Tuesday 23 December 2014

Dearbhail McDonald: Voters give stern backlash to our arrogant leaders

Published 31/10/2011 | 05:00

TAKE a bow Alan Shatter, the star of the 'No' campaign, whose arrogance contributed to the defeat of the Oireachtas Inquiries referendum.

Special plaudits too, to Eamon Gilmore and Brendan Howlin for their intemperate supporting roles in this spectacular political own-goal.

The real winner is the Irish electorate.

Whether you were a 'Yes', 'No' or spoiled voter, together we served up a harsh and timely reminder that the Constitution belongs to the people and you tamper with it at your peril.

The inquiries referendum should have been a slam dunk.

Every political party supported it. It also had massive backing from the public, crying out for accountability after the banking crisis.

Yet it failed because it was fundamentally flawed. And it failed also because of breathtaking arrogance by its political sponsors.

The legal flaw was contained in a provision that it would be up to the Houses of the Oireachtas alone to decide what rights you and I would have if we were hauled before a political inquiry.

It failed because the Government refused to acknowledge, in the wording, the fundamental constitutional right of appeal to the courts.

The doubt about recourse to the courts was pointed out weeks in advance as a major problem.

The Government ploughed on regardless, publishing a draft inquiries Bill that was intended to soothe peoples' concerns but had the opposite effect.

It was this doubt that led retired High Court Judge Bryan McMahon, chair of the independent Referendum Commission, to state that it was not clear what role, if any, the courts would have if the referendum was passed.

The attack on Mr McMahon by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin in the wake of the defeat was reprehensible -- the judge had responded to obvious queries in the only manner that the wording allowed.

There are other, political, reasons why the referendum was defeated.

Confusion was arguably one.

Yet the intelligent defeat of the inquiries poll suggests that voters are much smarter than politicians give them credit for.

Disinformation was another.

The Government claimed that the poll was designed to overturn the Abbeylara ruling, the case sparked by the tragic death in 2000 of John Carthy.

A botched Dail inquiry into the shooting led the Supreme Court to rule that the Oireachtas had no inherent power to conduct investigations that made findings of fact against individuals.

I fear that the real intent of the referendum was to overturn or dilute the Supreme Court's decision, in 1971, in a case brought by the brother of the late Fianna Fail leader Charles Haughey.

It too, sprang from a dubious political inquiry.

We all owe a huge debt to the late Padraig 'Jock' Haughey for establishing the basic, gold standard of rights we are entitled to in any forum where our reputation or liberty are at risk.

That gold standard was, without adequate safeguards, placed in peril by the inquiries referendum.

Principled objection, although a late arrival to the party, was another factor that led to the 'No' vote.

Figures such as senior counsel Oisin Quinn, a leading light of the Labour Party and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties ran robust, clear campaigns.

The concern expressed by solicitor Peter Mullan, who represented John Carthy's family, should have sent alarm bells ringing.

Eight former Attorneys General then intervened with a wee letter.

They warned that the referendum, if passed, would seriously weaken the rights of individuals to their good name.

On its own, the letter was a significant game changer.

But the hysterical, contemptible over-reaction by Mr Shatter made it even more so.

Mr Shatter, a family law solicitor, described the concerns of the AGs -- all former legal advisers to the State -- as "nonsense", ignoring their years of combined experience.

The rebuke was accompanied by a barely veiled threat that Dermot Gleeson, a former Fine Gael AG and ex-chairman of Allied Irish Banks, would be one of the first to appear before a political inquiry.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore weighed in with a populist remark about an old boys' network.

He got into a shouting match on RTE with former AG and PD leader Michael McDowell that insulted the electorate by failing to address the issues.

It all added credence to the belief held by many that politicians are not to be trusted.

This is unfair to the majority of public representatives who supported the inquiries referendum as a means to improve public confidence in the political process.

The people's messageis clear: do not underestimate us and don't try to pull the wool over our eyes.

Irish Independent

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