Michael D Higgins, our esteemed President, is about to convene a meeting of the Council of State to help him decide whether of not he should refer the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act to the Supreme Court for a test of its constitutionality. If the court judges that the Act is constitutional, it becomes bullet-proof and can never again be challenged on those grounds. On the other hand, the court might strike the Act down in its entirety and then we’re all back on the same merry-go-round yet again – the government’s nightmare outcome, and mine too, if I must be honest. Another six months of listening to the Iona Institute people would just about finish me off.
The President isn’t obliged to take whatever advice the Council offers him, but he must consult them before he sends an Act to the Supreme Court, so I thought it might be useful to explain how this Council is made up. According to Article 31 of the constitution, it consists of the current Taoiseach and Tánaiste, or, for those unfamiliar with ludicrously pompous feudal Gaelic terms, the prime minister and deputy prime minister. Likewise, the Chief Justice, the President of the High Court, the Chairmen of the Dáil and the Senate (soon to be abolished if Enda gets his way) and the Attorney General. All former prime ministers are automatically members, though they must be willing and able, which brings up a difficulty I’ll come back to in a minute. In addition, the President can appoint seven nominees at his absolute discretion. The current members are as follows.
|Éamon Gilmore||Deputy taoiseach|
|Sean Barrett||Chairman of the Dail|
|Paddy Burke||Chairman of the Senate|
|Susan Denham||Chief Justice|
|Nicholas Kearns||President of the High Court|
|Maire Whelan||Attorney General|
|Mary Robinson||Former President|
|Mary McAleese||Former President|
|Liam Cosgrave||Former Taoiseach|
|Albert Reynolds||Former Taoiseach|
|John Bruton||Former Taoiseach|
|Bertie Ahern||Former Taoiseach|
|Brian Cowen||Former Taoiseach|
|John Murray||Former Chief Justice|
|Thomas Finlay||Former Chief Justice|
|Ronan Keane||Former Chief Justice|
|Michael Farrell,||Presidential Nominee|
|Deirdre Heenan,||Presidential Nominee|
|Catherine McGuinness,||Presidential Nominee|
|Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh,||Presidential Nominee|
|Ruairí McKiernan,||Presidential Nominee|
|Sally Mulready,||Presidential Nominee|
|Gerard Quinn||Presidential Nominee|
The first hurdle occurs with our beloved deputy Prime Minister, Éamon Gilmore. Éamon, you see, describes himself as an agnostic, but because our constitution is so deeply mired in the confessional swamp that was the Ireland of 1937, every member of the Council must swear an oath, as follows:
In the presence of Almighty God I, Joe Soap, do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will faithfully and conscientiously fulfil my duties as a member of the Council of State.
As a non-believer, Éamon found himself conflicted by this and took legal advice, but it seems he’s happy enough to swear in the presence of a deity he doesn’t believe in, and I suppose he’s right. After all, the wording seems carefully constructed to give atheists a way out, since it doesn’t require him to swear to Almighty God, as happens in the courts, unless a witness chooses the option to affirm. It simply requires him to promise and declare in the presence of the non-existent deity. Look, he’s a politician, well-used to believing two different things at the same time. Besides, the preamble to the Constitution is far worse. How’s this for inclusivity?
In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial, Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation, And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations, Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.
Nice. How does that work with Jews, Muslims, Hindus and people of no religion who also happen to be Irish citizens? The most holy trinity from whom all authority derives. That’s a theocracy, last time I checked. How does our Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, who happens to be a Jew, feel about his constitution acknowledging his obligations to our divine lord, Jesus Christ?
That’s Ireland for you, and Britain too, where the Queen is the head of the established church, lest anyone be too quick to sneer, but let’s get on with the Council of State.
Besides the atheist who’s happy to swear in the presence of a god he doesn’t believe in, we have five former prime ministers, four of whom assiduously dodged the problem of the X Case judgement. One of them, John Bruton, is already on record as opposing the current Act on religious grounds. Two others — Brian Cowen and the man in the cupboard, Bertie Ahern — are responsible for crashing our country into a gigantic brick wall while another, Albert Reynolds, declined to give evidence to a tribunal of inquiry into planning corruption on the grounds of cognitive impairment. In other words, he couldn’t remember an Irish military helicopter ferrying him to a secret meeting with a property developer and he had no memory of the government Learjet diverting to an unscheduled rendezvous in Bermuda. Poor man’s mind is gone, sadly. And yet, here he is, sitting on the Council of State.
Old Liam Cosgrave meanwhile, still hale and hearty at 92 years of age, will go down in history as the Taoiseach who voted against his own government on contraception legislation due to his strong Catholic beliefs.
There isn’t any set procedure laid down for how the meeting will be conducted, however, and Michael D is a wily old guy, so perhaps it will be closely circumscribed. He might decide simply to ask them a legal question: in your opinion, is this Act constitutional or not?
If we exclude Brian Cowen on the arbitrary grounds that he completed the crash started by Ahern, that he’s only a small-town solicitor who never practised much anyway and that I just don’t like him, we still have eight senior lawyers who should be able to advise Michael D dispassionately. What will the others advise him on? Who knows? I suppose Da Bert could give him a tip on a horse and Cowen could offer his opinions on nude portraiture. Bruton could entertain everyone with his famous party laugh and Cosgrave could re-enact his world-renowned Crossing of the Floor, the original Riverdance but with added hypocrisy.
Let’s not forget the ferment of rage that must be taking place in this assembly of the great and the good. How does the chairman of the Senate feel about the current prime minister who supports this act and yet who wants to abolish the very House he presides over? I’m only speaking personally here, but I think I’d feel tempted to shaft Enda one last time before being abolished. Clearly, Mr Burke is a far more professional individual than I am and would never dream of sinking so low, but still, human nature is what it is. I’d knife him.
I’m fascinated by the process, since it’s not laid down anywhere that I can find. Where will they hold the meeting? What time will it happen? Will Michael D supply the drink or will they all turn up with slabs? Will they drive or come in taxis? Will they have a barbecue? Will someone make a CD mix? The weather is really great at the moment although you can’t be too careful. Lately there’s been a lot of thunderstorms but that’s to be expected with all the heat, so maybe they should set up a gazebo and everyone could huddle inside it together if there’s a sudden downpour. It would make for a cheerful atmosphere, and they’ll get along much better after getting to know each other. I’d say they’ll make burgers and maybe put out some nachos with a cheese dip. What do you think? Spare ribs? Red stuff all over your face? Send Bruton down to the off-licence for more ice. Michael D might even read them some of his poetry before leading them to the overwhelming question: what’ll we do? Ah, I don’t know. That’s why I’m not the president, the chief justice or even a spiv in a yellow suit hiding in a cupboard.