Five years ago we entered an election in circumstances which were embarrassing for our country. The outgoing government had just entered a bailout agreement with the Troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment was at 14.3%.
The global economic situation has improved, and Ireland has more than taken advantage of it. We are now the fastest growing economy in the EU, with unemployment at 8.8% and falling, and a steadily improving rate of job creation. We have regained a position of respect within the European Union. This was done under the guidance of the Troika institutions, a program Ireland successfully exited from. Ireland compares very favourably to other countries which were very badly affected by the global economic crisis. This government of Fine Gael and Labour deserves credit for this stewardship of the economy.
No government shifts and improves a country’s budgetary position and economic standing as significantly as has been done here without taking decisions which merit or deserve criticism. This can be particularly said in the area of housing. However, what matters most is that there is a strong environment favouring job creation and growing incomes, to create the resources to tackle these problems, whether privately or by government.
But apart from the improved economic situation, there are many other ways in which we are a changed country since early 2011. We have seen a significant program of positive law reform.
It is now a crime to withhold information on the abuse of children. Our Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke out strongly in the Dáil, condemning the role of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican in covering up the sexual abuse of children, the first Taoiseach to do so in clear and unambiguous terms. Children are now specifically protected in the Constitution, so that their voice can be heard in the legal process and their best interests considered.
Instead of filing in the District Court, in between regular business there, new Irish citizens now swear their allegiance in welcoming and open Citizenship Ceremonies.
After a wait of 21 years, and many governments, we finally had legislation in response to the X Case, which activists had called for since the judgment, legislation which certainly came at political cost, the first change to abortion law in this country since 1861. I would support more extensive reform, but this is as far as our current constitutional position allows, and it made space for debate on the next stage from here.
Local authorities now have the power to alter the local property tax within a range of 15% on either side of a base rate, giving much greater meaning and effect to local elections than before. The next Ceann Comhairle will be elected by secret ballot of TDs, creating a measure of independence from the government.
Reform of minor sentencing now allows for fines by installments, rather than needlessly sending people for short prison sentences.
We had the beginning of the process of school divestment from religious management, though admittedly this has been a process that has been slower than desired.
Gender quotas for candidate selection at general elections were introduced; though it will take more than one election to have an effect on the makeup of the Dáil, it is the beginning of a process.
A new Register of Lobbyists was created to monitor corruption in public services and provision.
The government called a vote on marriage equality, and with so many others too, strongly campaigned for a Yes vote. Both parties did so enthusiastically, and our country had a moment of pride on the world stage when we became the first in the world to vote in support of equal marriage in a popular referendum, in a campaign that captured the public imagination.
Last year also saw the enactment of one of the best gender recognition laws worldwide, with provision within the act itself for progressive review in two years’ time.
The Children and Family Relationships Act was the most comprehensive review of family law since the 1960s, which among its many provisions, gave fathers greater automatic guardianship in cases of cohabitation, allowed cohabiting couples or civil partners as well as married couples to adopt jointly, and provided for donor-assisted reproduction.
Changes to equality law mean that the ethos of a school or hospital can no longer be the basis of employment discrimination solely on the basis of personal characteristics like sexuality, or family status, or any of the other grounds of anti-discrimination.
I will be voting for a return of this government of Fine Gael and Labour. I do not expect it to be returned to office. But I do expect that it will be remembered as a reforming government, and that these many reforms will stand well to this country, improving the lives of those who live here in many small and significant ways, allowing us to continue to become a more open society.
Abortion. Affirmative action. Contraception mandates. Immigration. One person one vote. Public sector labour unions. Each of these remain as matters for the now eight justices of the United States Supreme Court to decide this term.
Many of these would have been the blockbuster end-of-term 5-4 decisions. Many of these were the result of strategic litigation or legislation by conservatives designed to test current Supreme Court doctrine. The four liberal justices of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan will very likely remain a clear bloc in these. Of the remaining conservative justices, Chief Justice John Roberts and particularly Anthony Kennedy would be expected to join the liberal justices on some of these matters, with Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito unlikely to be with them on any of these. If the court splits 4-4, the decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals stands, with no precedential weight outside of the circuit area. As outlined by Linda Hirshman in December, because of the composition of the circuit courts of appeals, this will tend to favour the liberals. But let us consider each of these major cases in detail.
Therefore, the unexpected death of Antonin Scalia will have quite an effect on each of these, if we take Senate Republicans at their word, that they will not support any successor proposed by Barack Obama.
Abortion: Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt
Abortion restrictions in the United States are currently subject to the “undue burden” test of Planned Parenthood v Casey (1992), a plurality opinion jointly written by Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter. The court upheld provisions of a Pennsylvania law requiring a 24-hour waiting period, parental consent, a restrictive definition of medical emergency, and reporting requirements for abortion services. They held that requiring spousal notice of an abortion was such an undue burden.
Despite the clear guarantees which we have secured on successive occasions, Cóir have persisted with the pernicious deception that Ireland’s position on abortion is being threatened.
It is helpful then to outline precisely what protections exist in Irish Constitutional law on abortion, and what European Union provisions protect this measure.
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.
This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.
This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.
Because of concerns on abortion, we secured a Protocol as part of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 ensuring that this provision would not be affected.
Protocol 17 of the Maastricht Treaty
Nothing in the Treaty on European Union, or in the Treaties establishing the European Communities, or in the Treaties or Acts modifying or supplementing those Treaties, shall affect the application in Ireland of Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution of Ireland.
After the concerns raised during last year’s campaign on ethical issues, the Government secured an agreement with the 26 other EU countries which would come into law on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and would have the force of law of any international treaty, like the Belfast Agreement.
European Council Guarantee 2009
Nothing in the Treaty of Lisbon attributing legal status to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, or in the provisions of that Treaty in the area of Freedom, Security and Justice affects in any way the scope and applicability of the protection of the right to life in Article 40.3.1, 40.3.2 and 40.3.3, the protection of the family in Article 41 and the protection of the rights in respect of education in Articles 42 and 44.2.4 and 44.2.5 provided by the Constitution of Ireland
The European Union cannot not make laws in areas not specified by the Treaties, and there is no mention of abortion anywhere in any of them. Furthermore, the European Court of Justice has previously made explicitly clear in its rulings that the EU has no competence to decide a country’s laws on the matter of abortion.
These guarantees in our own Constitution, in EU Treaty law and from rulings of the ECJ make clear that this claim has absolutely no basis whatsoever.