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 toaffirm. 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 ahorse 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.
Laughing all the way to the bank
TWENTY-SIX former politicians who are earning pensions of more than €100,000 a year are escaping a super tax because of a legal loophole.
Former Fianna Fail ministers Charlie McCreevy, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey, John O’Donoghue, Joe Walsh, Michael Woods and Martin Cullen — and former Progressive Democrats leader Mary Harney — are among those not having to pay the 20pc tax.
Another is former Fianna Fail minister Ray Burke, who was convicted of tax evasion.
The loophole arises because the higher rate applies only if a single pension is worth more than €100,000 but not if the politician is getting a number of pensions with a combined value above that level.
“It’s obviously unfair otherwise on the people who are paying it. The impression was given last year that it would be all office holders,” she said.
Ms Tuffy said she was in favour of a higher income tax on people earning over €100,000 in the forthcoming Budget rather than singling out former ministers again for heavier taxes.
Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has introduced an amendment to close the loophole by the end of the year.
It will allow the pension levy to be applied to all the combined pensions of a former office holder. A department spokeswoman said that all public bodies would be requested to supply the PPS numbers and pension payments of those with multiple pensions.
She said the department would then calculate the new higher pension levy and apply it.
Mr Howlin has said that the estimated savings for the new rate already was €400,000 per year — when the impact on retired judges, former semi-state chief executives and former secretaries-general is taken into account.
Mr Ahern and Mr Cowen are paying a total pension levy of around €11,000 each on their TDs‘ and ministerial pensions, leaving them with pensions of €111,235 each. But if their TDs’ pensions and ministers pensions were combined together, their pension levy bill would rise by up to €7,000 extra.
This is because they will only be able to claim one exemption from the public sector pension levy — rather than the present arrangement of one for each pension.
It means just six senior politicians are paying the super levy this year — which is in stark contrast to what was expected when it was announced by the Government last November.
At the time, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin said that “everyone had to burden-share” at a time of financial emergency.
Those paying the extra levy are former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen, Albert Reynolds and John Bruton, who all have ministerial pensions worth more than €100,000 even before their TD pensions are counted.
Former presidents Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson are also paying the new super levy on their presidential pensions. But former health minister Mary Harney is escaping the super levy because she has a TD’s pension of around €50,000 and a ministerial pension of €79,000.
Another in this category is former finance minister Charlie McCreevy, who has a TD’s pension of around €50,000 and a ministerial pension of €69,000.
Others who are not being hit include former Fianna Fail Junior Minister Frank Fahey, former PD Junior Minister Bobby Molloy and former Labour leader Dick Spring.
These ministers do have to pay the public service pension levy, but not at the higher 20pc rate, which kicks in at €100,000.
The information on those being hit by the levy was supplied by the Department of Public Expenditure to Labour Dublin-Mid West TD Joanna Tuffy. She called for the closure of the loophole.
McAleese said she held “a very strong view that for centuries now gay people have lived in a dark secretive world of indeterminate loneliness [and] dreadful complexity.”
Gay people are “as entitled to live their lives on their own terms, as I do as a heterosexual,” she said. “I’m just thrilled anyone wants to get married.”
“It did not happen,” she said. The College of Bishops had not met since Vatican II, which concluded in 1965.
She said she was upset the Pope allowed no dissent. “I’m not clear anymore where the boundaries are,” she said.�
Church leadership lacked “a fair degree of credibility now” as a result of the child abuse issue, she said.
If they could be so dreadfully wrong and take so long about accepting how wrong they were . . . ” and yet “we seem to have arrived at a situation of creeping infallibility about everything.”
McAleese has spoken out in favor of women priests, and said she had written to the Pope asking for his views on the matter. She said she got “a lovely letter back.”
She also wrote to then Dublin Archbishop Desmond Connell seeking literature on the issue. She found it “wickedly poor scholarship.”
Former Irish President Mary McAleese has opened up on a major diplomatic row with an American cardinal who was later disgraced for covering up child sex abuse.
The Irish leader was publicly berated by Cardinal Law for her open support for the ordination of women priests.
The Catholic Bishop told McAleese that he was: “Sorry for Catholic Ireland to have you as President.”
The former President, now studying theology in Rome where she has published a book on canon law, told the Irish Independent that the Cardinal also attacked a junior minister who had accompanied her on the trip.
She told the paper: “His remarks were utterly inappropriate and unwelcome.
“Cardinal Law lambasted me and a considerable number of the official delegation after ushering us into a room where a well-known American conservative Catholic, Mary Ann Glendon, was waiting to lecture me on my views on women priests.”
McAleese told the paper that the cardinal’s language and attitude were nasty and he demanded that she sit down and listen to the orthodox view on women’s ordination from Glendon.
She added: “We were initially gobsmacked by this arrogant man.
“I then told the cardinal that I was the President of Ireland and not just of Catholic Ireland.”
McAleese then revealed how a heated argument broke out between the two.
She said: “I felt he had insulted Ireland and the Irish people.”
THE BILL for pensions to former office holders jumped by more than 25 per cent last year, with former presidents, ministers, members of the judiciary and other senior office holders receiving a total of €15.22 million.
That compares with €12.1 million in 2010. The figure includes severance payments of €1.1 million to members of the Fianna Fáil/ Green coalition voted out of office last year.
Figures published last night on the Department of Finance website indicate that only 31 out of almost 200 office holders opted to forgo any portion of their pension. The €347,686 forgone amounts to just 2.3 per cent of the total sum paid in pensions and severance.
The highest pension paid last year was to former Progressive Democrats leader Michael McDowell. However, of the €173,700 he received, more than €142,000 related to backpayment for years in which he had been underpaid. That aside, two former comptroller and auditor generals – John Purcell and Laurie McDonnell – were the largest single beneficiaries, with pensions of €114,700.
Two former taoisigh, Bertie Ahern and Liam Cosgrave, surrendered a portion of their pensions while Brian Cowen, John Bruton and Albert Reynolds did not. Former president Mary Robinson opted to forgo €15,500 of her €139,500 entitlement.
The presidency remains the highest-paid office, with Mary McAleese receiving €280,300 and her successor Michael D Higgins €45,200 during the year, a total of €325,500. Both surrendered a portion of that salary last year.
The figures show the State’s judiciary was paid €27.35 million last year. The position of chief justice was paid €304,974. They also show the total paid in parliamentary leaders’ allowances fell last year to €7.2 million, from €8 million in 2010. Sinn Féin saw its leader’s allowance more than double to €933,876 from €335,425 the previous year. The allowance for Labour also rose while the figures for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael fell.