Controversial laws facing presidential challenge

President Mary McAleese today challenged two controversial new laws dealing with gangland criminals and blasphemy.

President Mary McAleese today challenged two controversial new laws dealing with gangland criminals and blasphemy.

In an unusual move, the president called a meeting of the Council of State to discuss the legality of the legislation rather than simply signing them into law.

The Council of State is a 22-member team made up of the most senior serving and former office-holders in the country which advises the president on whether a law is constitutional.

But the president alone will make the decision on whether to refer the legislation to the Supreme Court after the meeting next Wednesday at Aras an Uachtaráin.

The two Bills being questioned are the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009 and the Defamation Bill 2006, which were pushed through the Oireachtas over the past week.

The Criminal Justice Bill allows for gangland suspects to be tried in the non-jury Special Criminal Court.

It also allows “opinion evidence” from Garda members to be used in court.

More than 130 lawyers wrote a public letter last week demanding the legislation be withdrawn, claiming Ireland would be shamed by it in the eyes of the international community.

The Defamation Bill, introduced by then Justice Minister Michael McDowell three years ago but finally guided through the Oireachtas in recent days by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, reforms the State’s libel laws.

It provoked an outcry over its inclusion of a new crime of blasphemous libel.

President McAleese has only called a meeting of the Council of State over concerns about proposed laws on four previous occasions during her 12 years in office.

On one occasion, the president – herself a distinguished lawyer – refused to sign the Health (Amendment) Bill into law in 2002 after the Supreme Court found parts of it were unconstitutional.

On two occasions she decided to sign contested Bills after consultation and on the other occasion she signed the Bill into law after the Supreme Court ruled it was not unconstitutional.

Bills must be signed by the president after going through both the Dáil and Seanad before they become law.

The Council of State includes Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, Chief Justice John L Murray, President of the High Court Richard Johnson and Attorney General Paul Gallagher.

Former President Mary Robinson and five ex-Taoisigh, Liam Cosgrave, Garret Fitzgerald, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern are automatically members.

Members appointed by the president are Col Harvey Bicker, Anastasia Crickley, Mary Davis, Martin Mansergh, Enda Marren, Professor Denis Moloney and Daraine Mulvihill.

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