Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Can the Seanad Save Free Speech?

RTÉ and the Irish Times are both before the Courts this morning to see if they are allowed to broadcast and/or print speeches made in the houses of the Oireachtas. It’s an awful situation for a democracy to find itself in, but crisis can often lead to opportunity. And the very peculiar current crisis does present the Seanad with the opportunity to be what its advocates claim it is – relevant to the proper governance of the State.

You remember the Seanad – it’s the theoretical upper house of the bicameral Oireachtas, a growling, snarling watchdog that keeps the Government of the day on their toes. Or so, at least, its proponents would have you believe during the referendum on the continued existence of the Seanad, which the sovereign people choose to retain in a referendum held on the 4th of October, 2013.

Since then, the Seanad has done nothing – zip, zero, the null set, nada, nothing – to show itself worthy of the nation’s faith. Senators who were passionate and vocal contributors to the save-the-Seanad debate haven’t been heard from since, and the chamber looks like what it’s been long-perceived to be, a sanatorium for recovering politicians who didn’t quite make it to the lower chamber.

However. God never closes one door but He opens another, as the old people used to say, and circumstances have given the Seanad the chance to be heard.

If the current court order to redact details of the injunction issued on an RTÉ report into the relationship with businessman Denis O’Brien is upheld, the Seanad won’t have to do anything. There will be a fully-fledged constitutional crisis then, and God only knows how it’ll resolve.

If, however, the courts do not uphold the decision to injunct RTÉ and redact the details of the judgement, then An Taoiseach can roll into the Dáil – one week from now, because the Oireachtas is enjoying a well-deserved break currently – and proclaim what he has always known in his heart, that Ireland is the best little country in the world in which to do free speech. Any further questions will be brushed away, and dissent will be mashed into the carpet by the Government’s massive and well-whipped majority.

Which is why the Seanad must do what the Dáil cannot, and take a stand for freedom of speech. The Government want this thing to go away very, very dearly as, once it starts to unravel properly, goodness only knows where the breadcrumb trail might lead.

Ironically, in the light of previous relationships, the Labour Party may be more eager to see the issue go away than Fine Gael. The marriage referendum and Bench-marking II will go down well with the two wings that make that Labour Party and, after four hard years and the predicted giveaway budget will make the hat-trick. Labour don’t want to see their gifts to the Labour core support blown away in a political storm.

Which is why the nation must look to the Seanad to safeguard its rights. There is nothing that can be done in the Dáil, because of the Government’s steamroller majority. But the Government’s majority in the Seanad is nominal, if it exists at all. That gives the Senators some elbow room.

The powers of the Seanad are quite limited, but there is one shot in its locker. Article 27.1 of the Constitution states that “A majority of the members of Seanad Éireann and not less than one-third of the members of Dáil Éireann may by a joint petition addressed to the President by them under this Article request the President to decline to sign and promulgate as a law any Bill to which this article applies on the ground that the Bill contains a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained.”

There is a bill due next week proposing that nobody may own more than twenty per cent of the media. Which sounds great, except that the law is not retrospective. If anybody already owns more than twenty per cent of the media, he or she can keep it.

That’s not good enough. Between the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal, the Siteserv controversy and the current attempt to muzzle the democratically elected representatives of the people, it’s time to have a look at the precise relationship between the Government and #REDACTED.

Can the upper house stand for the public good when the lower house either can’t or won’t? Will a majority of members of the Seanad vote to send this press ownership Bill to the President, and let the cards fall as they will after that?

Such a move still needs the backing of one third of Dáil deputies, which is fifty-five of them. The Government has 101 votes, which leaves sixty-four left over. They can surely scrounge fifty-five votes from those sixty-four if the upper house raises the flag of Liberty.

Eighteen months ago the Seanad told that sovereign people that it was relevant in the democratic processes of the state. Now it has a chance to prove it. History awaits.