“The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech in parliament, not to protect parliament, but the democratic process in itself" - President of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly
YESTERDAY’S ruling in the Angela Kerins’ case is very significant and, in these extraordinary times, reassuring.
The former Rehab Group boss failed to secure a declaration that the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) breached her Constitutional rights. She claimed that “bullying, harassment and persecution” by the PAC in 2014, forced her to attempt suicide. She had sued for a declaration that her rights had been set aside and sought damages.
At a moment when the very idea of truth is so dangerously stretched, it vindicates the principle of protected free speech designed to encourage parliamentarians, protect the effectiveness of our parliament and democracy itself. The judgment confirms parliament’s primacy and authority, through Oireachtas committees, to conduct inquiries as they see fit. It also confirms the absolute right of our democratically elected parliament to hold those in receipt of significant public funds to account.
Most importantly, yesterday’s ruling confirmed that an essential, long-established principle — absolute parliamentary privilege — is inviolable and that statements made in our parliament cannot be reviewed by our courts. Elected representatives can express an opinion with the full protection of our Constitution. Without that protection, our parliament’s relevance would be limited. Its legitimacy and moral authority open to question too. After all, if a Dáil or Seanad representative cannot freely raise legitimate questions, no matter how challenging or awkward, then that institution could hardly be described as fit for purpose. We could we hardly rely on it either to protect communities or individuals.
The three-judge court was clear. It ruled that as a result of the absolute privilege provided by the Constitution for Oireachtas proceedings, the courts have no power to intervene in relation to how the PAC conducted two public hearings concerning public monies paid to Rehab. The president of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, declared: “The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech in parliament, not to protect parliament, but the democratic process in itself. If members of the Oireachtas were constrained in their speech in the manner contended for by Ms Kerins, the effective functioning of parliament would be impaired in a manner expressly forbidden by the Constitution,” he said.
The decision has implications for the operation of Dáil committees. It may also have consequences for businessman Denis O’Brien’s action over Dáil statements about his banking affairs. Judgment on that case has been reserved until a date after the Kerins’ ruling.
Most of all, the ruling will encourage those who still believe that accountability might become a positive force for renewal in this society. All in all, a good day for our democracy.
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