Senator Katherine Zappone
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I trust he will bring back the views, questions and concerns on all sides to the Cabinet. It is good to have this robust debate. As Senator Norris said, this kind of debate is not happening in other European countries. I do, however, wish to address some of the comments made by Senator Cullinane, particularly towards the end of his contribution. While it is true that perhaps public opinion is changing, as he and we all know, public opinion does not necessarily direct the right thing to do. We need to have robust analysis where we look at the content of the treaty. I appreciate the reflections of my colleagues today and yesterday. This, ultimately, will be a political judgment on the basis of that content. That judgment is based on political as well as ethical interests, which we all know. It is important to keep that in mind.
I want to focus on the Bill, in particular the wording of the referendum to be put to the people. I have a couple of questions and one serious concern. Senator Bacik directed us to Part 2, which is the wording to be put to the people. As Senator van Turnhout said yesterday, it is not the actual rules of the treaty, rather that the State will ratify the treaty. My concern, which was raised in the Dáil by Deputy Murphy, concerns the second sentence on what will be put to the people. The Bill states: “No provision of this Constitution invalidates laws enacted, acts done or measures adopted by the State that are necessitated by the obligations of the State under that Treaty or prevents laws enacted, acts done or measures adopted by bodies competent under that Treaty from having the force of law in the State.” What precisely does that mean? I hope I can have a response to my question. I am sure the people wish to know what that means. Does it mean that no laws which are implementing the provisions of the treaty can be considered unconstitutional? If the people pass the referendum and we ratify the treaty, does that mean when we want to pass legislation as law-makers, no laws to implement the provisions of the treaty can be considered unconstitutional?
I refer to the phrase “laws ... that are necessitated by obligations of the State under [the] Treaty”. Can these laws be decided by Irish law-makers or will they be imposed on us by outsiders, such as what is decided collectively at an EU level? This is the heart of the concerns around the ceding of sovereignty. Does it effectively constitutionalise the ceding of sovereignty? Is this Part of the Bill, Schedule or wording that will be put to the people absolutely necessary? I understand the Tánaiste said it is necessary technically and legally because this is an intergovernmental treaty, as other Senators have said. We should not so tie the hands of Irish law-makers that we cannot look to our own context later on, have dialogue with EU partners and perhaps choose some significant change in terms of how we balance the governance of the EU with that of Ireland.
I want to try to tease out and clarify the meaning of the second sentence. Is there a difference between absolute constitutional protection of the treaty or a straightforward ratification of it? Why can we not simply put to the people that the State may ratify the treaty? It is the usual practice that where articles of the Constitution or amendments to it are in place, laws are then enacted and citizens have a democratic right to challenge them constitutionally. Will this not be the case for any laws we or other law-makers enact to implement the obligations of the treaty? If not, why not? My questions will help to inform my decision on how I vote on the Bill but not necessarily on the treaty.
My second concern is about the timing of the referendum. As we all know, it will take place on 31 May and today is 24 April. Information is required by our citizens for an informed, adequate and public debate. It seems to me members of the public have a very short period of time to get the information to debate among themselves and make an informed judgment. We demonstrate here and in the Dáil that people first need to understand the content of the treaty and then make a political, ethical and legal judgement about it. That takes a considerable amount of time.
As the Minister of State knows, research has shown if there is less time for information, people are more likely to vote “No” because they do not understand the question. The Minister of State referred in his speech yesterday to the fact that the public information campaign has been launched. Is it fully accessible to the public? The Minister of State referred to the website which was launched relatively recently. Even if one had not listened to his speech or had not heard about its launch one might have a sense that something is going on and search on Google for information. That is what I did after I heard about the website. One would want to know how one can find the public information. I put the term “fiscal treaty Ireland” into Google and an advertisement for the fiscal treaty appeared. I was not directed to any website such as the one created by the Government. The first bullet point referred to the Institute for International and European Affairs and what was termed its infographic, which laid out the European Union’s response to the euro crisis. It comprised a map of all the problems and weaknesses in dark colours. There were references to the weak finance sector, weak economies and weak governance. It would not make me feel confident in voting “Yes” and did not have any of the explanation or information I was looking for. I then put the term “Irish fiscal treaty referendum” into Google and found scholarly articles and news such as “Kenny calls for a yes vote and the unions call for a no vote.” When I visited the website stabilitytreaty.ie, I found it was very good. The Government will be sending out information leaflets.
To come back to my first point on the need for clarification, with regard to the language that will be put to the people in the referendum to which they will say “Yes” or “No”, the website states:
The amendment will not include details of the rules agreed under the Treaty. If this amendment is approved by referendum, the details will be dealt with in laws made by the Oireachtas.
However, it does not state these laws cannot be challenged constitutionally.
As other colleagues have noted, the position is continuing to change at European level. Recently I was in France where many think we are going to vote “No” at this stage. However, as I said to them, whether we vote “Yes” or “No”, is it not great that we are having this debate and that the treaty is being put to the people?
I reiterate my concern about the second sentence in the Bill and ask if the treaty is simply about providing for austerity constitutionally. Last week the Tánaiste said “No,” that it was about “managing our debt and managing it in such a way that, over time, taxpayers’ money goes not into servicing debts but more and more into public services and targeted growth initiatives to create jobs.” If that is the case - it is a political judgment based on the content - we need more time to have a fully informed public debate about the treaty in order that the people will be able to come to a democratic decision. A fully genuine democratic decision is always one that is adequately informed.