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Lack of judgment a judicial own goal

IN an uncertain world, one certainty would seem to be that the referendum on cutting judges' pay will be carried with a handsome majority, causing waves of genteel horror in the higher reaches of the judiciary -- not so much from the financial implications as the constitutional ones.

The judges have only themselves to blame. They are right that it is far from ideal voters should be asked to approve something specifically related to judicial pay. The referendum will be closer to an infringement of judicial independence than a pay cut ever would. It does not amount to such an infringement, but it should never have come to this.

Wise councils would have made sure that the vast majority of judges quickly volunteered to share the cuts imposed on other public servants. Instead, the response was distinctly tardy. Government workers will not be impressed by the 85pc of judges that have signed up for their voluntary pension levy scheme. They will be more struck by the 15pc who have not.

Still, even judges are human and we all have bills to pay. The real scandal was using the constitutional protection to protect their incomes. The very existence of such a privilege means it should be invoked only if a government is applying improper pressure to a judge or judges.

The other sensible way out would have been for some senior judges to say that they did not think this was the meaning of the provision in the constitution, and the government was entitled to impose the cut. That would have been common sense. There can be no victimisation of intimidation if everyone is treated the same. Judges were not asked to give up a cent more than others.

There are serious issues here. When taken alongside judgments which placed remarkable curbs on the powers of the Oireachtas, they create the impression that the Irish judiciary may have taken to itself more of the powers separated in the constitution than is wise or desirable. There are also more mundane, but more painful, implications. Ironically, the judges have a case when they complain about the treatment of their pensions. The way in which private pensions earned as barristers interact with public service payments can indeed produce unfair anomalies.

But their attitude to the pay cuts will make it more difficult for them to win concessions on pension rules. On this one, the judges have shown poor judgment