Government may attempt to guillotine judicial reform bill again

Bid to curtail debate on Bill defeated by 26 votes to 24 in the Seanad

Independent Senator Michael McDowell, leading opponent of the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Independent Senator Michael McDowell, leading opponent of the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The Government might make another effort to guillotine one of the longest running legislation debates in Irish parliamentary history after narrowly failing to do so in the Seanad on Wednesday.

An attempt by the Government to curtail debate on the controversial Judicial Appointments Commission Bill was defeated after the first electronic vote was tied 25-25. The second vote, a manual “walk-through” vote saw the Government defeated be 26-24.

The Bill which proposes to reform how judges are appointed has been championed by Shane Ross who says it will end what he calls “cronyism” in Irish judicial appointments. The Bill has been backed by Fine Gael and by Sinn Féin.

However, a small group of senators led by Michael McDowell and David Norris has strongly opposed the Bill at committee stage and have been supported by Fianna Fáil and Labour. Up until last night the Bill had been debated for almost 90 hours in the Seanad alone, and over 100 hours when the earlier debate in the Dáil is taken into account.

Yesterday saw the first effort by Government to impose a guillotine on a legislative debate since the general election over three years ago. Fine Gael leader in the Seanad Jerry Buttimer tabled a motion to bring the debate to an end at 5pm.

A guillotine is a restriction imposed on the time allocated to debate a Bill in one of the Houses. Opponents of the Bill have been accused of filibustering on the legislation to delay its passage.

But Senators tied 25-25 in an electronic vote on an amendment over the guillotining of the Bill.

Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Denis O’Donovan gave his casting vote to the Government side.

A walk-through vote was then called where Senators walk through the “Tá” and “Níl” lobbies and the Government was defeated by 26 to 24 votes.

The Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan later said she had inadvertently voted the wrong way in the first vote but had mended her hand in the second vote.

The defeat was greeted jublilantly by opponents of the Bill. Some independent senators disclosed they had been contacted by Mr Ross and his office in advance of the vote and asked to vote in favour of the guillotine.

One Government source said it will keep trying to guillotine the Bill until it gets through. However, other Fine Gael sources said they did not believe they had the numbers in the Seanad to force it through and, besides, there had been a consensus that guillotines should not be a feature of the Dáil or Seanad during this term.

In all, Mr McDowell has tabled over 90 amendments to the legislation so far. He said after the debate that the Government and Mr Ross should take note that the legislation would not be guillotined.

During a lengthy and heated debate on the proposal, a number of Senators highlighted Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s comments to the Seanad in his annual address in February last year, in which he spoke of a new approach to politics.

Mr McDowell, who has described the Bill as “a solution in search of a problem”, accused the Government of using the visit of US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi to “pull a stunt” and guillotine the Bill.

Mr Norris hit out at “Sinn Féin’s tawdry little deal with Government”.

Fianna Fáil Seanad leader Catherine Ardagh said the rationale for using the guillotine was “sinister”.