Is there a Right to Freedom of Thought in Irish law?

Freedom of thought does not enjoy specific recognition in the text of the Irish Constitution. And although there have, to date, been several dozen proposals to amend the Constitution, none of them has suggested adding freedom of thought. If this is evidence that lawyers, or politicians, or the general public have generally been indifferent to freedom of thought, recent technological advances have made clear that such indifference is no longer a reasonable option.

Techniques such as neuroimaging, neuromarketing and neuroenhancement, deep brain stimulation and transcranial magnet stimulation as well as non-voluntary psychiatric intervention have the potential to endanger freedom of thought in ways that were perhaps inconceivable only a short time ago. In doing so, they create an urgent opportunity for us to remind ourselves of and to re-articulate for our contemporary world the reasons why freedom of thought is important.

Freedom_of_Thought_Ben_Franklin

While freedom of thought does not enjoy specific recognition in the text of the Constitution, that is not to say that it enjoys no recognition at all. There are three ways in which freedom of thought is at least tentatively recognised in Irish constitutional law.

 

First, some of the rights that are expressly protected by the Constitution, such as the freedoms of expression, conscience and religion, are corollaries of freedom of thought and necessarily imply its existence. Freedom of expression protects the expression that follows from free thought which tries to shape public opinion, freedom of conscience protects the actions or refusals to act that follow from free thought in relation to moral questions, and freedom of religion protects the beliefs and practices that flow from the freedom of thought in relation to religious belief. These intrinsic connections were recognised in a 2011 High Court decision on the question of whether the parents of a baby who would likely die without a blood transfusion were entitled to refuse such a procedure. Mr Justice Hogan held that:

“Along with the guarantee of free speech in Article 40.6.i, Article 44.2.1 guarantees freedom of conscience and the free practice of religion. Taken together, these constitutional provisions ensure that, subject to limited exceptions, all citizens have complete freedom of philosophical and religious thought, along with the freedom to speak their mind and to say what they please in all such matters.”

Freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are to be understood, therefore, as rights that include a prior commitment to freedom of thought.

Second, freedom of thought is protected in several international treaties to which Ireland is a party. Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights all protect the freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the same provision. There are six recent High Court decisions (handed down between 2009 and 2018) and one 2015 Supreme Court decision in which these international protections for the freedoms of thought, conscience and religion are mentioned as if they all enjoy equal protection in Irish law. Not one of the judges pointed out that while the Constitution expressly protects freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, it does not expressly protect freedom of thought. If the example were altered – if those same international law treaties protected conscience, religion and a right to food in the same provision – it seems likely that the Irish courts would have found cause to mention that a right to food is not one of the rights protected by the Constitution. Failure to do so may signal that international protection for the right of freedom of thought confirms an unspecified sense among the Irish judiciary that freedom of thought is already within the ambit of the rights protected by constitutional law.

Third, freedom of thought has been recognised as an unenumerated right in the 2017 decision of NVH v. Minister for Justice, a decision which is noteworthy for many reasons: its discussion of dignity and human personality, its recognition of the necessary sociality of the human condition, its treatment of the right to work as an unenumerated right and a negative freedom, its approach to the question of remedies, as well as its  cautious and conscientious reacknowledgement of the doctrine of unenumerated rights. It is also important for the fact that it recognises freedom of thought as a constitutionally-protected, if unwritten, right, for the first time. This recognition is achieved in a short passage in the judgment of Mr Justice O’Donnell, which reads:

“Set on a foundation of the essential equality of the human person, the Constitution guarantees first life and then personal liberty, and freedoms radiating outwards from that: freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of expression, freedom to associate with others, family rights and the right to acquire, hold and transfer property among others.”

Listed as first among the rights that flow from human freedom, freedom of thought is presented as though it is entirely uncontroversial that the Constitution protects such a right. Indeed, this short passage seems to convey that it is unthinkable to the Supreme Court that freedom of thought is not one of those rights that is protected under the terms of the Constitution.

Although the technological challenges to freedom of thought may be new, the indispensability of freedom of thought within the human experience is timeless. The conclusion that freedom of thought is the central to the human experience finds support, for example, in the many testimonies of persons who were so physically confined or debilitated that they were deprived of physical, social and vocational freedom. Viktor Frankl, a philosopher, psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, wrote of how thoughts of his wife and imagining mental conversations with her allowed him to find meaning even in the horror and misery of a Nazi concentration camp, and subsequently led him to found the school of logotherapy. Similar experiences of the centrality of freedom of thought to human freedom and the quest for meaning in human life, even in the direst circumstances when all other freedoms are denied, are told in the testimonies of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Immaculée Ilibagiza, Aung San Suu Kyi and Jean-Dominique Bauby, among others.

For now, although freedom of thought is not explicitly recognised by the text of the Irish Constitution, it seems that there are good legal reasons to suppose that it would be taken seriously by the Irish courts, and we can only wait in hope for the case that will give the superior courts in Ireland a chance to further explore and defend this most fundamental human right.

Maria Cahill is Professor of Law at University College Cork. 

Blogpost based on a forthcoming article entitled “Recognising Freedom of Thought in Irish Constitutional Law” which is one of a series of articles in a ground-breaking collection examining freedom of thought in comparative perspective, and which will be published in early 2021 in a special issue of an international journal.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

You Can’t Sit With Us – Some European Responses on the Remote Sitting of Parliaments

Jack Larkin

The pandemic has created the tragic conditions for several experiments on the question of how societies organise.

The obvious example is the domain of public health; comparing how different states tailor their lockdown regimes. Yet comparisons can also be run in the differing responses we see from other institutions.

A curious instance is the question of whether parliaments may sit remotely, recently discussed on this blog. This curiosity arises not because of the outcome (‘this country allows remote sittings, that country doesn’t), but because of what these responses tell us about those institutions and their constitutional frameworks. Moreover, these legal experiments better inform our view of the Irish system.

Two contrasting approaches, Estonia and Latvia, may therefore be of some interest in this regard. Both have allowed for remote sittings, but in ways that present some awkward conclusions, perhaps, for the Irish observer.

Estonia

It is unsurprising that Estonia, the land of Skype, has allowed for remote sittings: What is surprising is the way in which this was done.

Estonia’s Constitution is silent as to where parliament sits. Instead, sittings are regulated by The Riigikogu [Parliament] Rules of Procedure and Internal Rules Act, § 57 of which provides:

‘Sittings of the Riigikogu are held in Tallinn in the session hall of the Toompea Castle unless the President of the Riigikogu, for weighty reasons, designates another place for the holding of the sitting.’

The Act is less specific on committees, mandating that their minutes indicate a location.

Within this statutory context, the following occurred:

The first surprise is that the Committee was not convinced that the reference to ‘another place’ in the Act could involve the digital realm. More surprising however, is the Committee’s independence; forming an initial view based on its own statutory interpretation, it then consulted the factions in order to affirm/contest this view. 3 of the 9 Committee members are lawyers, with a fourth holding a law degree.

Latvia

Latvia’s Constitution, like Ireland’s, does mention parliamentary sittings:

’15. The Saeima [Parliament] shall hold its sittings in Rīga, and only in extraordinary circumstances may it convene elsewhere.’

The Constitution cannot be amended easily, requiring a two third parliamentary majority. Strikingly however, another, innovative approach was adopted:

  • On March 23, The Latvian President declared that legal formalism must not impede state functioning during this emergency. He convened, in an historical first, a meeting of the heads of all constitutional bodies: the President, legislature, executive, and judiciary;

The context in which this interpretation occurred is most interesting: to the Irish observer, it is as if the Council of State had suddenly transformed itself into a constitutional shock-brigade. There is no provision in Latvian law which allows for such meetings between the constitutional bodies but, undeniably, it allowed for quick agreement. I have since asked a Latvian lawyer, Aleksejs Dimitrovs, on the reaction: he indicated that nobody has really questioned the President’s authority to organise this meeting, perhaps because the President, Egils Levitis, is a respected lawyer (the former Latvian judge in the ECtHR and CJEU) and that therefore even the judiciary wasn’t hesitant to engage with his plan.

Final Thoughts

In Estonia, we see a parliamentary committee that is quite capable of legal interpretation; one can point to the fact that the Constitutional Committee was interpreting a statute only, but this Committee has engaged in constitutional interpretation: in 2017 the Committee disagreed with the Chancellor of Justice (an office overseeing compliance with the Estonian Constitution) over whether certain tax measures were unconstitutional: this dispute was a rather nuanced, involving the relevance of Supreme Court precedents in the area.

This is a sign of institutional health: those who make law ought to be able to form their own conclusions on what that law is and not endlessly and externally defer.

The Irish approach stands in sharp relief: first legal advice was sought by the Business Committee; on foot of this advice (which remains the contested view of one lawyer), the Ceann Comhairle wrote to TDs flatly stating that remote sittings were not possible. Alternative legal advice obtained by a Deputy was disregarded. Whatever about the result, this ‘process’ is hardly preferable to Estonia’s, where a parliamentary committee met, engaged itself on the issue of interpretation and then consulted with, rather than dictated to, the rest of parliament.

Looking to the Latvian approach, this was enviable in how state bodies were able to collaborate. It went beyond a simplistic view of constitutional actors acting solely as ‘checks and balances’, and instead, looked to such bodies functioning as cooperative agents. Some Irish lawyers I’ve spoken with raised the issue of whether such meetings strain the separation of powers, and risk the judiciary deciding questions of interpretation before a case is properly before the courts. This concern may apply to the normal situation. But the Latvian approach can’t be compared to times of normalcy, only those of emergency: in the latter, it is typically the executive branch making decisions to the general exclusion of the other powers. Whereas in this instance, we actually have all branches capable of participating in such decisions i.e. there was more collaboration than typically seen in an emergency.

Moreover, the improvised procedure was more dynamic than a court awaiting a challenge by an individual, risk-taking, litigant who, importantly, may never appear. This last point is worth considering in the Irish context as it is not likely that there would ever have been any involvement by the Irish courts on the issue of remote sittings. This is so for two reasons:

Suppose the Dáil had decided that it could sit remotely, a simple amendment to the standing orders would have been required. This would rule out an Article 26 reference. Someone would then have had to issue proceedings in order to involve the judiciary. While not completely clear how likely a challenge would have been, I think unless there are unknown bands of would-be litigants carrying deeply held sentiments toward physical sittings of the Dáil, it’s safe to assume that such a challenge would have been unlikely. If we accept this, then we have to accept that the Latvian approach, which included the judicial arm from the outset, arguably serves the Separation of Powers better by giving a voice for the judiciary concretely and immediately, since this is a voice which would never have been heard in the absence of a Court decision on such a dry, procedural point.

Any comparative analysis must always be conscious of stretching its recommendations too far: the concrete situations of Estonia and Latvia come with bespoke baggage, and this piece is not a call for the adoption of identical procedures. Instead, this piece has sought to advance the case that other states often ‘do constitutionalism’ in more interesting, more dynamic, and more democratic ways, casting, in this instance, the Irish approach in a harsh light.

Jack Larkin is postgraduate student studying history at the University of Oxford and is a law graduate of Trinity College Dublin and the LSE.

Posted in Oireachtas | Leave a comment

Lockdown v. Liberty: do we still believe in freedom?

Maria Cahill

All around the world, countries have been imposing lockdowns to try to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus, COVID-19. These lockdowns have severely restricted people’s movement and interaction with family members; they have had a drastic effect on social lives and religious worship; they have directly caused the loss of many jobs and they have plunged the world into a severe economic depression that will take a long time to recover from.

And yet, with some notable exceptions, these measures have been overwhelmingly accepted.

Do we accept these restrictions because we do not believe in freedom anymore? Or do we believe that these restrictions do not really disrespect the essence of our freedom?

While there are men and women dying without the consolation of a familiar voice and others struggling to summon the energy to take the next painful breath, these might seem like trivial questions. While there are people waiting for news not knowing if their loved one is alive or dead and others going to funerals on live stream and grieving over Zoom, it can seem heartless to turn attention away from the rawness of all that agony for a moment to engage in a philosophical discussion on the nature of freedom.

But C.S. Lewis said in Oxford in 1939 that the work of learning and thinking must continue even during war-time because if we don’t have good philosophy then we will have bad philosophy. Even during a pandemic – perhaps even especially during a pandemic that is accompanied by widespread lockdowns – it is vital that we keep thinking carefully about freedom and the restrictions that we are living with.

What is Freedom?

Popular understandings of freedom tend to fall into three categories: (1) freedom as absence of external restrictions controlling our behaviour, (2) freedom as the practical capacity to do something that we want to do, and (3) freedom as the psychological capacity to overcome internal barriers to success.

If my goal is to win a tennis grand slam, for example: (1) I would need the freedom to take a leave of absence from my job (freedom as lack of restrictions); (2) I would need to have developed all the practical skills to become the best tennis player in that tournament (freedom as capacity to act); and, (3) I would need to be resilient enough to overcome inevitable setbacks along the way and to bear the burden of success (freedom as psychological accomplishment).

Let’s leave aside for now the third category of freedom as psychological accomplishment, which is a newer preoccupation within theories of freedom, although it may overlap with theological understandings of freedom that have longer histories.

The distinction between freedom as absence of external limitations and freedom as capacity to act has been around for at least 200 years, and it has been made using different terms: Benjamin Constant called it the distinction between the liberty of the moderns and the liberty of the ancients, Isaiah Berlin spoke of a distinction between negative liberty and positive liberty, Charles Taylor framed it as a distinction between freedom-as-opportunity and freedom-as-exercise (before critiquing the caricatural extremism that the distinction encourages), while others have tried to transcend the distinction.

More colloquially, it is known as the distinction between freedom from and freedom to. Negative freedom is freedom from external obstacles that limit or interfere with my choices while positive freedom is freedom to achieve goals that are rationally worthy of my efforts, seeing a connection between freedom and responsibility in relation to my own life and also the lives of others in the same community. Berlin, among others, argued that positive liberty carried with it a danger of authoritarianism, assuming that the state were to choose the goals to be achieved.

Freedom and Law

As a result, law’s role in protecting freedom usually boils down to protecting negative freedom. We write our constitutions so that they protect citizens from external obstacles that interfere with individual choices. We use fundamental rights provisions to articulate that the state is not permitted to interfere with our family life, our privacy, our property, and our freedoms of thought, expression, conscience, religion and association.

Negative freedom and the priority of choice thus became the prevailing hallmarks of liberalism and the foundation of liberal democracies.

But if we are defining freedom as freedom from external obstacles that interfere with my choices, then the lockdown restrictions are a strange case. If all we want is to have freedom of choice, without any responsibility for the lives and welfare of others, then we should all be out on the streets engaging in antilockdown protests, instead of thinking that it is the protestors whose concept of freedom is twisted.

The fact that we are prepared to live with these restrictions calls for an explanation, and there are at least three possibilities:

The first possibility is that we accept the restrictions because in fact they line up with our choices. In normal circumstances, we would want to work and to be free to see family and friends, but fear of contracting the virus has overwhelmed those choices and so they are not choices that we want to make at the moment. The restrictions are not problematic, on this view, because they are not asking us to do things that we do not already want to do. This explanation is inadequate, however, given the imbalance between mortality rates in populations under 65 (evidenced in Britain, Italy, Ireland, Spain) and the severity of the economic and social cost of restrictions on those same populations.

A second possibility is that we have become de-sensitised to value of freedom and that we do not object with sufficient determination to restrictions even though we should do. To put it more bluntly, the second possibility is that lacking a strong sense of solidarity and the psychological maturity to bear the responsibility of freedom, we walk ourselves sleepily into tyranny. The explanatory power of this possibility turns, in each jurisdiction, on the kinds of measures that were put in place, their legitimacy and longevity, but also on the strength of democratic opposition and responsible journalism. Avoiding this depressing scenario requires ongoing vigilance and critical analysis.

In the case of the first possibility or the second possibility, there is no real conflict between the restrictions and individual freedom because they have collapsed into each other.

Socially Responsible Freedom

The third possibility maintains that the lockdown restrictions are in direct conflict with individual freedom, but it says that, we are willing to endure even severe limitations on our individual freedom out of a sense of responsibility for the lives of others. We know that, because of the highly contagious nature of this virus, we hold the lives of friends and strangers in our hands and that their lives reasonably take priority over our choices.

Negative freedom always allowed that the state would sometimes deny our constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms when there are pressing public interest concerns, but only around the edges. The restrictions infringe on our freedom in a much more comprehensive and wide-ranging way and with lasting effects on economic wellbeing. They do not square easily with negative liberty within the liberal paradigm.

Could it be, then, that one of the realisations that we are having during this extraordinary time, is that our conception of freedom is not as self-centred as we might have thought it was? That the vision of freedom as the prioritisation of the choices of individuals by means of rights that cannot be interfered with is too narrow. That, as feminist theorists have reminded us time after time, we are also members of communities with a sense of solidarity with the vulnerable. That we recognise the value of self-transcendence and our vision of freedom is ambitious enough that it is not threated by care and responsibility for the lives of others.

These restrictions should not stay in place a minute longer than they need to – and all of us bear responsibility for ensuring that that does not happen – but at the same time it is worth pondering whether our understanding of freedom is more socially responsible than our theories of freedom have given us credit for.

Maria Cahill is Professor of Law at University College Cork. 

This blog was originally published on Verfassungsblog and is republished with permission. 

Posted in Constitutional Theory, Human Rights | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Remote Dáil Sitting – A Textual Analysis

Dr Seán Ó Conaill

Reports emerged today that advice has been issued to TDs and Senators which suggests that the Houses of the Oireachtas cannot sit remotely because the text of the Constitution requires the Dáil to sit in a physical place.

Conor Casey, Hilary Hogan and Ciarán Toland have already put forward an excellent summary of the legal position and a convincing argument on this blog as to how remote sittings could be accommodated and highlight that even if this were later discovered to be problematic by a Court it is unlikely that there would be profound consequences.

In this blog post I want to focus instead on the idea that the use of the word place in the Constitution means that a physical sitting of the Dáil must take place and how the modern Constitution can be interpreted in a modern manner, with a particular reference to the Irish language text, rather than interpreting it in the originalist way in which the drafters may have intended.

Our constitution is of course a bilingual legal document with each provision having and English and Irish language version. The Irish language text of the Constitution is t3672625058_4952490634he authoritative text in the event that there is a conflict found between the English and Irish versions. Although the claim that the Irish text of the Constitution is a mere translation of English text is often made (including in some judgments of the Supreme Court) this claim is without foundation in the face of the evidence. Extensive works of scholarship such as Prof Mícheál Ó Cearúil’s study highlight how the Irish and English texts are not translations of each other and on many occasions the Irish text differs significantly from the English text.

The key provision is Article 15.1.3 which in English reads:

“The Houses of the Oireachtas shall sit in or near the City of Dublin or in such other place as they may from time to time determine.”

The Irish text of the same provision reads

“Is i gcathair Bhaile Átha cliath nó ar a cóngar, nó cibé áit eile ar a gcinnfid ó am go ham, a shuífid Tithe an Oireachtais.”

Prof Micheal Ó Cearúil offers the literal translation of this as being

“It is in the city of Dublin or in its vicinity, or wherever else they decide from time to time, that the Houses of the Oireachtas will sit.”

Neither text expressly mentions a physical place although it could be reasonable to assume that is what the drafters of the 1937 Constitution had in mind when they referred to place in this context.

The word ‘place’ (or places) appears nine times in the English language text although only two of these references refer to a space or area. Six of the references refer to the use of the word in the context of acting ‘in place’ of a person or office (in these examples the Irish text represents this as ‘in ionad’) and one use of the word refers to war taking ‘place’.

In the Irish text the word ‘áit’ is used twice and on both occasions refers to a space or area however ‘áit’ does not stand alone and instead forms part of a more complex phrase ‘cibé áit’.

In Article 15.1.3 the Irish word ‘áit’ is prefaced by the word ‘cibé’  which is generally understood to give a wide ambit to the word which follows eg ‘cibé áit’ would become ‘wherever’ and accordingly the focus on the word ‘place’ in the English text is shifted somewhat in the Irish text so as to focus more on the flexibility of wherever the Dáil wishes to sit in the phrase ‘cibé áit’.

In Article 31.8 which concerns meetings of the Council of State in English tells us that meetings can take place at such “times and places” as the President decides. arasThe plural form here again hints at more flexibility as times and places could involve multiple venues and even times compared to Article 15.1.3 and thus could be used grounds for believing that 15.1.3 sets a stricter standard and accordingly should be interpreted narrowly. The Irish text however diverges and uses the same singular form of ‘cibé áit’ seen in Article 15.1.3 suggesting that there is no difference between the standard set in Article 15.1.3 and Article 31.8 and that the President.

The Constitution as drafted in 1937 has done a good job at standing the test of time but this has been achieved by virtue of Judges being willing to interpret the document as living and evolving document which in certain respects moves with the times.

The Courts have recognised that technology for example can change the way in which constitutional provisions are to be interpreted. Riordan v An Tánaiste [1998 ILRM 494], a case from November 1997 the Supreme Court acknowledged that modern technology could change how we understand constitutional provisions drafted in the 1930s. In this case it concerned the role of the Tánaiste standing in for FC-colourthe Taoiseach while the Taoiseach was overseas. The Court noted that “it is manifestly absurd to suggest that with modern communications and the speed of travel by aircraft, it is necessary for the Taoiseach to hand over his duties as head of government whenever he leaves these shores.”. In the context of Article 15.1.3 a valid question could be raised as to whether ‘place’ or ‘cibé áit’ could be understood to mean a virtual online environment particularly in light of the advances in technology unforeseen even in 1997.

Such discussions are not unique to Ireland. In the United States for example the use of a technology called the autopen by Presidents to sign bills remotely has raised questions as to its constitutionality . During the current Coronavirus crisis many other jurisdictions have grappled with the issue of having legislatures sit and many have successfully used technology to facilitate the democratic process.

In the context of Dáil Éireann when we look at both the willingness of the Courts to interpret the Constitution as a living document which evolves over time and the flexibility offered by the Irish language text there are strong arguments to be made to facilitate remote sittings of Dáil Éireann at the time of a national crisis. Even if this was subsequently held to be constitutionally pragmatic the consequences most likely would not be dire.

 

Dr Seán Ó Conaill teaches Dlí Bunreachtúil (Constitutional Law through the medium of Irish) at the School of Law at University College Cork

Twitter @soconaill

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Remote Sittings of the Houses of the Oireachtas: A constitutional solution to a potential democratic deficit

Conor Casey, Hilary Hogan and Ciarán Toland SC

With the rapid spread of the coronavirus, the Irish State has been confronted with its worst public health crisis in a century.

In an odd twist of fate, it happens to have no elected government. Leo Varadkar resigned as Taoiseach over a month ago. Regina Doherty, Katherine Zappone and Shane Ross, currently Ministers of Government, are not even members of the Oireachtas. The need to form a new government has been heightened by advice from the Attorney General that the Oireachtas cannot continue to pass laws, although Professors Oran Doyle, Tom Hickey, and Seth Barret Tillman have argued to the contrary.

There is widespread agreement that a government needs to be formed sooner rather than later. A programme for government could be agreed and a new Taoiseach and Government elected by the Dáil as a matter of urgency.

But gathering 160 TDs into the confines of Leinster House would be grossly irresponsible in the present climate. Plans are afoot to use a large space such as Dublin’s Convention Centre for the votes on the Taoiseach and Government, where deputies can place themselves at a safe distance. However, this is not planned for regular sittings.

Currently, the Dáil is sitting in reduced numbers, with proportionate representation from each political party. Last week, Labour TDs opted not to attend Dáil statements on health, and instead provided prepared written statements to be read into the Dáil record. This model might be adopted to allow TDs who cannot attend to contribute to Dáil debates in person. Only a small portion of our elected representatives will participate fully in Oireachtas sittings.

But there is another alternative, which does not involve granting blank cheque to the executive, nor compromising parliamentary representation. This alternative would better protect the health of members and public servants, and – in the interests of democracy – would enable more regular and fuller sittings than is currently planned.

It involves facilitating both Houses and their Committees either: (1) to sit wholly electronically; or (2) to sit physically with electronic participation of absent members.

Other  institutions have taken steps to facilitate electronic sittings, including the European Parliament, Spain, Poland, and Romania. The House of Commons has authorised its Committees to work remotely, and its Speaker has proposed virtual sittings.

The Constitution

Are there any constitutional barriers to allowing the Dáil and Seanad to convene remotely?

 Place of sittings

Art 15.1.3 of the Constitution envisages that the Houses of the Oireachtas will sit in or near Dublin, but that the Oireachtas can sit in “such other place” as they “may…determine”.

The fact that Dublin is identified means the natural interpretation is that such other place” refers to another physical location, such as Cork or Galway. The drafters could not have imagined that members of the Oireachtas would be able to gather and deliberate in anything but a single, identifiable location.

However, neither language version rules out the possibility of electronic sittings, expressly or on a purposive interpretation.

Sittings in public

Article 15.8.1 provides that “sittings of each house of the Oireachtas shall be public.”

Here, there is likely no conflict on the face of the Constitution.

Any virtual sittings of the Oireachtas would simply have to comply with the requirements of Article 15.8.1 for a sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas to be public. Ideally, it could be streamed online, made available on the Oireachtas television channel or played on the airwaves.

Sittings in private

Article 15.8.2 envisages that a “private sitting” can be held in “cases of special emergency” with the assent of two thirds of the “members present”. Whilst Article 15.8.2 could potentially be invoked to permit electronic sittings should doubt exist about their being in “public”, this is neither necessary nor desirable.

Presence and Votes

Article 15.11.1 provides that “all questions in each House” shall be determined by “a majority of the votes of the members present and voting” other than the Chairman.

Whilst “present” again would have been understood as a physical presence, nothing now prevents members could register a virtual presence by participating in a specially convened sitting of the Oireachtas via technological means. Voting could also be facilitated either by roll call votes, or by software. Provided members can hear and speak to one another, they should be able to perform most of the same functions that they can by being there in person.

Physical sittings supplemented by electronic participation of members

Alternatively, it could be possible for a limited amount of deputies to continue to convene in the Dáil chamber, while the other TDs can be virtually present.

This would undoubtedly satisfy the text of Article 15.1.3 for meetings at a specific “place”.

It would also ensure that the session could be broadcast to the public, and satisfy Article 15.8.1 that the sittings be held publicly.

Purposive Constitutional Interpretation

The purpose of the provisions of the Constitution governing Parliamentary sittings inform their interpretation. An overly formalistic reading of Articles 15.1.2, 15.8.1 and 15.11.1 of the Constitution would undermine that very purpose.

The purpose of Article 15.1.3 is to empower the Houses to determine their place of sitting when not in Dublin: there is no constraint. The purpose of Article 15.8.1 is to provide that sittings are in public. The purpose of Article 15.11.1 is to provide for plurality voting.

Why does the Constitution stipulate that the Houses of the Oireachtas should have sittings, as a collective, in public, save in emergency situations?

The need for the Oireachtas to perform its constitutional functions (in particular, the exclusive power to legislate under Article 15.2.1 and to facilitate Government responsibility to the Dáil under Article 28.4.1), with its entire composition of elected members, would inform its interpretation in these extraordinary circumstances.

Public sittings support the constitutional functions of the Oireachtas of legislating and holding the Government publicly accountable by scrutinising its actions. Much like Article 34.1 for the administration of justice, public sittings of the Houses of the Oireachtas facilitate the legislature carrying out those roles effectively and in a way that protects public trust in the systems of government.

Which format best allows Dáil Éireann to carry out its constitutionally-mandated functions of legislation and of holding the Government to account?

Written questions have none of the spontaneity that rigorous questioning, in real time, can provide.

A remotely-convened sitting of the Oireachtas would arguably amount to a far more effective legislature than the present one where only a handful of TDs and senators are present, selected by the parties, and where the vast majority of debate is conducted by pre-written questions and answers.

The format to be chosen for virtual sittings should enable (subject to amended rules on standing and procedure) the Members of the Oireachtas to securely communicate clearly and spontaneously in order to ask questions, engage in debate, and vote (by software or roll-call).

In short, it is unlikely that the Courts would place undue emphasis on the literal meaning of “sit”, “place” or “present”, or a historic meaning of “public”, where same would have the effect that the Houses do not sit, sit with reduced members, place members at risk, or work ineffectively.

Accordingly, electronic sittings could suffice to satisfy the constitutional purpose of sittings of the houses in public, with members present and voting.

Standing Orders of Dáil and Seanad Éireann

There are no Standing Orders of either House concerning the permissibility of meeting remotely via technological means, nor are there Standing Orders requiring the Dáil or Seanad to meet in Leinster House. However, the Standing Orders would require amendment to enable electronic presence of members.

Risk of legal challenge to amendments to Standing Orders

It could be argued that any question over the validity of the Oireachtas sitting remotely could pave the way for a legal challenge, and cast doubts over any legislation passed. While there are legal risks to our proposal, it should be remembered that the courts have been slow to interfere in internal Oireachtas matters, citing the need to preserve the separation of powers articulated by the Constitution.

Deference to the Houses on amendment of Standing Orders

The Courts have made it clear in cases like O’Malley v An Ceann Comhairle [1997] 1 IR 427 and Haughey v Moriarty [1999] 3 IR 1 that, by and large, parliamentary standing orders and procedures are not justiciable.

The exception is, of course, when procedures of the Oireachtas have the potential to affect the personal rights of citizens (Maguire v Ardagh [2002] 1 IR 385, Re Haughey [1971] IR 217, Callely v Moylan [2014] 4 IR 112 and Kerins v McGuinness [2019] 2 ILRM 301). The proposed procedures for remote participation in Dáil and Seanad sittings would not directly implicate citizens’ personal rights.

Whilst legal risk cannot be discounted, there is a possibility that the Courts will find they do not have the power to review the substance of amendments to the Standing Orders to permit the Houses to sit electronically.

The Consequences of Constitutional Breach

The Courts are alert to extraordinary adverse circumstances and potentially grave consequences, not only when interpreting constitutional provisions, but also when deciding the consequences that should flow from their determinations.

This would become relevant if the decision for the Oireachtas to sit remotely were found not to be authorised by Article 15.

The question is what the effect of this would be on the business carried out: in particular, the passage of legislation through the Houses; and, any votes on the election of the Taoiseach and Government.

With respect to legislation, a finding of unconstitutionality in respect of mode of sitting could negate the presumption of constitutionality for Acts: however, this may be surmounted if the Oireachtas were acting on a bona fide understanding of their constitutional obligations.

Although now unlikely, if the Taoiseach and Government were to be elected by electronic means, it is possible that the validity of the elections and their actions in secondary legislation and the executive sphere may also be called into question.

However, case law shows that – in exceptional circumstances – the Courts do not dogmatically pursue the logical consequences of a breach of Constitutional norms (De Búrca v Attorney General [1976] IR 38; Murphy v Attorney General [1982] 2 IR 241; A v Governor of Arbour Hill Prison [2006] 4 IR 88).

Courts have in recent years begun to develop a flexibility in their remedies such that they can “suspend” declarations of unconstitutionality for periods of six or twelve months to allow the Oireachtas address the constitutional deficiency (PC v Minister for Social Protection [2018] IESC 57; AB v Clinical Director of St Loman’s Hospital [2018] IECA 123).

This is the very kind of scenario for which such remedies were designed.

Conclusion

In summary, we argue that the Houses can, and should, amend their Standing Orders to clarify that their meetings can be convened remotely, and for members to be deemed to be present when so connected.

At a time of national crisis, where far-reaching legislation has rapidly been enacted to protect public health and regulate the economy, the Oireachtas will need to review the public health and economic measures being taken by the Government, and may consider new legislation.

For now, restrictions in some form on public gatherings may last several months. It cannot be suggested that our elected representatives would not meet for that period. Nor should our Parliament be limited to reduced attendances, with members selected by party whips, if our law permits a better solution.

The ability for full participation by those we elect should be the least we expect, especially now.

Electronic sittings, or electronic participation of members in physical sittings, would square the circle of protecting the competing requirements of democratic governance and of public health.

Conor Casey is a PhD Candidate at Trinity College, Dublin.

Hilary Hogan is a PhD Candidate at the European University Institute, Florence.

Ciarán Toland is a Senior Counsel at the Bar of Ireland.

Posted in Oireachtas | Leave a comment