Eoin O’Malley (10 January, 2011)
A bit like democracy, motherhood and apple pie, everyone is in favour of the separation of powers. But how does it work in Ireland and what happens when there’s a conflict between the branches of state power? What should happen?
Though constitutional lawyers will claim that it is enshrined in the constitution, and certainly judges refer to it frequently, the design of the separation between the executive and legislative branches in Ireland is such that we can only assume the drafters of the constitution wanted a strong executive unencumbered by a legislature. The legislature is one in name only as effectively all legislation comes from the executive. The legislature’s powers are neither separate nor significant. The independence of the judiciary is more secure, because even though the executive chooses the members of the judiciary the executive has no real way to influence judges once appointed.
The idea of a separation of powers comes from a presidential system where the legislature makes laws that the executive enacts and the judiciary enforces. All this is usually under basic laws laws that are rigid and difficult to change – a constitution – which also sets out which institution can act. In parliamentary systems this is less pure – but thought to exist nonetheless.
Problems arise when there’s a disagreement about which branch is entitled to act in what way. Often we see the executive behaviour censured in the courts because the court says it was acted beyond its powers – ultra vires. The courts have been quick to assert what are judicial functions and what are executive or legislative ones. So the Oireachtas was upbraided for its inquiry to the killing of John Carty in Abbeylara. This decision led to the Houses of the Oireachtas abandoning inquiries, even though they are seen as an important tool of accountability in virtually every legislature in the world.
Ultimately if there is a disagreement on the separation of powers the judiciary has the job of deciding who is right. This is problematic for two reasons. One, the judiciary has shown itself to be unwilling to interfere in the relationship between the government and the Dáil to uphold the rights of the Dáil to hold the government to account (for instance O’Malley v. Ceann Comhairle). In the recent Doherty judgement, the High Court showed itself not to understand that there is a legal separation between the government and the Dáil. Second, it seems unfair that one institution has all the power to adjudicate over disputes between it and the others. So if the executive doesn’t agree that it cannot make a certain decision because this amounts to a judicial function, to whom can it appeal – to the judiciary.
In any redesign of the constitution that may take place in the coming years, this anomaly should be dealt with. Perhaps here the president and the council of state could be the ultimate arbiter of separation of powers disputes – where the other two branches, the executive or legislature feel that the judiciary has denied one or other its rights. To work there’d have to be only very few of them, so only the government or a certain number of TDs could ask the council of state to consider a dispute. It could also give the president something more useful to do than delay rugby matches.