Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

Corrupting Justice: Ireland's EU Commissioner

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Thank you, Frank, for bringing this outrageous appointment to wider attention.  It doesn't surprise us but it may not be commonly known in the rest of the EU.

Perhaps I'm being naive and ill-informed but is there anywhere else in the EU where the government intervened so systematically post facto with decisions of the judiciary?

Are there any other commissioners with a record to beat Ms. Geoghegan-Quinn?

by Pope Epopt on Tue Nov 17th, 2009 at 04:50:22 PM EST
It would be great if at least one ETer from each EU member state could write a Diary (or a comment here) so that we had an overview of the composition of the new Commission.  As far as I know the Hungarian nominee has caused huge surprise, but I have no further information.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Nov 17th, 2009 at 06:01:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
For Denmark, three names are in play:

Connie Hedegaard, environmental minister, for the environmental commissioner. She wouldn't be too bad. She doesn't quite grasp the magnitude of our environmental problems, but she's at least not actively obstructionist.

Bertel Haarder, education minister, for the science and technology portfolio. He would be a disaster. His views of education are more or less suitable for primary education, but secondary and post-secondary education is... well, not his strong point.

Marianne Fisher-Boel, our current agricultural and rural development commissioner. The only fitting description I can conjure up of her is the timeless Douglas Adams quib "mostly harmless."

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 08:42:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I assume they are all from the Governing party or have the right connections?  Is the choice largely dependent on which portfolio is on offer?

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Nov 23rd, 2009 at 08:04:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah, sorry, forgot that they're not familiar names.

Haarder (V - ALDE-lunatic, governing party) has a long and illustrious history in Danish politics. Half the population hates him, the other half loves him.

Hedegaard (C - EPP, governing party) used to be retired from politics after a stint as MP, but was pulled in to greenwash Fogh II once they realised that climate change denial really wasn't such a good selling point anymore. She's as untainted a person as you're likely to find in the EPP.

Fisher Boel (V - ALDE-lunatic, governing party) is your run-of-the-mill dynastic politician, who as far as I can tell owes her career more to her farther than any particular talent or skill. As I said, "mostly harmless."

As for the selection criteria, it's probably going to be some combination of availability, desire and portfolio.

Fisher Boel will probably want to continue in federal politics - she hasn't really got anything prominent to return to in Denmark. And Venstre like having the agricultural portfolio. They're still partly a farmer/agribiz party, so it allows them to sell some favours to some of their backers. But she's 66 years old this year, and may well opt to retire instead (politicians can still afford to retire by age 65 - apparently there's no demographic crisis in their pay grade...).

I have a hard time seeing Hedegaard whisk off to the EU just before COP15, which she's been putting a lot of work into organising (and a lot of work into preventing her fellow party members from sabotaging). And she's the only one in the Danish government who has any serious interest in the environmental portfolio, so it won't be a case of wanting the portfolio and letting someone else pick the (wo)man. If she's appointed, my take is that it is to get her out of the way while the last vestige of ambition for COP15 is dismantled.

Haarder is a possibility. If he believes that Løkke is going to lose the next election (which seems probable), then he can take the science and technology portfolio as a retirement office (he's 65 this year). Or he could take his chances with the election and retire if they lose. There's moderate interest in the subject in the government, so if they can't get the agriculture portfolio, they may go for this one.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Nov 23rd, 2009 at 02:13:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Looks like only Hedegaard isn't viewing the Commission as a pre-retirement sinecure and she could probably have more influence on climate change at EU rather than Danish level.  There was talk of Ireland going for the Agriculture portfolio but that has died down, so maybe they expect Fisher Boel to stay on.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Nov 23rd, 2009 at 02:51:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think Boel views it as a sinecure. I just don't have any particular confidence in her competence, and even less in the kind of policies her backers want her to push.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Nov 23rd, 2009 at 03:44:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Breaking news says it'll be Hedegaard.

Barosso and Danish PM Løkke have both signed off on it.

Hedegaards replacement as environmental minister is Lykke Friis, currently deputy headmistress of the University of Copenhagen. The university has considerable institutional prestige invested in COP15, and as such Friis has considerable personal prestige invested in it as well.

So it could have been worse. COP15 isn't quite dead, and Hedegaard is the best of the three candidates. Hands down, no contest. And Friis becomes a career politician, a role that has always suited her better than university chairmanship, in my considered opinion.

The desirability of a revolving door between the top leadership echelons of the universities is another matter, of course.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Nov 24th, 2009 at 10:10:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Given that Neelie Kroes is being renominated it looks like there will be some good appointees (and women) on the new Commission.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Nov 24th, 2009 at 11:39:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Danish politicians prefer to interfere with the judicial system ahead of time. Minimum penalties, attacking the judicial system in public, and other charming banana republic tactics.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 12:27:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In its front-page headline piece on her nomination today, the Irish Times makes no mention of Máire Geoghegan-Quinn's dubious track record of running a parallel system of Justice whilst Minister for Justice.  It is as if a collective vow of Omertà has been taken not to say anything negative about her past record for fear of damaging her prospects of securing an influential portfolio.  Even the opposition parties haven't mentioned the issue focusing instead on the Ganley angle:

Taoiseach nominates Geoghegan Quinn for Europe - The Irish Times - Wed, Nov 18, 2009

Fine Gael spokeswoman on European Affairs Lucinda Creighton congratulated the new commissioner but said her relationship with Declan Ganley would have to be clarified. "The Taoiseach needs to come out immediately and clarify whether Máire Geoghegan-Quinn as a former
minister for communications sat on the board of one or more of Declan Ganley's companies, and if so, which companies, for how long and in what capacity."

This to me is largely a non issue, because her involvement with the Ganley group came after her retirement from politics and long before his involvement in politics.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Nov 17th, 2009 at 08:52:29 PM EST
Madam - Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is undoubtedly an able person, but why is it that your front-page story and editorial lead welcoming her appointment makes no reference to your own correspondent's excellent expose (Fintan O'Toole, Should misuse of power debar EU hopeful?, 17th. Nov.) of the "parallel system of justice" she ran whilst Minister for Justice - a system which was found to be unconstitutional by the High Court?

Granted, she inherited the system from her allegedly corrupt predecessors, Ray Burke and Padraig Flynn, but she made no effort to wind down a system whereby people convicted of a crime could petition the minister to have the punishment set aside or mitigated.  The system was widely used by (mostly Fianna Fail) TDs to reward their supporters for services rendered and was thus completely open to corrupting the political as well as the judicial system.

How such a Minister could be considered suitable for the European Court of Auditors, never mind the European Commission, is beyond parody. In 1993 alone  she mitigated 2,283 sentences in response to 4,050 petitions.  It was well known at the time that many well connected Fianna Fail supporters were effectively above the law and were not slow to boast about that fact.  Why we are surprised that "brown paper bag" money may have changed hands in the circumstances is beyond me.

It is also sad to see her appointment welcomed by Women for Europe chairwoman Olive Braiden, who said that  Ms Geoghegan-Quinn was the "ideal person" for the position and sees her appointment as an important endorsement of the role of Irish women in the Europe Union and a recognition of the important role women played in the recent Lisbon Treaty referendum.  

It is nothing of the sort. It is Fianna Fail gombeen politics at its worst, rewarding clientalist politics and corruption and an insult to all honest citizens, men or women - particularly when much more qualified people like Michael Martin, Mary Robinson or John Bruton could have been appointed.

The people of Ireland put aside partisan divisions to vote for the Lisbon Treaty to guarantee the continued appointment of a Commissioner from Ireland. How unsurprising is it that Fianna Fail Leader, Brian Cowen, has now used that national victory for entirely partisan advantage, and to the shame of every honest citizen in Ireland and Europe.  The Corrupt politics of the Haughey, Ahern, Burke, Flynn and Geoghegan-Quinn era are precisely what we have voted to get away from.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Nov 18th, 2009 at 06:37:25 AM EST
'Irish Times' critique of Geoghegan-Quinn shameful, says FF - The Irish Times - Thu, Nov 19, 2009

SEANAD REPORT: IT WAS shameful that The Irish Times was knocking Máire Geoghegan-Quinn even before she had been officially nominated as European commissioner, Terry Leyden (FF) said.

The Irish Times had a widespread circulation on the internet and adverse comments in this regard was akin to putting down our chances in the soccer international against the French. Ms Geoghegan-Quinn would, in his opinion, make an excellent commissioner.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Nov 18th, 2009 at 08:18:42 PM EST

Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]