3 November 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

At some stage during their apprenticeship to the profession, the tyro journalist is usually taken aside by a grizzled colleague and imparted the mantra: “If in doubt, leave out.”
The cautionary phrase is a summation of good common sense habits that those who labour productively in the newspaper vineyards soon acquire, often painfully through neglect of its inherent principles.
It teaches the need to verify information, separate rumour from fact, and satisfy oneself as to the veracity and reliability of sources. It also embodies the principle of the reasonable doubt that, elsewhere, has binding legal force in the determination of criminal culpability.
It is clear that a small but significant majority of those who voted on the proposed 30th amendment to the Irish Constitution last Thursday applied the “If in doubt, leave out” principle to the decision they were asked to make.
The defeat of the proposal to confer additional powers on the Houses of the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries into matters they consider of significant public importance is an embarrassment for the Coalition Government.
But it is an embarrassment entirely of their own making.
It is very clear that the referendums should not have been held on the same day as the presidential election.
The determination of the issues relating to judges’ pay and the holding of inquiries were too important, and too complex, to be allowed to be subsumed in the clamour for public and media attention generated by the race for the Áras.
They received only belated, cursory attention – and in the brief period allotted for their consideration and discussion over the airwaves and in the printed press a rising current of unease built up in the public mind over the prospect of according Oireachtas committees powers of investigation that seemed alarmingly broad, and out of balance to the rights of representation and legal redress that investigated parties would apparently be entitled to.
This impression may well be an inaccurate reflection of the situation that would have pertained in practice if the referendum had been passed – but it was the impression that took hold, and the Government’s attempts to refute it were poor indeed.
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter made a grievous miscalculation when he reacted to the statement of opposition made by eight former Attorneys General with a personal attack on the individuals concerned.
It is a basic precept of debate that one responds to the argument rather than the individual – and Minister Shatter’s rather ad hominem riposte to the opinion expressed by distinguished and respected legal personages conferred influential weight upon their viewpoint by conveying an inability to refute it.
Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin in the aftermath of the referendum compounded his Cabinet colleague’s error with an attack on the Chairman of the independent Referendum Commission Bryan McMahon, which he was, rightly, subsequently compelled to withdraw.
One would expect more of two experienced Government Ministers than such behaviour – but in the run-up to the vote the attitude taken by the Government in general to public concerns on the inquiries referendum was regrettably dismissive.
By default – through arrogant presumption and a lack of information – the Government allowed a reasonable doubt to build up in the minds of sufficient of the electorate to see this proposal defeated.
To now complain, as some representatives of Government parties have done, that the Oireachtas has been left enfeebled in its powers to probe such matters as the banking crisis, is to ignore the insult to the intelligence and discrimination of the Irish people delivered by the manner in which this referendum proposal was packaged and presented.
There is a lesson here that the Government cannot afford to ignore. If they don’t learn it, other reasonable doubts will grow in the minds of the people as to the fitness of this Coalition to lead the country capably through the difficult fiscal and social period that will form their term in office.


“A President for all the people” was how Michael D Higgins proclaimed himself when he was confirmed as the new holder of the office at the end of last weekend’s count process.
Mr Higgins had triumphantly concluded an odyssey through a campaign distinguished more by divisiveness than the spirit of unification with which the Labour candidate sought to hallmark his victory, and apply a leitmotif for his term in office.
But it is clear that the veteran politician, whose image has evolved from radical to magus over a remarkable career, was for the majority of the Irish people the embodiment of what they considered a 21st century national president should be.
His almost 40% of first preference votes, and the high share of second and first preferences he attracted, make him irrefutably the people’s choice.
This was a very different presidential election campaign to that which Ireland has previously experienced.
The manner of electioneering, and the tone of media coverage, was sometimes inappropriate, in several senses, to the office at stake.
But it was often a compelling campaign.
The intense scrutiny the candidates endured was generated by journalism at its most probing and principled as well as at its most prurient.
Some thrived and some wilted in the furnace heat – but it was Mr Higgins who managed his message best, adamantly adhering to a vision of the presidency that was most convincingly cognisant of the post’s distinct parameters as well as its considerable potentialities.
In the end it was Michael D’s ability to skim serenely over the surface of the broiling campaigning waters, and his lack of pretence that he could walk upon them, that won him his emphatic victory – and there is surely a lesson for all future contenders for high office in that.
His tenure promises to be a colourful, intellectual, imaginative and controversy-free one – an identikit profile that would seem to mark Michael D Higgins out as an unimpeachable President!

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