For the past weeks and more we have been treated to the spectacle of one government minister after another checking which way the wind is blowing before announcing to the public his profoundly held convictions regarding the Eighth Amendment.
Yesterday’s Irish Daily Mail front page was headlined “LEO: HORROR CASES LED ME TO CHANGE MIND ON ABORTION.” We wonder if the Taoiseach is aware of the horror that every abortion is for the unborn child, whose life is brutally snatched away.
The charade continued with a display of profound and probably wilful ignorance about the provisions in the Irish Constitution for calling a referendum.
It was widely reported in Ireland and internationally that the Government has decided to hold a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Here are some sample headlines:
“Cabinet agrees to summer vote on replacing Eighth” (Irish Times)
“How Ireland’s decision to hold an abortion referendum is being reported around the world” (Irish Independent)
“The government has agreed to hold a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment” (http://www.thejournal.ie/poll-repeal-eighth-amendment-3823539-Jan2018/)
But is this so?
Article 15.2.1 of the Constitution reads:
“The sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State is hereby vested in the Oireachtas: no other legislative authority has power to make laws for the State.”
The Government, by contrast, “shall be responsible to Dáil Éireann,” according to Article 28.4.1 of the Constitution.
Article 28.2 states that:
“The executive power of the State shall, subject to the provisions of this Constitution, be exercised by or on the authority of the Government.”
“The Government… shall be collectively responsible for the Departments of State administered by the members of the Government.” (Article 28.4.2) This, along with the preparation of Estimates of Receipt and Expenditure of the State (Article 28.4.3) and a limited role in defensive wars (Article 28.3.2) are the main functions of the Government as set out in the Constitution.
Nothing about calling referenda is to be found in the section of the Constitution on Government.
Article 46.2 of the Constitution reads:
“Every proposal for an amendment of this Constitution shall be initiated in Dáil Éireann as a Bill, and shall upon having been passed or deemed to have been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, be submitted by Referendum to the decision of the people in accordance with the law for the time being in force relating to the Referendum.”
In other words, the Government doesn’t get to decide on a referendum. The Oireachtas does.
In fact, the Government has not decided to hold a referendum. It has decided to push for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. And it has decided to play along with the impression that it has the power to call a referendum.
As one would expect, the media reports were not contested by the Government. Why would they be? The executive branch relishes the idea of being able to usurp the powers of the legislative branch.
And the mainstream media is so excited at the prospect of abolishing the last protection of unborn life in the Constitution that it seems to be forgetting its own role. The media enjoys special privileges because it provides oversight on, among other things, government and legislation. Or, at least it is supposed to.
In this case, the false reporting of the scope of Monday’s cabinet meeting indicates a high degree of complicity in – to put it mildly – Government overreach.
For several years the Government has been encroaching on the powers of the Oireachtas. Rather than being answerable to the Oireachtas, as required by the Constitution, the executive branch is completely out of control.
Instead of providing oversight, the media is facilitating this dangerous departure from the separation of the powers of the State. Maybe someday it will look back to occasions such as this and realise that it was instrumental in its own loss of freedom and privileges.
Meanwhile we can only hope that the Oireachtas will find the courage to defend its role and its powers against the encroachments of the executive branch.
It is the Oireachtas, not the Government, that will decide whether or not to hold a referendum. Let us hope that the majority of its members will not be prepared to subject the right to life of the unborn to a vote.