Category: Irish Society

Making headlines defending speech

Headlines & Fake NewsIn Trinity College Dublin, where I work, the Long Room Hub is the College’s Arts & Humanities Research Institute. It hosts over 250 events each year, including a discussion series entitled Behind the Headlines, which offers background analyses to current issues by experts drawing on the long-term perspectives of Arts & Humanities research. In particular, the series “aims to provide a forum that deepens understanding, combats simplification and polarization and thus creates space for informed and respectful public discourse.”

In the recent past, the series has featured discussions on artificial intelligence, Trump’s America, Syria, and Brexit (not once but twice). The next event in this series will be on Monday 6 November 2017, 6:30pm to 8:00pm, on

Freedom of Speech: Where Journalism and the Law Collide at the Boundary of 21st Century Debate

In a world where truth is under siege, freedom of speech has never been more important. But, as outrage and offense in public debate become a commodity for social media technology giants, the future of professional journalism in educating public opinion while challenging authority and power is increasingly under attack. …

This discussion is part of the ‘Fears, Factions and Fake News’ symposium held in conjunction with Columbia University and in partnership with Independent News and Media.

I am one of the four speakers; the other three are Professor Todd Gitlin (Columbia Journalism School, Columbia University), Dearbhail McDonald (Independent News and Media Group Business Editor) and Andrea Martin (media lawyer and speaker, MediaLawyer Solicitors).

Last Sunday, under the headline Major free speech symposium by INM, TCD and Columbia, the Sunday Independent ran a piece by Wayne O’Connor about the ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion and the other events in the symposium. This provoked a response by Peter Murtagh in this morning’s Irish Times:

US academic pledges to defend free speech ‘with anyone’s funding’

Conference, partly funded by INM, has been criticised because of links to Denis O’Brien

A leading US academic due to speak at a conference partly funded by Independent News and Media has said he “will defend the right to seek truth and to campaign against any and all assaults on the freedom of speech”. Prof Todd Gitlin of Columbia University’s prestigious school of journalism will participate in a seminar on November 6th entitled Freedom of Speech – where journalism and law collide.

The conference has been criticised because of the links to Denis O’Brien, a leading INM shareholder and the owner of Communicorp, one of the biggest radio stations groups in Ireland. … Saying that he had not “previously heard” of Mr O’Brien, Prof Gitlin said: “Please be assured that in any setting, with anyone’s funding, I will defend the right to seek truth and to campaign against any and all assaults on the freedom of speech.”

So, an event about “behind the headlines” is making headlines itself. (more…)

CAO cynicism

Level8, via FlickrIt’s that time of the year when the Central Applications Office (CAO) makes offers of third level places to Ireland’s school-leavers. Places are allocated on the basis of a complex but transparent system of supply (of [level 6, level 7 and level 8] courses by third level institutions), demand (for courses by school leavers), and grades (obtained by school leavers in the second level terminal examination, the Leaving Certificate). The grades are converted into points, and the number of points of the last-admitted candidate to a course can be regarded as the cut-off for qualification for entry to that course. The race for points for College places has become increasingly utilitarian over recent years, and the headlines this morning are no different:

Stem steams ahead as students abandon the arts ship

Points for arts courses fall to a new low as students question value of such degrees

Students have been bombarded by calls to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) over the past few years. The message seems to be working, as points for those courses have risen across the board for the first round of CAO offers. Points for arts courses have fallen to a new low as students question the value of those degrees, …

Also: CAO offers: Sharp points rise for courses linked to recovery – Engineering, architecture, construction and business up as arts falls to new low; Focus on construction and engineering results in higher points – Points drop across the board for arts and social science degrees; Business and technology jobs surge as over 52,000 receive CAO offers – Students target courses to give them skills to travel globally.

If the drop in points for Arts, Humanities and Social Science (AHSS) courses is because of a drop in demand, and if that drop in demand is because students are questioning the value of such degrees, this would be, to say the least, unfortunate. It reminds of me of the definition of a cynic given by Lord Darlington in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan as someone “who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing”. (more…)

The future of the Seanad

Seanad, via Oireachtas.ieThe following appears under the above heading in the letters page of today’s Irish Times:


As academics engaged in research in a variety of different disciplines we strongly advocate a No vote in the upcoming referendum on Seanad abolition.

We believe that to tackle the major issues affecting our society, it is vital that there should be more scrutiny of legislation and executive accountability, not less; that the level of vocational expertise in our parliamentary system should be strengthened, not eliminated; and that political participation by citizens in deliberative democratic processes should be intensified, not reduced. While the Seanad, as currently constituted, is not sufficiently equipped to deliver on these ideals, the reform proposals set forth in the Seanad Bill 2013 proposed by Senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone go some way to meeting them.

By broadening the nomination process and giving all citizens the right to elect our senators, the Quinn-Zappone Bill seeks to implement the real value of bicameralism in providing space for reflection and debate by two sets of qualitatively different representatives. By increasing the Seanad’s powers of scrutiny in a range of areas and providing for the right of the people to force the Seanad to debate on an issue of national importance, this reform package has the capacity to bring new expertise and scrutiny into the parliamentary system and to provide a channel for citizens to express their views, their ideas and their suggestions for change, thus strengthening the foundations of democracy in our country.

The only hope for real reform is a No vote.

Yours, etc,

Prof Ivana Bacik, School of Law, TCD;
Dr Cathryn Costello, Faculty of Law, Oxford University;
Dr Yvonne Daly, School of Law and Government, DCU;
Dr Shane Darcy, School of Law, NUI Galway;
Prof Fiona de Londras, Durham Law School, Durham University;
Larry Donnelly, School of Law, NUI Galway;
Prof Diarmaid Ferriter, School of History and Archives, UCD;
Dr Graham Finlay, School of Politics and International Relations, UCD;
Prof Conor Gearty, Department of Law, London School of Economics;
Dr Aidan Kane, School of Business and Economics, NUI Galway;
Dr Padraic Kenna, School of Law, NUI Galway;
Dr Robert Mooney, School of Sociology, UCD;
Dr Ronan McCrea (Faculty of Laws, University College London)
Dr Noel McGrath, School of Law, UCD;
Dr Cian Murphy, School of Law, King’s College London;
Prof Gary Murphy, School of Law and Government, DCU;
Colm O’Cinnéide, Faculty of Laws, University College London;
Prof Donncha O’Connell, School of Law, NUI Galway;
Dr Eoin O’Dell, School of Law, TCD;
Charles O’Mahony, School of Law, NUI Galway;
Prof Gerard Quinn, Centre for Diability Law and Policy, NUI Galway;
Dr Niamh Reilly, School of Political Science and Sociology, NUI Galway;
Dr Ciara Smyth, School of Law, NUI Galway;
Prof Jennifer Todd, School of Politics and International Relations, UCD;
Dr John Walsh, School of Languages, Literature and Cultures, NUI Galway;
Judy Walsh, School of Social Justice, UCD;
Suzanne Egan, School of Law, UCD, Belfield, Dublin 4.

I’m proud to join such stellar company in signing this letter; and kudos to Suzanne Egan for bringing us together and arranging its publication!

Update (1 Oct 2013): There is a reply by another group of academics in today’s letters’ page of the Irish Times, urging a vote the other way.

Some reflections on @RuadhanIT’s excellent @IrishTimes series on the Irish Supreme Court

The Surpeme Court, via its site, and with the kind permission of the Chief JusticeIn Brown v Allen 344 US 443, 540 (1953), Robert H Jackson, Chief Prosecutor at Nuremburg and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States said of that Court:

We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.

Supreme Courts’ quality of finality, on matters of the gravest import, fascinates observers; and, giving us a chance to go behind that finality closer to home, Ruadhán Mac Cormaic (@RuadhanIT) has an excellent series of articles on the Irish Supreme Court in the Irish Times. Here (with some added links and a few comments) is a flavour of his coverage over the last few days.

Inside Ireland’s Supreme Court: “… Nearly all judges resist labels such as liberal or conservative, pro-State or pro-plaintiff and dismiss attempts to extrapolate from their background a predisposition to decide a case a certain way. …”. Nevertheless, it is a persistent trope amongst watchers of the US Supreme Court (and of the UK courts, though perhaps less so), and it is likely to become so for the Irish Supreme Court as well, if the planned Court of Appeal allows the Supreme Court to become more of a constitutional court in the mo(u)ld of its US counterpart.


The spirit of Madison, and not his ghost

James Madison, via WikipediaRights matter when their exercise is unpopular. It is easy to exercise a right when no-one else objects. It is when some-one else objects, and seeks to prevent its exercise, that the right to do so becomes crucial. This is particular so when the majority object, and seek to rely on the force of numbers to prevent its exercise. That is precisely when the right is at its most important, and most necessary. As Kearns P (Carney and Hogan JJ concurring) put it in Fleming v Ireland [2013] IEHC 2 (10 January 2013),

51. … If, accordingly, the plaintiff’s constitutional rights extend as far as the manner claimed, then the fact that she is exercising those rights in a manner and for a purpose which some might consider contrary to their own ethical, moral or religious beliefs – or even the prevailing mores of the majority – is irrelevant.

This is an extremely important holding as to the nature of constitutional rights. Fleming itself is a very sad and difficult case in which a Divisional Court of the High Court unanimously upheld the the ban on assisted suicide in section 2(2) of the Criminal Law (Suicide) Act, 1993 (also here) (see Paul McMahon on Ex Tempore | Conor O’Mahony on Constitution Project @ UCC).

Assume for a moment that the legislative ban on assisted suicide does indeed represent the prevailing mores of the majority; assume further that the court had gone the other way and struck it down. Questions of legitimacy can be raised against this kind of judicial action, insofar as it runs counter to the majority view. For example, the Daily Mail often criticises unelected judges for making such decisions, to such an extent that the UK Prime Minister recently announced plans to curb the “massive growth industry” of Judicial Review, at least in planning cases. Here, that word “unelected” carries a great deal of judgmental freight, seemingly demanding judicial passivity in the face of majority decisions expressed by elected legislatures. But this kind of criticism carries weight only if the views of the majority are the exclusive source of legitimacy; and, in a constitutional democracy, this is simply not the case. Constitutional structure provides necessary checks against the tyranny of the majority, and prime among them are the rights of the individual. When the courts hold that a statute is unconstitutional, there is no dilemma or crisis of legitimacy – there is, rather, a reaffirmation of the constitutional aspects of constitutional democracy.

In this respect, therefore, the quote above from Kearns P’s judgment for the Divisional Court in Fleming shows that the courts are not so much haunted by the ghost of James Madison (pictured) as channelling the spirit of his views – and it’s a good thing too!

Quinns and Gowns – Contempt and Respect

Pillars at front of Four Courts, Dublin. Photo by William Murphy, infomatique, via FlickrA little late (because of the rebuild and ongoing redesign of the blog, on which all comments are gratefully appreciated) I want to focus on a busy week for the Irish Supreme Court. The week before last, not only did the Court have its full roster of hearings and judgments, but the judges of the Court also made a small piece of history by stepping out in new gowns. At the beginning of the last judicial year, the wearing of wigs by judges became optional, and most have since abandoned the horsehair. At the time, I posed the question, with wigs gone, whether a revamp of judicial gowns would be far behind. It wasn’t. As Dearbhail McDonald reports, fashion designer Louise Kennedy has designed new, simplified, judicial gowns. They were commissioned in 2009, but put on hold in 2010 for financial reasons, and have now been introduced at least at the level of the Supreme Court (more coverage: Irish Times | Sunday Business Post | As Dearbhail wrote (with added links):

New gunas for judges — now for real reform

… The new European style robes are more than a costume change — they mark a major (long overdue) symbolic break with the English tradition. … The new gowns are welcome, but their introduction pales in comparison with the widespread reforms needed in our courts. … New Chief Justice Susan Denham has argued for the introduction of a Civil Court of Appeal and specialist courts that would alleviate the burden of cases on the Supreme Court. …

(For the benefit of non-Irish readers, the word “gunas” in the headline is, I think, an attempt by the sub-editor at multi-lingual wordplay. The word “gúna” (pronounced “goo-nah”) is the Irish word for “dress” or “gown”; the plural in Irish would be “gúnaí”, pronounced “goo-nee”. The sub was plainly going for an aural link between “gown” and “gúna”, and thus between “gowns” and “gúnas” (pronounced, presumably “goo-nahs”). I’m not sure that the attempt at multi-lingual wordplay was all that successful, but never mind).

The simplification of judicial court dress is to be welcomed, but I would pause at this point. Court proceedings are serious matters, and some dignity and ceremony – including some formality of regalia on the part of court actors – are entirely appropriate (see Rob McQueen “Of Wigs and Gowns: A Short History of Legal and Judicial Dress in Australia” (1999) 16(1) Law in Context 31; reprinted Federation Press Digital Edition 2008). In many ways, they are symbolic of the respect to which the Courts and their orders are entitled. One of the new gowns’ first outings was when the Supreme Court handed down their judgments in Irish Bank Resolution Corporation Ltd v Quinn Investments Sweden AB, and others [2012] IESC 51 (24 October 2012), a case concerning contempt of court and the failure of three businessmen to respect orders of the courts.


Combating Cyberbullying – updated logo, via their siteFurther to my post on fighting anonymity with anonymity: open justice and cyberbullying and the tragedies of Amanda Todd, Ciara Pugsley, and Erin Gallagher, RTÉ news reports that a national youth organisation,, has issued guidelines on how to combat cyber and text-bullying:

If you are experiencing this form of bullying, it’s vital you don’t suffer in silence. Also, if you have witnessed cyberbullying, it’s important that you take action and address the problem.

Read the Office for Internet Safety’s Guide to cyberbullying, which includes information on when and how to contact service providers if you are being cyberbullied.

Two key pieces of advice from the page:

  • Don’t reply to the messages, but don’t delete them either: save them as proof.
  • Don’t stay quiet about the bullying: tell someone you can trust and who can help you and give you support.


Points for Law on the second round

Central Applications Office animated logo, via their siteThe Central Applications Office (logo left) processes all applications to first year undergraduate courses in the country’s various third level institutions. Offers are made for places on courses based results in the Leaving Certificate. The first round of offers was August 20; and the acceptance deadline was August 27. By then, a record total of 37,645 applicants had accepted offers – more than three-quarters of the 49,862 offers made. This morning, the CAO made a second round of offers to another 1,185 college applicants. Effectively, for a few courses, the points level will have dropped. Very few law courses made second round offers, but the few changes to the points I set out in a previous post are as follows (the round 1 points are listed first; the round 2 points are listed second in bold):

            Points Required for Entry to 2012 Level 8 Courses

University College Cork
CK302 Law and French 515 500
CK304 Law and Irish 530* 530
CK305 Law (Clinical) 535 530
CK306 Law (International) 550* 550

Dublin Business School
DB514 Business and Law 235 195
DB568 Law 275 230

NUI Galway
GY250 Corporate Law 350 340