Howlin is wrong on constitutional amendment

The 30th amendment to the Constitution, if approved, will give our politicians unprecedented power at a time when politics as a whole suffers from unprecedented cynicism. By Colin Murphy.

The amendment is designed, with good intent, to allow politicians hold inquiries into matters of public interest. But it effectively makes the politicians both inquisitor and jury, without giving the accused the right of appeal, and it appears to be designed to lock the courts out of the process.

The amendment says the Oireachtas may hold inquiries into matters of public importance, that any person may be investigated, and that findings may be made against them. All good, and necessary – as long as the politicians can't simply trample over people's rights in doing so.

Who stands up for these rights? Traditionally, the courts.

But the amendment goes on to say the rights of the person being investigated are to be balanced with the "public interest", and that the responsibility for deciding that balance lies with the Oireachtas. By implication, therefore, that responsibility cannot lie with the courts That means, effectively, that politicians will get to decide on just what rights the person they are investigating has.

Brendan Howlin, the minister driving this legislation, has passionately denied this.

"It was never the objective to create what might be called an exclusion zone for the courts, nor could it be," he said in the Dáil. And: "Anybody can go to have his or her good name vindicated in the courts."

The problem is, he's wrong. The foremost authority on this (outside of the judiciary) is Gerry Whyte, co-author of the definitive text on the Irish Constitution. This amendment, Whyte wrote this week, would "make it impossible for the courts to protect the substantive rights... such as the right to privacy" of people before these inquiries.

Colin Murphy is a journalist and advisor to Stephen Donnelly TD.