Slow off the mark on Donegal South-West
Deaglán de Bréadún
You can run but you cannot hide. That was the subtext of yesterday’s dramatic events in relation to the holding of the Donegal South West byelection. It is fair to say that the judgment of the High Court came as a surprise to most observers.
The interaction between law and politics is a complex one. It is normal for a separation of powers to exist between the courts system of a country and its elected institutions.
As a rule of thumb for following that relationship, the concept that the citizen is supreme is not a bad one.
That was the background to a judgment which was a rare and sensitively worded intervention in political matters by the High Court. The Government’s initial reaction was less than graceful. Surely contingency plans should have been drawn up for a possible defeat at the Four Courts? At the very least, a statement could have been issued that “subject to formal Cabinet approval” it was hoped the court’s recommendation would be accepted.
It has been truly said that, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans, but one would have thought a set of alternative responses could have been prepared. Had the Government won the day, there would have been no problem: a diplomatically worded version of “we told you so” would have been sufficient.
Fine Gael’s Alan Shatter raised the issue in the Dáil yesterday afternoon and, while he was at it, could not resist a jibe at the Green Party for having its “traditional dance on the plinth” with the news media.
Word was coming out unofficially by lunchtime that the Donegal vote would go ahead but there was no formal declaration other than the hastily arranged press conference by Dan Boyle, Mary White and Trevor Sargent of the Green Party to say that they wanted the byelection held immediately.
This came across as a damage-limitation exercise or, in more traditional terms, closing the stable door after the horse had bolted, but it also served to narrow down Fianna Fáil’s room to manoeuvre.
Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns ruled that “the delay in this case is so inordinate as to amount to a breach of the applicant’s constitutional rights to such a degree as to warrant the court granting some form of relief”.
Rejecting the notion that the court was “tearing asunder” the Constitution, he declared instead that “it is the ongoing failure to move the writ for this byelection since June 2009 which offends the terms and spirit of the Constitution and its framework for democratic representation”.
This was a carefully worded assessment but it must still have stung Ministers to be portrayed as breaching a citizen’s constitutional rights and effectively thumbing their noses at Dev’s Bunreacht na hÉireann.
It was announced that the Government would be meeting at 5pm where the Attorney General would brief Ministers on the outcome of the case.
This suggested that the ruling from Justice Kearns was a form of rocket science. Surely common sense should have dictated that, since a court decision had been made and the Government had lost, it was time now to let the good people of Donegal South West have their outing at the polls.
A similar leaden-footed approach was evident in the appearance of Chief Whip John Curran rather than Minister for the Environment John Gormley to take special-notice questions on the matter.
It was a scenario that looked even more inappropriate when Gormley appeared in the Dáil chamber immediately afterwards to debate the legislation on the Dublin mayoralty.
Just after 8pm, Curran emerged to inform the media that although the Cabinet had decided to appeal the judgment, the writ would be moved today and the byelection held during the last week of November.
As for the other three byelections, the Government seems intent on holding them off until April or thereabouts. The vacancy in Donegal North East is only a few days old but Dublin South has been short a TD since George Lee’s resignation in February, which was followed by Martin Cullen’s departure as TD for Waterford in March.
Whatever chance this shaky Coalition has of surviving until then, the likelihood of three defeats at the polls will make the numbers game unwinnable for Fianna Fáil and the Greens.
Oddly enough, the chances of a Fianna Fáil victory in Donegal South West are good, provided the party can get the right candidate.
There is near-universal agreement that Pat “The Cope” Gallagher fits that description but he told The Irish Times last night that he would not be a candidate. There has also been speculation about retired soccer star Packie Bonner as someone who could save the day for Fianna Fáil.
By taking the case, Senator Pearse Doherty has enhanced his own prospects for a good electoral performance.
Naturally the young Sinn Féin politician was jubilant in the wake of the court ruling. He and his party had stolen a march on the rest of the Opposition by deciding to take the case despite the possibility of considerable financial outlay.
It is not that long since Doherty’s republican forebears were refusing to recognise the courts and denouncing the “Free State Constitution” but yesterday the Senator was proudly proclaiming that he had used the same document to promote the rights of the people of Donegal South West. How times change.
He also spoke of his appetite for “the battle of ideas” with the other parties in the byelection: there was a time when the republican movement was committed to a very different kind of battle and even chose the Four Courts as a battleground, so, in an indirect way, yesterday’s outcome could be seen as yet another offshoot of the peace process.
NOTE: The above article appears in the print edition of The Irish Times today.