Tuesday 17 September 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Bono-stalking was toe-curling, but filibuster is senators' shame'

The Upper House is wasting time and public money by talking out Judicial Appointments Bill, writes Philip Ryan

Barrister and senator Michael McDowell. Photo: Collins
Barrister and senator Michael McDowell. Photo: Collins
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

You'd be forgiven for thinking the most humiliating moment of last week for the country's senators was their pathetic fawning over Bono in the Dail chamber after a historic address by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Without question, the unseemly sight of senators scrambling for selfies with the U2 frontman was mortifying for everyone involved in the spectacle. One senator even followed the ageing rock star from the Dail chamber into the corridors of Leinster House in a desperate attempt to get a photograph.

Giddy sixth-class students show more decorum when they are on school trips to the Dail. A few TDs got caught up in the antics too but this piece is about senators. We can deal with TDs another day.

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Bono-stalking aside, the other high bar of embarrassment set up by senators last week related to the long-running filibuster of the Judicial Appointments Bill.

Filibustering is talking down the clock to stop a piece of legislation making its way into law.

The Judicial Appointments Bill, if enacted, will essentially make the appointment of judges more transparent. The board responsible for choosing judges will have a lay majority - they won't be judges or barristers - and the chair will also not be of the judicial persuasion.

The bill is in the programme for government on the insistence of Transport Minister Shane Ross, who has made reform of judicial appointments a personal crusade. Most judges and barristers are vehemently opposed to this idea because God forbid anyone other than members of their cosy elite should have a say in how they go about their business.

So the fight to prevent this attack on their cosseted way of life is being played out in the Seanad on their behalf.

Michael McDowell, who is a barrister and former Minister for Justice among other things, has led the charge in the Seanad, the Law Library and the Four Goldmines. He has been aided by his Independent colleagues Gerard Craughwell, David Norris and Victor Boyhan.

But on their own the four senators could not delay the legislative process by an unprecedented 88 hours and 25 minutes - which is how long the bill has been debated so far in the upper chamber.

The group has also enlisted the services of FF, Labour and Green Party, whose members are willing accessories in this pathetic political pantomime. Sinn Fein has been supporting the passage of the legislation.

McDowell says he has legitimate concerns over the Bill.He believes the board should be chaired by and mostly consist of legal experts who have working knowledge of the court system, and insists this is the only way to ensure the best candidates go forward for judicial appointments.

McDowell and his accomplices make up a sizeable chunk of the Seanad, meaning they can table amendment after amendment to the bill. Each amendment is then debated at length in the chamber. After 10 months of debate they have only made it through 49 of the 63 sections of the legislation.

They also call needless walk-through votes on the amendments which clocks up more time on the board. Generally amendments can be voted on quite quickly through the electronic voting system. Walk-through votes are only called when the numbers are close and for the most part McDowell's side has the numbers.

McDowell also denies filibustering, saying in the Seanad last October: "I have never filibustered or been irrelevant."

Last Wednesday however, the Government had enough and decided to guillotine the legislation which would mean it would move on to the next stage of the process. Guillotining legislation had been done away with under the auspicious of what they call new politics. Majority governments and coalitions regularly guillotine legislation to avoid length debates. It's not great practice, but if you have the numbers you do what you like.

Now most sane people would agree 88 hours and 25 minutes of debate is a considerable amount of time to give to a piece of legislation.

But last Wednesday, senators led by McDowell and Norris voted to prevent the guillotining of the bill. So the farcical debate will continue on until God knows when.

Meanwhile, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan is required to be in the chamber for much of these debates and is therefore prevented from working on other important legislation which may impact on ordinary people's lives.

Critical legislation on health, housing and justice are being delayed because of the actions of a group of around 26 senators who are insisting on delaying a bill which will change how judges are appointed.

Being a former Minister for Justice, you would think McDowell would be fully aware of the impact the filibuster is having on the operation of the Department for Justice.

Remember, you pay these people for the privilege of being members of the Upper House of the Oireachtas.

Some of them were appointed by the previous Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin put forward a few of them too. Taxpayers give them €66,940 a year plus expenses.

And this is what they are doing for that money - frustrating the political process over legislation for appointing judges. We may not get to decide who becomes a senator but some of these politicians have put their names forward for the next general election - and one, Alice Mary Higgins, wants to be an MEP.

So when you're within the sanctity of the ballot box, remember you're voting for legislators and remember this group of senators have spent 88 hours and 25 minutes, so far, seeking to prevent the enacting of a piece of legislation which changes how judges are appointed.

Sunday Independent

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