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Pyrrhic victory for Callely in ground-breaking case

A PYRRHIC victory is a victory with devastating cost to the victor. His political career is in ruins, but former Fianna Fail senator and junior minister Ivor Callely secured a significant victory in the High Court yesterday.

Last year, the man dubbed 'Ivor the Engine' was vilified as a result of revelations that he had claimed more than €80,000 over two years for travel expenses from his holiday home near Bantry, Co Cork.

News that Callely had decamped to Cork after losing his seat in the 2007 General Election surprised many who were accustomed to seeing him jogging along the strand and pressing the flesh in his long-standing political base in Clontarf, north Dublin.

Last year's expenses scandal, which emerged, as High Court Judge Iarfhlaith O'Neill noted, "at a time of acute economic hardship when leadership is expected of politicians", sent hard-pressed constituents around the country into a state of apoplexy.

The revelations also prompted a high-profile, protracted investigation into Callely's affairs by the Seanad Committee on Members' Interests.

Sympathy was thin on the ground inside and outside of Leinster House for Callely, who had flirted with many bouts of controversy in a political career spanning almost 30 years.

The senator was forced to resign his junior ministry in the Department of Transport in 2005 after it emerged that while he was chairman of the Eastern Health Board in the 1990s his house in Clontarf was painted for free by a major painting firm.

Back then, he complained that a false, mischievous and sinister campaign had been waged against him.

Fast-forward five years and the embattled Callely complained that he had been depicted as a rogue, a chancer and someone who was thoroughly despicable.

Irrespective of public sentiment, the senator -- like all citizens -- was entitled to fair procedures and a chance to defend his reputation when he was investigated by the Seanad committee.

Following a series of bruising hearings, the committee ruled last July that Callely had intentionally misrepresented his normal place of residence at Bantry.

A 20-day suspension from the Seanad was meted out as punishment -- and the senator later sued his peers in the High Court.

It was the first time that a serving member of the Dail or Seanad had successfully challenged, in the High Court, the internal workings of an Oireachtas committee.

The move by Callely was considered an affront to the separation of powers doctrine. This holds, in principle, that the Oireachtas and its committees are masters of their own deliberations with exclusive powers to manage their affairs and impose disciplinary sanctions on their members.

The kernel of Callely's lawsuit was to what extent, if any, the affairs of an Oireachtas committee are amenable to judicial review and interference by the courts?

The courts have consistently held that the judicial arm of government is not entitled to intervene in the internal affairs of Dail Eireann.

But non-members of the Dail who have appeared before various Oireachtas committees -- including the brother of the late Fianna Fail leader Charlie Haughey who trailblazed the right to fair procedures -- have succeeded in diluting this principle where their constitutional rights have been breached.

Politicians rely on a series of Supreme Court rulings to support the contention that both Houses of the Oireachtas enjoy exclusive jurisdiction in matters relating to the internal disciplining of the members of either house.

They insist that both Houses of the Oireachtas have an unlimited jurisdiction to create and enforce their own rules, ousting the courts and judges from their internal affairs.

But Callely has, through his lawsuit, been a curious and innovative engine of constitutional change. He has tested and pushed the sensitive boundaries between Leinster House and the Four Courts in a case that could have widespread implications for the separation of powers.

In his ruling, the judge said it appeared the boundary between the exclusive roles of the Oireachtas, on the one hand, and the High Court on the other -- appropriately respecting the separation of powers principle -- does not exclude access to the courts for a member of the Oireachtas in circumstances where someone like Senator Callely is seeking to protect his constitutional right to good name and to natural justice and fair procedures.

Just because you are a politician does not mean you can't rely on the Constitution.

Yesterday's victory is, because of the potential constitutional ramifications, much bigger than Ivor Callely. And his 'victory' cannot compensate for the personal cost of his political failings.

Indeed, the irony of "Travelgate" is that Senator Callely will probably now be remembered for breaking the mould in the legal sphere rather than in the political one.

Irish Independent