Abuse of ‘money message’ device a political wheeze

Opposition TDs will get day in court to make case for vote aiming to stop blocking of Bills

TDs Paul Murphy and Bríd Smith at the Four Courts for their High Court action challenging the Ceann Comhairle’s decision not to allow a vote on changing Dáil standing orders. Photograph: Collins Courts

TDs Paul Murphy and Bríd Smith at the Four Courts for their High Court action challenging the Ceann Comhairle’s decision not to allow a vote on changing Dáil standing orders. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

The worlds of law and politics are inextricably linked, but they are sometimes uneasy bedfellows.

The law demands clarity and exactitude, clear lines, rules and judgments. Politics thrives on ambiguity, fudge, compromise and deal-making.

When they intersect, as they did in the High Court on Wednesday, there is often room for confusion. But there was no confusion in the ruling made by Mr Justice Garrett Simons at 4.15pm – just eight minutes after the case had adjourned.

Yes, he decided, the four Solidarity-People Before Profit TDs had established they had an arguable case that the Ceann Comhairle was wrong when he banished their motion, which sought a change in standing orders intended to stop the Government blocking Opposition Bills. The judge was at pains to emphasise, however, that he was ruling only that the TDs had established an arguable case which merited a full hearing.

He repeated several times in the short oral judgment that he was not ruling in their favour on the substantive issue. The TDs will get a day – or a few days, probably – in court soon. But they haven’t won anything yet.

“There is just enough at this stage to allow the application to go forward,” the judge said.

On the second request of the TDs, that the court should grant an injunction compelling the Ceann Comhairle to readmit their motion to the order paper, the judge was less accommodating. He said granting the injunction would be tantamount to rewriting the Dáil order paper that the House had already voted this week to accept – a trespass onto the Dáil’s turf that the judge was unwilling to make.

As the case taken by former Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins demonstrated – as did the recent case in the British supreme court which overturned the suspension of parliament, also cited by the judge – the courts will sometimes interfere in the workings of parliament. But they are very, very reluctant to do so.

Unprecedented

The Solidarity-People Before Profit case was taken against the Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl, but the much bigger issue is the abuse of the “money message” system by the Government. The Government has blocked more than 50 Opposition Bills by using this device – an unprecedented use of what was previously largely a formality.

Only the Government can introduce tax and spending measures. As a sort of double lock on this principle, where an Opposition Bill passes its first vote in the Dáil, the Government must supply a “money message”, before it proceeds.

Ordinarily, this doesn’t matter much because governments normally have a majority and can vote down Opposition Bills. But not this one. It has resorted to the money message to block Bills which have no real spending implications.

It is a political wheeze, and everybody knows it. Privately, senior Government figures say that many of the Bills are impractical, illegal, unwise, or just plain daft. They feel justified in blocking them. But they are on shaky ground when they contrive the money message device to do so.

The Dáil, after all, is the elected legislature of the Irish people. If the Government doesn’t like Opposition Bills, the place to beat them is on the floor of the Dáil. Blocking the Bills with the money message device might be good politics. It may not be good law.

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