I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
It cannot have escaped the attention of the House that in the past few months there has been an inappropriate level of public and media attention and concern focused on what appears to be a fairly widespread practice, sometimes gentle and other times not so gentle, of interference by parliamentarians in the workings of the judicial process, in particular with respect to criminal cases. This has occurred within our own State and internationally. Obviously, there have been several high profile cases, one in particular which reignited the debate for several months. I will not go into the details of these cases, some of which emerged into the public domain and others which had already been in it but were re-examined.
Suffice it to say that there have been well documented cases of Ministers, Deputies and Senators intervening in the process of prosecution or sentencing of rapists, child rapists, multiple rapists, incestuous rapists, of at least one person found guilty of vehicular homicide and of another found guilty of organising a quasi-political-criminal terrorist conspiracy. These are only the cases that have come to light. God only knows how many cases there have been in which intervention of this type was made. It has been reported that a well known constituency organisation in this country — I will not be specific — the office of which is known to give a high level of service to its constituents, was making up to 600 petitions per week on behalf of its constituents in their interface with public bodies. I am certain that in a proportion of these cases the interface was with the criminal justice system.
In days gone past, we had a semi-formalised system of petitions in which there was an actual mechanism for parliamentarians to make representations through the Department of Justice to have outcomes of the process of sentencing amended. As a result of concerns raised by a then retired judge, the matter was brought before the courts and a change was made. The system of petitions was replaced by the notion of making representations. As a political outsider looking at this, I contend that what we have with the current system of representations are stealth petitions. It is a way of exerting the same gentle degree of influence on a case as had previously been made in a formal petition through something couched as a question. I am not entirely comfortable with this.
The legislation we are discussing — I am grateful to my colleague, Senator Quinn, for seconding it — is an attempt to regulate this process by ensuring it is reported and cannot happen surreptitiously, that in the event that such an intervention is made it must be recorded by, say, something as trivial as a telephone call to a Garda or a prosecuting official anywhere in the State. Some will say that the Bill does not go far enough. Others will say we should try to ban the process. In the immediate aftermath of the events which occurred earlier this year, my visceral reaction was to state my intention to introduce legislation in this House to end that practice. There are problems with that. There are also issues relating to the whole concept of freedom of speech and whether it is possible to stop any two people from actually speaking to one another. It certainly seems entirely reasonable to introduce legislation which would ensure that if any Member of Parliament makes any representation of this type to the Judiciary, the Garda or members of the prosecuting service — they may well do it from very pure motives — it will, at least, be recorded. It may be that a subsequent Bill will go further in the future and we would have an open mind on supporting any amendment at some stage, but this Bill gives us an opportunity to grasp this nettle now and put a brake on a process which, if not corrupt in itself, can be readily corrupted.
This issue must be acknowledged, especially in light of today when a poor gentleman, Troy Davis, may well face execution as a result of a conviction which many authorities believe is very unsafe. It may be entirely appropriate for colleagues to make representations internationally and nationally where they believe a true miscarriage of justice is occurring but if they make it, they should be prepared to make it publicly. They should be prepared to make it in a fashion where it is reported to the justice officials here, where it is subject to FOI legislation and where it can be scrutinised by the media and the citizenry.
It is important to think about why people do this. I have had a number of conversations with my new colleagues and, in many cases, my new friends in this House since I had the privilege of coming in here some months ago. It is apparent to me that many of the old timers here have felt under a degree of pressure with this process. It is something that happens which they wish did not happen. They wish they had a defence against it and had a better means of saying to a petitioning constituent, "No, I cannot do this; please do not ask me to do this". Under this Bill, it would be easier to point out to a petitioner in a case where the request for representation may be less than fully justifiable that the person must understand that every aspect of that petition, including the approach that was made, will be subject to public scrutiny.
Parliamentarians may believe that within a system like ours where there is a heavy emphasis on some local aspects of politics — I do not use these terms pejoratively — in terms of a certain basis of clientelism and patronage, one of their currencies is the ability to portray their office as having a degree of influence on behalf of potential voters. People can argue about the rights or wrongs of that. I believe we need a fundamental reform of our rules regarding influence but that is another day's work.
Parliamentarians should remember that a number of parliamentary careers have been destroyed by this process, including that of a Minister. Deputies and other Senators have had their reputations called into question and one Supreme Court judge, one Circuit Court judge and several judicial officials have also had their careers damaged in this way. One may not lose anything by supporting a Bill of this nature. There is also an expectation that this type of pressure will merit a response from our officials and our civil servants, putting them in a very difficult positionvis-à-vis their political masters. The need for this type of representation to be made public might have the effect of discouraging some of the more inappropriate cases. Trying to stamp it out will be difficult but we should at least cast light on it.
A US Supreme Court judge, Louis Brandeis, stated almost a century ago that: "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman...". Mr. Justice Brandeis made these comments about the American banking system in 1913. One can only speculate if the wisdom of those timeless remarks had been taken on board by the leaders of our political system, banking system and banking regulatory system 90 years later, it might have had a profoundly beneficial effect on the more recent history of our country. It is not too late to learn that lesson with respect to this issue.
Those of us who may feel we are in the House but not necessarily of the House, those of us who until recently would have been somewhat critical spectators rather than participants in the actual political process, will be aware that the reputation of Irish politics is not very high right now among the electorate. Obviously in times of economic distress this can occur but there has also been a well evolved body of evidence over several years showing systematic dysfunctions in the political process. This is one opportunity to look at one little dysfunctional aspect of the political process and to fix one little problem which would not only will help the problem, but enhance the reputation and standing of these Houses and of the system of democratic government. I ask Members to support the Bill.