Should misuse of power debar EU hopeful?


There has been little debate on how EU commissioner candidate Maire Geoghegan-Quinn ran a private justice system while minister, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

MAIRE GEOGHEGAN- Quinn is in many respects a worthy candidate for the job of EU commissioner. She is capable, intelligent and articulate. She showed courage, compassion and leadership in decriminalising male homosexuality in 1993. She was a pioneer for women in Irish politics.

It says much, however, for the continuing lack of seriousness about standards in public life that, so far as I can see, no discussion of her candidacy has referred to her serious misuse of power in the last domestic political office she held. As minister for justice in 1993 and 1994, she operated what was in essence a private, parallel justice system in which TDs were able to get punishments imposed by the courts altered or set aside.

There is, in the Constitution, a provision giving the president the power to commute or remit court sentences. This power can also be delegated to “other authorities”, and in 1951 legislation was passed to allow the Minister for Justice to exercise the function. The authority was clearly, as Mr Justice Geoghegan would put it in the High Court, “intended to be used sparingly” and in special circumstances.

As minister, however, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn operated a very large-scale system in which she altered or overturned court decisions. In 1993 alone, she dealt with 4,050 petitions, mostly from TDs on behalf of constituents. In well over half of these cases (2,283 to be precise) she mitigated the punishments imposed by the courts.

In 1993, in one of the most extraordinary episodes in Irish judicial history, district justice Patrick Brennan, recently retired after long service on the bench in Mayo, felt impelled to take Maire Geoghegan-Quinn to court because she had set aside or changed so many of the sentences he had handed down. He cited, merely as samples, four cases – two of driving offences, two of fishing offences – in which she responded to representations from Fianna Fáil TDs Seamus Hughes and Tom Moffatt. In one, the civil servant who handled the TD’s representations noted: “Serious offences, moderate fines imposed . . . I consider intervention inappropriate.”

In another, there had been an assault on a fisheries officer and “no particular reasons were given as to why it might be proper for the minister to remit” the fines. While one convicted man was pleading inability to pay a fine, the local Garda superintendent noted that he had “plenty of money for drink”.

The whole operation was arbitrary, lacking in transparency and fundamentally at odds with the basic principle that the justice system should be open and independent of politics. It was clientelism at its very worst and a particularly outrageous example of the attitudes to the law and the State that have had such dire consequences for all of us.

Judge Brennan maintained that these examples (and they were merely samples of a much wider, nationwide system) showed that Maire Geoghegan- Quinn was “wrongfully interfering with his judicial decisions and has been herself purporting to administer justice by a kind of parallel system which for all practical purposes provides an alternative to an appeal to the Circuit Court . . . the Constitution never envisaged two systems of justice, one a system of private justice and the other a system of public justice”.

In the High Court, Mr Justice Geoghegan essentially upheld this contention and found that Maire Geoghegan-Quinn had indeed been misusing her powers and operating a “parallel system of justice”. He found that she was not using the presidential powers to deal with extraordinary cases, but with routine crimes.

“There is no evidence that the minister found exceptional or unusual circumstances to justify her modifying the judge’s order.”

He pointed out that, in all the cases, the accused had the right to appeal to the Circuit Court, which would have to take a completely independent view of whether justice had been done. Instead of doing this, people were using political back-channels to escape the consequences of their crimes.

Essentially, Maire Geoghegan- Quinn used a power that “must be exercised . . . sparingly and for special reasons with proper maintenance of records” as a private service for TDs wanting to do favours for their constituents.

In fairness to Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, it should be said that she was far from being the first minister for justice to operate this system – the figures I’ve cited for 1993 are not out of line with those for the previous three years. There was an explosion in the number of petitions in the late 1980s under Charles Haughey’s regime. She inherited an abusive system and continued it. After her departure and the High Court ruling, the abuse stopped. In the five years after the ruling, there were 7,109 petitions, of which just 86 were granted.

It is, or should be, a very serious thing for a minister to have been found by the High Court to have been misusing a constitutional power by operating a parallel system of justice. Whether it’s serious enough to rule Maire Geoghegan-Quinn out of the office of EU commissioner is a matter for debate. The problem is that, in a system held together by amnesia, we’re not having one.

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