Government abandons plan for referendum on judicial misconduct

Wednesday 02 May 2001 22.56

The Government is set to abandon its plan for a referendum on judicial misconduct on 7 June. This follows the failure of talks tonight to resolve difficulties with the opposition parties over the time being allotted to debate the legislation. Justice Minister, John O'Donoghue said afterwards that he and the Taoiseach would be considering the options now open to them.

However, earlier chief whip Seamus Brennan said that it was not an issue that could be put to the people without a political consensus in the Dáil. The Taoiseach had intended the Bill to finish in the House by lunchtime but the Fine Gael leader, Michael Noonan, and the Labour leader, Ruairí Quinn, both threatened to take their parties out of the House if he did.

For some time now, the opposition parties have been indicating their unhappiness with the Government's timetable for this referendum on measures for dealing with errant judges. In an attempt to meet some of their concerns, the Minister for Justice last night introduced a number of amendments to the proposals already put forward by the coalition. But as far as the opposition is concerned, that has only added to their difficulties.

Both the Fine Gael and Labour leaders said this morning that they needed more time to consider these amendments and they were not prepared to co-operate with the Government's plans to have the Bill passed by lunchtime today. After a long argument, the Taoiseach agreed to withdraw the Bill for today pending a meeting of the whips.

But Mr Ahern made clear that the Government needed to have the Bill through by tomorrow so that the referendum could be held in June. However, the Opposition said that the matter is one of fundamental constitutional importance and they do not understand why it has to be rushed. They said that they would not co-operate with any Government attempt to meet the June voting date.

Last night, Minister for Justice, John O'Donoghue, proposed that a motion to impeach a judge would need the support of 20 members of the Oireachtas, and not 30, as is the case now. A two-thirds majority of the Dáil would still be needed to remove a judge. There would also be a judicial council, with an ethics and conduct committee to deal with complaints. However, both main opposition parties say that they will vote against the referendum legislation when it comes before the Dáil.

Fine Gael's Justice spokesman, Alan Shatter, said that if a judge faces serious allegations, then a simple majority of the Dáil should be enough to approve impeachment. Labour's Justice Spokesman, Brendan Howlin, said that the Government appeared to be "making it up as they go along", and Labour would oppose the referendum trenchantly.

John O'Donoghue said that he had acceded to requests from the opposition regarding the Bill, and did not see that there was anything more he could do. He said that there have been numerous committee reports published on the issue, and the opposition members should have taken it upon themselves become familiar with the content.