‘Sick and tired…’

How the Iona Institute misrepresented research is something of a moot point, after the convention voted clearly in favour of equal marriage, and by a somewhat stronger margin on 81 to 12 in favour of legislation to account for same-sex parenting. But it is indicative of their tactics and methods, which will be reformed come the campaign. Though they have defended its use in recent weeks, I’d be very surprised to see them quote the Child Trends research come the referendum campaign. But we’re not putting up with it any more. There has been a clear expression from different commentators to call things as they are. We had Colm O’Gorman, the day after the Convention,

Then Colette Browne wrote in the Irish Examiner, ‘Legislating for same-sex marriage will reflect changing face of families’,

THE insidious subtext of the argument against same-sex marriage is that children, currently being raised by gay and lesbian couples, are harmed by the experience. …

The argument against marriage equality today — that straight marriages will somehow be devalued if the constitutional definition of the institution is changed — is just as nonsensical. The right to marry one’s partner should be not be determined by race or creed or sexual orientation but is a basic human right that should be offered to every citizen.

Legislating for same-sex marriage, contrary to hyperbolic claims from some quarters, will not consign the role of mothers and fathers to a PC scrapheap, but will merely reflect the changing face of families in the 21st century.

And we had Carol Hunt in the Sunday Independent, ‘You’re not a bigot for refusing to accept intolerance’, talking about the process of Enlightenment,

Slavery as practised in the 18 and 19th Centuries would be anathema to us today, yet banning it was considered radical, dangerous and immoral when first agitated for. Natural law seemingly had decreed that black people were lesser beings than whites. Later this changed to equal but different.

Similarly women were denied the vote because it was argued that they were rationally inferior. And practising homosexuals were charged as criminals. Yet today, as part of our emancipatory journey, the majority in Ireland support same sex marriage. This is indeed moral progress.

We are now moving to a situation where the view that gay couples should be denied the opportunity to marry just as anyone else is being treated closer to how denying women the vote was in the 1920s. We will call prejudice what it is, disentangle the obfuscations and evasions of the opposition. This is not likely to be a pleasant campaign. But we are ready for it. And we are going to win.

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