President calls Council meeting


President Mary McAleese is to convene a meeting of the Council of State next Wednesday at which the constitutionality of both the Defamation Bill 2006 and the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009 will be discussed.

The meeting will be held at Áras an Uachtaráin next Wednesday at 6.30pm.

Both the Defamation Bill and the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill were passed by the Dáil last week and sent to the President for her signature.

She has the authority, after consultation with the Council of State, to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. The court is allowed up to 60 days to consider the matter.

In the event that the court deems the Bill to be in accordance with the Constitution, the legislation cannot be challenged further on constitutional grounds.

Although the President is required to consult the Council of State before referring a Bill to the court, the decision on referral is a matter for her sole discretion.

The 22 members of the Council of State include Taoiseach Brian Cowen; Tánaiste Mary Coughlan; the Chief Justice, Mr Justice Murray; former president Mary Robinson and former taoisigh Garret FitzGerald, Liam Cosgrave, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern; and seven presidential appointees.

There have been 26 meetings of the Council, the first one taking place in January 1940, on the Offences against the State (Amendment) Bill, and the most recent in May 2007, on the Criminal Justice Bill 2007.

The controversial Criminal Justice (Ammendment) Bill expands the role of the Special Criminal Court to deal with gangland crime and was passed by a large majority in the Dáil last Friday.

Controversy too surrounded a clause in the Defamation Bill dealing with the crime of blasphemy which Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern insisted had to be included for constitutional reasons, although this was disputed by Opposition parties and Independents.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) said it "deeply regreted that the Minister for Justice has rendered it necessary for the President to convene a Council of State meeting to discuss the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009".

ICCL director Mark Kelly said: “This is a legislative mess of the Minister’s own making, which could have been avoided if he had permitted the Oireachtas to rid his “gangland” bill of measures such as secret detention hearings, which have no place in our law”.

Fine Gael justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan said there was "a real danger that Dermot Ahern’s decision to rush the laws through the Dáiil may deprive citizens of tough gangland legislation".

“I fully understand President McAleese’s decision to convene the Council of State to discuss these two important pieces of legislation. Fine Gael fully supported both pieces of legislation but warned repeatedly that rushing them through the Dáil was a mistake. The President’s decision was probably inevitable."