Challenge to presidential oath must be thrown out, Government claims

Róisín Shortall and co-litigants cannot be ‘victims’ of ‘presence of Almighty God’ oath

Róisín Shortall and co-litigants John Brady, David Norris, Fergus Finlay and Prof David McConnell have said they would have to make an oath “to which they have a conscientious objection” if elected president. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Róisín Shortall and co-litigants John Brady, David Norris, Fergus Finlay and Prof David McConnell have said they would have to make an oath “to which they have a conscientious objection” if elected president. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

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The Government has claimed a challenge to the presidential oath made “in the presence of Almighty God” should be thrown out because the litigants are not victimised by the constitutional requirement to make such declarations.

In submissions to the European Court of Human Rights seen by The Irish Times, the Government said the case taken by Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall and four co-litigants should be dismissed because their rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion were not breached.

Directly citing the European Convention on Human Rights, the Government also claimed the declarations were “necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

‘Tolerance and broadmindedness’

It added: “In line with the court’s case law, pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness – including respect for religious diversity – must be regarded as conducive to public order in a democratic society.”

Ms Shortall’s co-litigants are Sinn Féin TD John Brady, Senator David Norris, former Bernardo’s chief and Labour adviser Fergus Finlay and Prof David McConnell of Trinity College Dublin.

They have said they would have to make an oath “to which they have a conscientious objection” if elected president. They are also challenging the oath required of members of the Council of State, which advises the President.

Any ruling of the court that such oaths breach the human rights of non-believers would result in a referendum being needed to change the constitutional oaths.

‘Deemed inadmissible’

The oaths have previously been questioned by the UN Human Rights Committee, which has called for changes while, in 1998, an Oireachtas committee recommended a choice of religious or non-religious declarations.

The Government said case law meant the litigants cannot properly be regarded as “victims” of the alleged rights violation. “On this basis alone, the application must be deemed inadmissible.”

The litigants replied that they were indeed victims, saying claims that the oaths were “necessary in a democratic society” could not be taken seriously.

They accused the Government of hyperbole.

“It suggests that they seek to eliminate all references to any religious ethos from the Constitution and, in a sense, render it God-less,” they said. “The innuendo is that, if their claim succeeds, all religious references in the Constitution of Ireland and perhaps in several other . . . states with constitutions containing such references will be under threat.”