Gavan Reilly

thinking out loud

Archive for the ‘European Union’ tag

Some thoughts on the push for a European referendum

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[Edited, 7:11pm]

So this morning we learned that the Dáil’s technical group is to use a little-known clause in the Constitution – Article 27 – by getting together enough Oireachtas signatures to petition the President to put the new EU treaty to the people.

First, a quick look over the rules:

  • The petition must be signed by one third of the members of the Dáil, and a majority of the members of the Seanad
  • Their signatures are then verified in a manner provided by law
  • The petition is furnished with “a statement of the particularground or grounds on which the request is based”
  • The petition and statement are sent to the President within four days after the Oireachtas has finished its consideration of the Bill.
  • The President must convene the Council of State to consider the petition and give his response within 10 days of the Bill being passed by the Oireachtas
  • If he deems it necessary, he will refuse to sign the Bill until either a referendum is held, or a general election is called and the Dáil reconvenes
  • If it’s not deemed necessary, he signs it within 11 days of the Oireachtas passing it.
Now, some thoughts:
  • This is such an unexpected and unprecedented development that the law outlining how the signatures are verified dates from 1944!
  • Although the petition doesn’t need to be presented until four days after it’s passed by the Oireachtas, the organisers will need to be wary of the possibility of a petition for early signature: the reason there is a four-day window is because the Constitution says the President only signs a bill between five and seven days after the Oireachtas passes it. This is pushed forward in the case of a motion for early signature – meaning that, if he was so minded, the President could accede to the motion for early signature and sign the Act into law before the petition picks up the necessary signatures. Also, given the political urgency around getting this treaty ratified as soon as practicable,
  • This is a separate clause to Article 26 under which the President can refer a Bill to the Supreme Court, and adds a degree of discretion to the President that they rarely have otherwise. Article 27 is quite clear in that even if the Supreme Court is being asked to rule on its constitutionality (though only under Article 26, and not in a private claim) and it deems a referendum not to be necessary, the President can still fire ahead and order the referendum anyway. This is in line with the President’s role as the guardian of the Constitution, and his need to protect the spirit of its intentions as well as the letter of the law.
  • Parliamentary arithmetic means the government is never in danger when it’s trying to legislate, but in this case the margins are wafer-thin. Let’s have a look at the breakdown of both houses:
    • Dail:
      • Fine Gael 74 (plus one defector, Denis Naughten)
      • Labour 35 (plus three defectors, Willie Penrose, Tommy Broughan and Patrick Nulty)
      • Fianna Fáil 19
      • Sinn Féin 14
      • United Left Alliance 5
      • Non-ULA from the technical group 11
      • Other independents 3
    • Seanad:
      • Fine Gael: 19
      • Labour: 12
      • Fianna Fáil: 14
      • Sinn Féin: 3
      • Independent university senators: 5
      • Independent Taoiseach’s nominees: 7

Let’s first deal with the Dáil, which has 166 members, meaning 56 is the magic number.

  • The Technical Group, which has engineered this campaign, has 16. Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil have both asked for a referendum. Add all of those together and we’re on 49. There are seven other people not subject to the whip: the four government defectors, and the three independents who aren’t members of the technical group.
  • It is questionable whether Messrs Naughten, Penrose, Nulty and Broughan will want to burn further bridges with their parliamentary parties – though perhaps all will be mindful that their former parties may face FF-style backlashes in the next election. Either way, the circumstances of each may mean that at least one of the four might be reluctant to jump.
  • Then we turn to the other three: Lowry, Grealish and Healy-Rae. The former pair, and the latter’s father, were among the independents on whom the previous government relied for its mandate. While the reasons that they did not join the Technical Group have never been explained, it is not because the government bought their votes: all three have voted against the government in the past months with no apparent sanction. Here, though, we have an unusual situation: in effect, if the government wants to ensure it doesn’t get pushed into a referendum, it could strike a deal with the three – who are known to be happy to strike deals – to secure their complicity.
  • So yes – even though the government has a massive majority in the Dáil, with at least 109 votes, it could have to secure the support of Michael Lowry, Noel Grealish and Michael Healy-Rae in order to ensure it doesn’t get dragged into a campaign it clearly doesn’t want, and could well lose.
Now, to the equally interesting Seanad
  • Ordinarily, the Seanad is a mere rubber-stamp for government legislation: the Constitutional power of the Taoiseach to nominate 11 members means the majority is rarely in doubt.
  • This time, Enda Kenny nominated 11 members – four of whom had been picked by his Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore – but only four of them took party whips. Seven of those members are, in theory at least, independent – those seven have even formed their own technical group to put forward private motions. They may have been appointed there by a benevolent government but they do not answer to it.
  • This means that the government’s benches have 31 members – enough for a majority. Given the usually sub-total attendance in the Seanad, and the regular agreement of the university and independent senators to the government proposals, the majority is rarely questioned.
  • Here, however, the nomination of seven independents means there is something to be played for. Again, assuming that FF and SF in the Seanad assent to the petition, we have 17 signatures. Add the five university members, who have no political loyalties one way or the other, and we have 22. (A side note at this point: it is relatively rare that university panels elect people who are running, in effect, as members of a political party. How thankful Labour must now be that its Seanad leader, Ivana Bacik, got elected in Trinity College…)
  • Now we turn to the Taoiseach’s independents. They are likely, but not guaranteed, to act as one on this. This presents difficulties for some members: take Jillian van Turnhout, who is independent and often critical of the government, but whose husband is the Fine Gael constituency chair in Dublin South. Take also Martin McAleese, who had been reluctant to say anything out loud in the Seanad while his wife was the President. Take Marie Louise O’Donnell and Eamonn Coghlan, who attended FG pre-election events and who are open supporters of the party, though not members of it. Can van Turnhout be persuaded to cause political difficulty for her husband’s party? Can McAleese be persuaded to take an active role in convincing his wife’s successor to take an active political stance? Will O’Donnell and Coghlan end longstanding associations with their favoured party? All are questions to be answered.
  • Even if the independent group signs up, we now stand at 29 – and we need two more people from the government benches to cross over. Are there liberally-minded members on the government side who are willing to break ranks? Bear in mind that many Senators will have been dreading the day, later this year, when they were asked to approve a referendum abolishing the Seanad. A couple may have been prepared to break ranks at that point: turkeys, remember, are not in the habit of voting for Christmas. Perhaps some of them have a genuine belief that the Seanad is worth saving: could they be convinced that backing a referendum campaign could help to turn public support in favour of keeping the upper house? Will two of them be willing to bring forward their inevitable dissent and sign the petition now?
And that, ladies and gents, is why politics is Ireland’s favourite sport.
Update, 7:11pm: Two points I forgot to make earlier:
  1. The rules of a referendum change if it’s been called under Article 27. Even if the No side wins, the Constitution imposes a quorum: the volume of No votes must be more than one third of the total electorate. That means the referendum needs a turnout of well over 60% if the referendum is to be defeated.
  2. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of the Council of State meetings. The former presidents were Labour and Fianna Fáil nominees – the latter being married to a potential signatory of the petition – and there are two former FG taoisigh to FF’s three. The possibility of political motivations in the room should not be discounted: if there are members motivated by their party’s goals, the meetings could be fun…

Written by Gav

February 1st, 2012 at 12:30 pm

The Lisbon Treaty [or 8% of it] in three hours

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I tried to write a colour piece for The University Observer about reading the entirety of the consolidated treaties on European Union, as amended by the Lisbon Treaty. I failed, but hereby post my attempt, as a warning to those who may heed it.

There are two things you don’t want people to see you making – laws and sausages.

Open the PDF containing the treaties-to-be – instead of reading about the changes Lisbon would make, Shudder to see the document extending to 479 pages. Wonder if I should abandon the idea altogether and ask the Editor if she’ll consider accepting 500 words on something less barbarian, like why the EU flag should have orange stars on green, or how the euro has made shopping online (and running up enormous credit card debt) easier than failing an advanced module in astrophysics.

Heartened to discover that the first seventeen pages are merely contents, and that the real content – a preamble – is padded out by naming the full title of each member state. I notice that the member states declare a desire “to establish a citizenship common to nationals of their countries” and wonder what implications that’s meant to have. Ireland, at the fringes of Europe, has a much different view of ‘Europeanism’ than those who live twenty minutes’ drive from another culture or language. Isn’t the notion of a ‘nation’ meant to be that we share common beliefs and goals? Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, and that the only implication is having to pay another €80 for a second passport.

Article 3: The Union’s basic aim. “To promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples.” I look at the values: “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” Seems fair enough – what’s not to like?

I decide that this will be easier to finish if I put on the most epic classical music I can find. ‘Jupiter’ from Holst’s Planets should do the trick.

“In its relations with the wider world, the Union shall uphold and promote its values and interests and contribute to the protection of its citizens.” One of Lisbon’s most controversial aspects is the appointment of a full-time ‘High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy’, apparently in response to Henry Kissinger’s famous quip, “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” I wonder if anyone has ever posed the same question for Asia or Africa – or, indeed, for South America. Why would anyone want to ask a continent for its opinion? America would be upset if someone called Canada looking for the North American stance on an international hot topic, so why should European countries be treated any differently? The problem with Kissinger’s question isn’t the lack of an answer; it’s the absurdity of the question itself. Having a spokesperson on behalf of a group of countries as wildly diverse as Europe’s seems, in this light, to be a little too authoritative.
My worries are not at all placated by Article 8: “The Union shall develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries.” The hypocrisy of some residents’ groups in not seeking residents’ input springs to mind.


Abounded by caffeine, I get back at it. “The institutions shall, by appropriate means, give citizens and representative associations the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of Union action”, says Article 11. No problem there – the issue with Europe is that it’s predominantly run by unelected people. But, then again, so are our own Departments here.

I then meet the new rule about public petitions: “Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.” This seems to go against the public statements of pro-Lisbon groups, who are commending this concept on the basis that ordinary citizens can now petition the Union to act on matters apparently of their own choosing, when in reality they can only direct the Union on how best to enact the powers it already has.

Having been distracted by other more important duties – that cupcake wasn’t going to eat itself – I return and meet a paragraph outlining the roles of national parliaments. This is a welcome inclusion; previously the national parliament had no major input in overseeing legislation that ultimately supersedes its own.

The treaty outlines the organs of the Union and the role of President of the European Council. This person shall, apparently, “ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy”. Again, Kissinger dictates policy, it seems.
The pages that follow are largely hollow and devoid of much controversy, although it would seem that when appointing members of the European Commission, final appointments are now the remit of the President of the Commission and, strictly speaking, any country’s recommend appointee can be turned down. Every country might still retain their Commissioner, based on the recent declarations, but they might not get to pick exactly who they want.

The roles of the Parliament, Commission, and the aforementioned High Representative are outlined. Yadda yadda.

Article 20. “Member States which wish to establish enhanced cooperation between themselves within the framework of the Union’s non-exclusive competences may make use of its institutions and exercise those competences by applying the relevant provisions of the Treaties…” Wait. If two states – let’s say Ireland and the UK – want to make agreements regarding powers the Union doesn’t totally hold, they have to do so under the Union’s terms? Understandable to a degree, but a very odd provision.

I realise that I am only on page 39 – and the first twenty pages had no content. Eek.


Written by Gav

September 18th, 2009 at 5:09 pm