What should be a relatively uncontroversial referendum on judicial pay is becoming highly damaging because of the government’s growing obsession with biased leaking and refusing to consult about decisions. It is gone beyond time that the Taoiseach must intervene to force his staff and ministers to respect long-established principles about how referendum proposals are prepared.
As has now been clearly established, even the judiciary supports the idea that their pay be able to be reduced when all public servants face reductions. The only reason this referendum is becoming controversial is because of an obsession by some in this government with populist gestures which are spread through one-sided leaks and an absolute refusal to conduct fair consultations.
Ireland has an independent judiciary which has time and again shown that it retains the ability to decide cases irrespective of the power and influence of participants. Connections between government and the judiciary in relation to practical matters have always been based on respectful and appropriate exchanges. This is something which has happened irrespective of the make-up of the government.
The way this referendum is being handled is damaging to all involved and is to the benefit of no one.
The first thing the Taoiseach must do is give a clear instruction that the leaking of all contacts with the judiciary must be stopped. His own discussion with the Chief Justice was leaked within hours with a one-sided spin being put on the conversation. Subsequently a memorandum from the judiciary on the proposed amendment was leaked by government within two days of being received and before it was discussed at cabinet.
Secondly, the Taoiseach must instruct those handling the referendum to immediately begin the consultations which have been a part of all constitutional referendums for at least a decade and a half. It has become a basic principle of constitutional referendums that interested groups and the opposition are consulted at an early stage and that government responds to their concerns in a constructive way. Even thought this referendum was announced three months ago and is due to be held in October, there have been no consultations held so far. Equally, no legislation required to enact the amendment has been prepared.
This is an arrogant and foolish approach, which may lead to a poorly drafted amendment and rising controversy on a matter which should be straightforward.
Finally the Taoiseach needs to recognise the vital importance that the procedure for reducing judicial salaries be completely independent of the government and Oireachtas. As can be seen in other countries, it can be the case that politicians decide to target judges. It is easily conceivable that a non-independent mechanism could be manipulated and we should do everything possible to avoid this in the amendment and any supporting legislation.
Fianna Fáil supports a constitutional amendment on this issue, but only if it is done without the populist grand-standing seen from the government in recent weeks and if the amendment gives an absolute guarantee that politicians will not be able to target judicial income for their own ends.