Monday 27 January 2020

Government opposes Belfast woman's bid to extend right to vote in abortion referendum to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland

Leinster House
Leinster House

Tim Healy

The Government is opposing a Belfast woman's High Court application seeking to extend the franchise in the forthcoming referendum on the eighth amendment to Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland.

Student Roisín Morelli claims Irish citizens north of the border have a constitutional right to vote in such referendums.

She is seeking leave to bring judicial review proceedings before the referendum takes place on May 25.

Her case is against the Taoiseach, Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Minister for Health, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Attorney General.

The State parties say it is inappropriate to deal with such a far reaching matter involving the electoral acts in such a short time scale.  It should also be dealt with through a normal High Court plenary hearing rather than by way of judicial review, the State says.

On Monday, Mr Justice Seamus Noonan fixed next Friday for the hearing of Ms Morrelli's application for permission to bring the proceedings along with the State's application that the matter go to plenary hearing rather than judicial review.

The judge said it was less than six weeks to referendum day and it seemed to him "close to impossible" that the matter could be dealt with "to finality" before that date given that it would probably have to eventually go to the Supreme Court after it goes through the High Court.

It seemed to him a "very tall order" to meet Ms Morelli's application,which is that she be allowed vote on May 25, he said.  He took into account an argument on Ms Morelli's behalf that not dealing with the matter before May 25 could have implications for the validity of the referendum result but he said that was not something the court had any control over. 

Earlier, Conan Fegan BL, for Ms Morelli, said the case should be deal with as a telescoped hearing in advance of the referendum.  He argued it was possible that the outcome of the vote could be invalidated as a result of the legal proceedings.  There were cross border health issues involved here as well as entitlements under the Good Friday Agreement, he said

Mr Justice  Noonan suggested to Mr Fegan that enfranchising more than one million people was "not the work of a moment" .

Counsel said this was a very serious issue for his client and for many on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland and nobody wanted a situation whereby the outcome of the referendum could be invalidated if the legal proceedings were not dealt with beforehand.

Conor Power SC, for the State parties, said this was an "impossible deadline" to deal with what was a significant amendment to electoral laws. There had also been a significant delay by Ms Morelli in bringing her challenge, he said.

Mr Power said a central point in the case was the residency requirement for citizens to be allowed vote in not just referendums but in Dail and Presidential elections.  This was not "a bare legal issue", he said.

A decision by the courts could mean that Electoral Acts would have to be changed and this was not something that could be done "on the hoof", he said.

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