Monday 15 October 2018

Top legal experts call for No vote in new poll

Michael Brennan and Dearbhail McDonald

TANAISTE Eamon Gilmore yesterday blamed lawyers who have profited from the long-running tribunals for stirring up opposition to the plan to give more investigative powers to TDs and senators.

He came out strongly in favour of the referendum proposal which will allow Oireachtas committees to summon people before an inquiry and to make clear findings about their actions.

Mr Gilmore said that a 'Yes' vote would allow Oireachtas committees to carry out inquiries which had previously taken years in the tribunals. And he criticised the "vested interests" who were arguing for a 'No' vote.

"I think there is a good deal of scaremongering going on but a lot of it is coming from particular sections of the legal profession who have done very well financially from the judicial tribunals in the past," he said.

But last night, eight former holders of the Attorney General office made an unprecedented intervention in a referendum debate to "strongly oppose" government plans to reduce judges' pay and boost politicians' powers to hold public inquiries.

Under the current draft legislation, investigators employed by Oireachtas committees can be given the power to enter houses to seize documents.

But they will have to obtain a search warrant from a district court judge -- the same procedure currently in place for the gardai. And this power is likely to be used as a last resort -- only if individuals such as bankers refuse all other requests to hand over documents.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who was attending a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels yesterday, also backed giving more powers to Oireachtas committees. He said it would allow issues of public importance to be put under the spotlight in a "public, cost-efficient and timely fashion".

But last night's intervention by eight former AGs is the first time that such a group has banded together to oppose government plans to change the Constitution.

Days before voters go to the polls to elect a new president and vote on two new constitutional changes, the AGs -- including Peter Sutherland, John Rogers and Michael McDowell -- have issued a letter in which they "strongly oppose" the two referendums.

The signatories also include Paul Gallagher, the immediate past Attorney General who advised the Fianna Fail/Green coalition that a referendum was needed to reduce judges' pay.

The signatories are not opposed to the principle of reducing judges pay, but say that a proposal to allow proportionate reductions in judicial remuneration "provides insufficient protection for the independence of the judiciary".

They have also opposed the Oireachtas inquiries amendment which, if passed, will allow politicians to decide the balance of rights to be enjoyed by witnesses who appear before them and against whom adverse findings may be made.

"The proposal in relation to Oireachtas inquiries seriously weakens the rights of individual citizens, firstly to protect their good names, and secondly to have disputes between themselves and the Oireachtas concerning their constitutional rights decided by an independent judiciary," said the AGs in a letter issued to editors of several newspapers.

Last night, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) which mounted the 'No' campaign to the inquiries referendum, said that this latest intervention, coupled with a 14pc drop in public support for the amendment, was a "rebuke" to the Coalition.

"This has to be read as a firm rebuke to the Taoiseach and Tanaiste for taking a stance which wilfully misrepresents the legal content of the constitutional amendments," said Mark Kelly of the ICCL.

Irish Independent

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