Category Archives: Ireland

Ireland – Some brief reflections on the first meeting of the Constitutional Convention

Ireland has established a Constitutional Convention. I had the great pleasure and privilege of attending the first working meeting this weekend. I am taking the opportunity to describe very briefly how the Convention worked, what decisions it made and, in a strictly personal capacity, to reflect on the whole process.

Modelled on similar exercises, for example in Iceland as reported previously on this blog, the Convention comprises 100 members, 66 citizens, 33 politicians, and the chair. The Convention has been asked by the legislature to look at specific proposals for constitutional reform, but it also has the opportunity to raise other matters. The terms of reference are available here.

There was a plenary meeting last year, but the first working meeting was held this weekend. Two topics were open for discussion: whether or not the voting age should be reduced from 18 to 17 and whether or not the president’s term of office should be reduced from 7 years to 5 years and presidential elections aligned with local and European elections. I was asked to provide a briefing document to the members on reducing the president’s term and to make a presentation on the topic. The document is available here and the video of the presentation will be made available soon.

The discussion started on Saturday morning and ended on Sunday lunchtime with a vote on these two questions and other matters too. In the end, the Convention members voted 52-47 to reduce the voting age, with a slight preference for a reduction to 16 rather than 17. The members voted not to reduce the president’s term by 57-43.

While these were the questions that the legislature had required the members to debate, it was agreed over the course of the days that there could be a vote on a small number of other matters too. In relation to the presidency, there was very strong support (94-6) for allowing citizens to have the opportunity to nominate presidential candidates. (Ireland has a very restricted party-dominated nomination system at present). There was a complete split (44-44) on the issue of whether presidents should serve for only one 7-year term and strong opposition (78-14) to a proposal for one 5-year term.

The Convention will now write a report that will go to the legislature. Other topics will be debated over the coming year. There would have to be referendums on issues that the Convention approves, but whether or not these will take place and, if so, when will be decided, in practice, by the government/legislature.

It was a real honour to be a part of the discussions and interesting to be able observe the deliberations generally. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the weekend.

Above all, I thought there was real engagement with the process. In the roundtable discussions I was asked a lot of very serious, extremely challenging, and really insightful questions. People genuinely wanted to explore the issues involved. They wanted to know about the presidency. They wanted to know what happened in other countries. They wanted as much information as possible before coming to any conclusion.

Also, it was clear that members wanted to go beyond the rather narrow question that was on the agenda and explore issues a little more generally. I thought this was very welcome. Moreover, even though members wanted a slightly wider discussion, there was never any attempt to hijack the debate, or make it so broad that it lost meaning. So, I thought members were trying to discuss issues very responsibly.

In addition, there were very positive discussions about how the meeting should be organised, how votes should be taken, how questions should be worded. Again, without any attempt to try to exercise pure ‘people power’ for the sake of it, there was a real sense that the members had ownership of the procedures.

Finally, the meeting was handled really excellently by the chair, Tom Arnold. In particular, he was very keen to ensure that as many people as possible contributed to the plenary discussion. In addition, the meeting was facilitated extremely well by the administrative and academic support staff. I know that a lot of preparation went into the event and I am sure that everything went off so smoothly both because of the members’ attitude and because of the attention to detail by the administrative and academic team in advance.

If there were any slightly negative points, then perhaps two things come to mind.

Firstly, the tone was slightly more formal than I had expected. I wore a suit for both days. So, I’m in no position to criticise! But maybe a ‘dress-down-Friday’ rule might set a slightly more relaxed environment and encourage discussion.

Secondly, while it is important that parties are there to generate political buy-in, elected representatives did tend to dominate the plenary discussions. To be fair, there was very little party grandstanding and by no means all representatives felt the need to intervene. However, there was a sense that political figures were prominent. Over time, this changed a little, not least because of the efforts of the chair. But, maybe, in future the influence of representatives will be a little more understated.

Overall, I got the sense that people felt it was a worthwhile experience. Obviously, time will tell as to whether anything concrete comes of the Convention’s deliberations.

Ireland – Presidential election

In Ireland the presidential election was held on 27 October. At the same time, there were two referendums as well as a by-election for the legislature.

The presidential election was won by Michael D. Higgins (a former Politics Lecturer at the University of Galway). Here is the result of the presidential election:

Michael D. Higgins (Labour Party), 39.6%
Seán Gallagher (Independent), 28.5%
Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin), 13.7%
Gay Mitchell (Fine Gael), 6.4%
David Norris (Independent), 6.2%
Mary Davis (Independent), 2.9%
Dana Rosemary Scallon (Independent), 2.7%

Turnout 56.1%

Ireland has an STV system of PR. So, it took four counts for Higgins to be elected. However, he was so far ahead at the first count that the other candidates conceded defeat after the result of the first count was clear.

To top a good day for the Labour Party, they also won the Dublin West by-election. This was a gain from the Fianna Fáil party.

One referendum passed and the other failed.

There was a referendum to allow judges’ pay to be reduced. (A sign of the depressed economic times in Ireland). This was passed by 83.5% to 16.5%. The second referendum would have given the legislature more powers in public inquiries. This was defeated by 53.3% to 46.7%.

Ireland – Guest post Gary Murphy – presidential election

Ireland will elect its ninth president on October 28. This election is, however, fundamentally different to any previous campaign simply because the rather predictable voting patterns of previous general and presidential elections have been shattered with the collapse of the Fianna Fáil vote. Fianna Fáil, which constantly garnered 40 per cent of the vote at general elections and a similar figure in presidential elections, was decimated in the February 2011 general election and has taken the dramatic step not to enter a candidate at all in this presidential contest. Thus the party that has dominated Irish politics since it first took office in 1932 and won all but one of the presidential elections since the office was created in the 1937 constitution has left the field fearing an even worse result than in the general election where they were reduced to just 20 seats out of 166.
Seven candidates have put themselves forward for the office. Three are expressly party political. Gay Mitchell from Fine Gael and Michael D. Higgins from Labour are the standard bearers for the two government parties which holds a massive majority in the Irish parliament (Dáil Eireann). Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland executive – a position he has temporarily stepped down from to run in the presidential election – has been nominated by his party Sinn Féin and a number of independent members of the Dáil, but rather curiously McGuinness is declaring that he is not the Sinn Féin candidate. In any event his candidacy has caused something of a stir given his former IRA past and despite his late arrival to the campaign he has surged to 19 per cent in the opinion polls.
While Fine Gael are Ireland’s largest party, Mitchell’s campaign has been dogged by a widely-held view that the party’s leadership wanted a ‘difference’ candidate. Mitchell has failed to connect with the people in any meaningful way and stands at a shockingly low 9 per cent in the polls. Fine Gael in comparison stands in the mid-30s and received 36 per cent of the first preference vote in the general election.

With two weeks to go Higgins is the favourite having topped a number of opinion polls. He was a former Minister for Arts and Culture in the mid-1990s and is seen as something of the elder statesman of Irish politics.
There are four independent candidates who have all managed to get on the ballot paper despite the rather archaic nomination procedure, which involves being supported by either 20 members of the Oireachtas or four county councils. The four, Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher, David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon, span the political spectrum.

Scallon is a former MEP, who also ran or president in 1997, and is widely viewed as a right-wing conservative and her main campaign theme is to defend the constitution against Europe particularly. So far she has had made little impact on the electorate. Norris has long been associated with the so-called liberal agenda and has been a Senator since 1987. He has led a life-long crusade for gay rights in Ireland and was the early favourite, but his campaign has floundered and he has become embroiled in a number of controversies particularly over letters he wrote in support of his former partner who had been convicted of statutory rape in Israel, his views on pederasty in Ancient Greece, and the age of consent for sexual activity in Ireland. Mary Davis is the former chief executive of the 2003 Special Olympics, which were held in Ireland. She has served on a number of state and private boards and has been campaigning since long before the election was called. She has stressed the idea of the presidency being a vehicle for volunteerism, and promoting community development but has not made the impact that many pundits thought she would. Finally Sean Gallagher, a former Fianna Fáil member and ministerial special adviser, but more well know to the public as a judge on the popular TV show Dragon’s Den, has posited the view that the presidency can be used to promote entrepreneurial activity. Despite his Fianna Fáil, past Gallagher has made a serious impact on the campaign and is currently standing in second place in the polls and seems to have considerable momentum behind him.
Much of the public debate in the Irish presidential campaign has focused on the limitations of the office and to how the president is, to all intents and purposes, a political slave of the government. This has led to a rather stultifying political situation where the candidates, desperate to distinguish themselves from each other, search for any slight edge to gain public approval. Given the constraints of the office it would appear that no matter the result it is unlikely that Ireland’s ninth president will be able to chart new waters due to a constitution that allows the presidency little but a ceremonial role.

Gary Murphy
Dublin City University

Ireland – Senate election

In Ireland, the election of the upper house, the Seanad, always takes place just after the election for the lower house, the Dáil. The Seanad election was concluded at the end of last week.

The Seanad is not popularly elected. It is a leftover from a time when vocational representation was in vogue. There are 60 senators, 43 of which are indirectly elected by five vocational panels (agriculture, culture and education, industry and commerce, labour, and administration). These senators are elected by an electoral college comprising TDs (deputies), members of the outgoing Seanad and local councillors. In addition, 6 senators are elected by graduates of the two main universities and the remaining 11 senators are personally appointed by the PM, or Taoiseach.

The election of the 49 indirectly elected senators has been completed. This is the party breakdown:

Fine Gael 18 seats (up 4)
Fianna Fáil 14 seats (down 8)
Labour 9 seats (up 3)
Sinn Féin 3 seats (up 2)
Others 5 seats – all from the university panels (down 1)

The Taoiseach will make known his 11 nominees very soon.

The new government is committed to abolishing the Seanad. This will require a referendum.

Ireland – New PM

Following the legislative election on 25 February, the newly elected parliament convened yesterday and a new prime minister (Taoiseach) was elected.

The new Taoiseach is Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny. He leads a coalition government with the Labour Party. Constitutionally, the Irish Cabinet is limited to 15 ministers. Fine Gael has ten Ministers and the Labour Party has five. There is also a Junior minister who will sit at the cabinet table. He is from the Labour Party.

The Labour Party is actually the second largest party in the new parliament (Dáil). So, the government enjoys 113 of the 166 seats there. The opposition is the former governing party, Fianna Fáil, which was routed at the election and was returned with only 20 deputies.

Ireland – Legislative election

A parliamentary election was held in Ireland on 25 February. The results confirmed the polls, but were no less historic for that reason.

Turnout was up at 70.1%. There are 166 seats in total. The incumbent government was led by Fianna Fáil, which had been in power since 1997. Until very recently, the Greens were also in the government. These are the results:

Fine Gael : 36.1% (+8.8), 76 seats
Labour : 19.4 (+9.3), 37 seats
Fianna Fáil : 17.4% (-24.2), 20 seats
Sinn Féin : 9.9% (+3.0), 14 seats
Independents : 11.8%, 14 seats
United Left Alliance : 2.6%, 5 seats
Greens : 1.8% (-2.9), 0 seats

This was an historic election because for the first time Fianna Fáil, which has been the predominant party in the system since the 1930s, came third. Fine Gael won more seats than any election. The Labour party came second for the first time ever. Moreover, Peter Mair has already written a really nice piece showing that this election was one of the most volatile ever in Western Europe.

In terms of government formation, Fine Gael (FG) does not have enough seats for a single-party government. In addition, there are insufficient FG-friendly deputies for a minority FG government supported by independents. So, there will most likely be a FG-Labour coalition. The talks are already underway.

Ireland – Election resources

Posting is suspended today because I am going to vote! There is a reciprocal arrangement between the UK and Ireland, whereby citizens of one country can vote in (most) elections of the other. So, I get to cast my ballot today.

I will post the result on Monday. In the meantime, here is a link to a page with great resources about the election. There is also material on Irish elections generally here. There is a page on the election specifically here.

Ireland – Single-party government

The Irish government is now a single-party government. On Sunday, the Greens withdrew from the coalition, leaving only Fianna Fáil ministers remaining.

Generally, it has been a very turbulent week in Irish politics. The Fianna Fáil (FF) party and particularly the Taoiseach (prime minister), Brian Cowen, are very unpopular, taking the blame for Ireland’s financial crisis and the subsequent austerity measures. To try to shore up support in his Fianna Fáil party with an election looming, Cowen announced a vote of confidence in his leadership. (The FF parliamentary party selects and deselects its leader). On Tuesday he won that vote, but then he made a tactical error. Immediately following the vote, four ministers resigned. One had stood against Cowen in the confidence vote. The other three supported the Taoiseach, but they resigned to let him appoint a new set of people to cabinet. The problem is that ministerial nominations have to be approved by the parliament (the Dáil). The Greens were unhappy, having not been warned of the resignations. They said they would not approve any new nominations. The government, even with the Greens, did not have a parliamentary majority. So, Cowen looked very weak. An important part of the context is that the Irish government has a maximum of 15 ministers. With four ministers gone and no new appointments able to be made, Cowen had to reassign the missing ministers’ duties to those that remained. One minister ended up with responsibility for Tourism, Culture, Sport, Enterprise, Trade and Innovation.

Anyway, following the ministerial fiasco and under fresh pressure from FF, on Saturday Cowen announced that he was resigning as the leader of the party, although he would stay on as Taoiseach. He also announced that the election would take place on 11 March. The Greens were still unhappy and on Sunday they withdrew their two ministers from the government. This leaves just seven ministers remaining! This is the constitutional minimum.

On Monday an agreement was implicitly reached between all of the parliamentary parties such that the Dáil will be dissolved at the weekend or early next week and that the election will probably be held on 25 February. If the Taoiseach does not dissolve the Dáil, then the government will face a vote of no-confidence that it will inevitably lose.

Taoiseach Cowen was under great political pressure. However, it must be very rare for a leader to win a vote of confidence from his party early in the week and then to resign because of party pressure later that week. However, the change in circumstances was his own fault. He tried to outmanoeuvre the Greens with the ministerial resignations and they called his bluff. There is speculation that Cowen will not stand for re-election. His popularity rating stands at 8% and FF are polling about 14%.

Ireland – Presidential power used!

The Irish presidency is the weakest of all countries with a semi-presidential constitution. However, occasionally, the president does use what few powers are invested in the office.

Art. 26. 1. 1 of the 1937 Constitution states: “The President may, after consultation with the Council of State, refer any Bill to … the Supreme Court for a decision on the question as to whether such Bill or any specified provision or provisions of such Bill is or are repugnant to this Constitution or to any provision thereof.”

So, the president does not have the power to veto legislation or to ask the parliament to consider a bill for a second time. However, once a bill has been passed and before it is promulgated, the president may, after convening an advisory body, refer the bill to the Supreme Court, which then determines its constitutionality.

This power has been used relatively frequently. Wikipedia has a very informative table listing all the occasions when this Article has been invoked and identifying the outcome.

Basically, three scenarios are possible: the president signs the bill; the president refers the bill to the Supreme Court, which approves it; the president refers the bill to the Supreme Court, which strikes down all or part of the bill. All of these outcomes have occurred at some point.

Anyway, on 21 December President Mary McAleese convened the Council of State to take advice about the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Bill 2010 – otherwise known as the huge IMF and EU bailout of the bankrupt Irish banks bill! The president decided not to refer the bill to the Supreme Court, so it has become law and its constitutionality cannot be challenged.

Obviously, Ireland has a weak president. As I said, it has the weakest president of all countries with a semi-presidential constitution. All the same, the president does have a few powers. These powers are occasionally used and when they are used they can be controversial.

Ireland – By election

The already beleaguered Irish government is even more beleaguered after yesterday’s by election result, which saw an opposition party win the seat.

The by election in Donegal South-West was caused by a ruling Fianna Fáil deputy being elected to the European Parliament. This meant that he had to give up his seat in the Dáil. That was in June 2009. The government expected to lose the by election, even though it was in the constituency that had the highest vote for the Fianna Fáil party in the 2007 election. Fearful of losing the by election, the government delayed calling it. In the end, an opposition politician took a case to the High Court, which ruled that the delay was unreasonable, thus provoking the election.

As expected, the government lost the election. Here is the result:

Pearse Doherty (Sinn Féin), 39.9%
Brian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fáil), 21.3%
Barry O’Neill (Fine Gael), 18.7%
Thomas Pringle (Ind.), 10.0%
Frank McBrearty (Labour), 9.8%

Pearse Doherty was elected at the fourth count under Ireland’s STV system. He was the person who took the case to Court.

The government is a coalition between Fianna Fáil and the Greens. Last week, the Greens announced that they were staying in government to vote for the budget, but that they would withdraw and, effectively, provoke an election in January. The Fianna Fáil Taoiseach (PM), Brian Cowen, then announced that an election would be held after the whole of the budget process was completed in February or March. So, either way, an election is pending.

The polls show that Fianna Fáil will do poorly at the election. In 2007, they got 50% in Donegal South-West, so their vote was down hugely. Fine Gael are expected to form the next government in coalition with Labour.