by Frank Schnittger
Tue Nov 17th, 2009 at 04:06:49 PM EST
|An Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, has nominated Máire Geoghegan-Quinn to be the Irish nominee to the next EU Commission. As she retired from Irish politics over 12 years ago, many in Ireland, too, will be asking: Máire who?|
Máire Geoghegan-Quinn has been the Irish nominee to the European Court of Auditors
for the past 10 years: not exactly a high profile position, and many will be asking why she got the gig ahead of much more high profile politicians like Pat Cox
(former President of the EU Parliament), John Bruton
(former Taoiseach and current EU Ambassador to the US) and Mary Robinson
(former President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) and current campaigner on climate change and human rights.
So why did she get the job, and is she qualified for the post? European readers will be concerned at some of the skeletons she has in her cupboard... particularly as she was found by the Irish Courts to have abused her position as Minister for Justice to subvert the rule of law.
Máire Geoghegan-Quinn has three essential qualifications for the post:
- She is a former Fianna Fail Cabinet Minister - which rules out John Bruton (Fine Gael), Mary Robinson (Labour) and Pat Cox (Independent) although Fianna Fail have recently joined ELDR , the group Pat Cox led in the European Parliament.
- She is not a current member of the Dail (Irish Parliament) and thus her selection will not precipitate a bye-election which would act as a catalyst for the huge anti-Government feeling within the country and render the ruling Fianna Fail-Green coalition's hold on power even more precarious.
- She is a women and thus addressed Barroso's stated desire for greater gender balance within the Commission.
Ireland has set it's sights on either the Budget or Innovation portfolios - which is quite a come down from the senior Internal Market Portfolio held by outgoing Commissioner Charlie McCreevy. But will her relatively low profile militate against her receiving even such a mid ranking portfolio? And if she gets the substantial portfolio she is looking for, will she do a good job?
Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was first elected to the Dail in 1975 in succession to her father who had just died. Family dynasties are a common enough occurrence in Irish politics and this fact alone does not speak to her abilities either way. She was appointed the first female Cabinet Minister in the history of the State in 1979 (as a reward for supporting Charlie Haughey in the Fianna Fail leadership election) but was demoted to a junior ministry in 1982 and lost office later that year when Fianna Fail lost a General Election.
Charlie Haughey again only appointed her to a junior ministry when Fianna Fail returned to power in 1987 and she resigned in 1991 in opposition to his leadership. When Haughey was toppled in 1992 she supported his successor, Albert Reynolds, in the leadership contest and was rewarded with a position in the new Cabinet. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Geoghegan-Quinn was appointed Minister for Tourism, Transport and Communications for her loyalty to Reynolds. In 1993 she became Minister for Justice, introducing substantial law reform legislation, including the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Widely tipped to be the first female Taoiseach, she announced that she would challenge Bertie Ahern for the position when Reynolds retired. However on the day of the vote she withdrew from the contest.
At the 1997 general election she retired from politics completely. She became a non-executive director of Aer Lingus, a member of the Board of the Declan Ganley owned Ganley Group and a journalist, writing a column for The Irish Times.
In 1999 she was appointed to the European Court of Auditors replacing former TD Barry Desmond. She was appointed for a second term at the Court of Auditors in March 2006.
So in fairness to her, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, has a substantial track record as a Government Minister and surprised many when she introduced significant law reforms as Minister for Justice, including the decriminalisation of Homosexuality, then still quite a brave move for a Minister from a conservative party representing a conservative and largely rural constituency.
We shouldn't perhaps read too much into her subsequent appointment to a Directorship in the Ganley Group as he is a local businessman in her Galway constituency and might have "trophy hunted" her as a former cabinet Minister following her retirement from politics.
However a much more serious aspect of her career was highlighted by Fintan O'Toole in today's Irish Times:
Should misuse of power debar EU hopeful? - The Irish Times - Tue, Nov 17, 2009
MAIRE GEOGHEGAN- Quinn is in many respects a worthy candidate for the job of EU commissioner. She is capable, intelligent and articulate. She showed courage, compassion and leadership in decriminalising male homosexuality in 1993. She was a pioneer for women in Irish politics.
It says much, however, for the continuing lack of seriousness about standards in public life that, so far as I can see, no discussion of her candidacy has referred to her serious misuse of power in the last domestic political office she held. As minister for justice in 1993 and 1994, she operated what was in essence a private, parallel justice system in which TDs were able to get punishments imposed by the courts altered or set aside.
There is, in the Constitution, a provision giving the president the power to commute or remit court sentences. This power can also be delegated to "other authorities", and in 1951 legislation was passed to allow the Minister for Justice to exercise the function. The authority was clearly, as Mr Justice Geoghegan would put it in the High Court, "intended to be used sparingly" and in special circumstances.
As minister, however, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn operated a very large-scale system in which she altered or overturned court decisions. In 1993 alone, she dealt with 4,050 petitions, mostly from TDs on behalf of constituents. In well over half of these cases (2,283 to be precise) she mitigated the punishments imposed by the courts.
In 1993, in one of the most extraordinary episodes in Irish judicial history, district justice Patrick Brennan, recently retired after long service on the bench in Mayo, felt impelled to take Maire Geoghegan-Quinn to court because she had set aside or changed so many of the sentences he had handed down. He cited, merely as samples, four cases - two of driving offences, two of fishing offences - in which she responded to representations from Fianna Fáil TDs Seamus Hughes and Tom Moffatt. In one, the civil servant who handled the TD's representations noted: "Serious offences, moderate fines imposed . . . I consider intervention inappropriate."
In another, there had been an assault on a fisheries officer and "no particular reasons were given as to why it might be proper for the minister to remit" the fines. While one convicted man was pleading inability to pay a fine, the local Garda superintendent noted that he had "plenty of money for drink".
The whole operation was arbitrary, lacking in transparency and fundamentally at odds with the basic principle that the justice system should be open and independent of politics. It was clientelism at its very worst and a particularly outrageous example of the attitudes to the law and the State that have had such dire consequences for all of us.
Judge Brennan maintained that these examples (and they were merely samples of a much wider, nationwide system) showed that Maire Geoghegan- Quinn was "wrongfully interfering with his judicial decisions and has been herself purporting to administer justice by a kind of parallel system which for all practical purposes provides an alternative to an appeal to the Circuit Court . . . the Constitution never envisaged two systems of justice, one a system of private justice and the other a system of public justice".
In the High Court, Mr Justice Geoghegan essentially upheld this contention and found that Maire Geoghegan-Quinn had indeed been misusing her powers and operating a "parallel system of justice". He found that she was not using the presidential powers to deal with extraordinary cases, but with routine crimes.
"There is no evidence that the minister found exceptional or unusual circumstances to justify her modifying the judge's order."
He pointed out that, in all the cases, the accused had the right to appeal to the Circuit Court, which would have to take a completely independent view of whether justice had been done. Instead of doing this, people were using political back-channels to escape the consequences of their crimes.
Essentially, Maire Geoghegan- Quinn used a power that "must be exercised . . . sparingly and for special reasons with proper maintenance of records" as a private service for TDs wanting to do favours for their constituents.
In fairness to Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, it should be said that she was far from being the first minister for justice to operate this system - the figures I've cited for 1993 are not out of line with those for the previous three years. There was an explosion in the number of petitions in the late 1980s under Charles Haughey's regime. She inherited an abusive system and continued it. After her departure and the High Court ruling, the abuse stopped. In the five years after the ruling, there were 7,109 petitions, of which just 86 were granted.
It is, or should be, a very serious thing for a minister to have been found by the High Court to have been misusing a constitutional power by operating a parallel system of justice. Whether it's serious enough to rule Maire Geoghegan-Quinn out of the office of EU commissioner is a matter for debate. The problem is that, in a system held together by amnesia, we're not having one.
Essentially Maire Geoghegan-Quinn inherited and maintained a system massively expanded by her immediate predecessors - the corrupt Ray Burke, and the allegedly corrupt Padraig Flynn - whereby politically well connected people could get away with crimes without having to appeal to a higher court. They simply went to their local Fianna Fail TD (Member of Parliament) who petitioned the Minister for Justice on their behalf. Over half such petitions were granted, and whilst I have never seen any analysis of who was successful in their petition, and who was not, it is fair to assume that the majority of successful petitioners were likely to be Fianna Fail supporters (whether financially or otherwise).
Such a corrupt abuse of the judicial process is shocking, even in the context of the Ireland of the early 1990's, and what is even more shocking today is that only Fintan O'Toole has raised this as an issue which should be considered in the context of her nomination.
Brian Cowen has acted in a shamelessly partisan fashion in naming as Ireland's nominee to the Commission a former Minister who was found by the courts to have subverted the rule of law by abusing her position as Minister for Justice especially as there were several much more qualified people available for the position. This is clientalism and political corruption at its worst, and I am amazed that Barroso appears to have been supportive of her nomination.
The Irish Times - Tue, Nov 17, 2009
Women for Europe chairwoman Olive Braiden said Ms Geoghegan-Quinn was the “ideal person” for the position of Ireland’s first ever woman commissioner. “We see her appointment as an important endorsement of the role of Irish women in the Europe Union and as recognition of the important role women played in the recent Lisbon Treaty referendum.”
I'm sorry, but there are some things even more important than gender balance, and the impartial rule of law is one of them. Olive Braidan does her gender a disservice, especially when there are much more appropriately qualified women available for the post.