Morrissey on the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill and Advance Directives

Dr. Fiona Morrissey completed a PhD in mental health law at NUI Galway in 2014. She is a member of a number of expert panels on mental health and capacity law reform and acts as a reviewer for a number of international journals and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Fiona sits on the National Advisory Committee (Research, Impact and Evaluation workgroup) for Sage (Support & Advocacy Service for Older People). Her national study on advance healthcare directives can be accessed at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352552515001048

Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill: Why Equality is needed in the Proposed Laws on Advance Healthcare Directives. Some decisions are less equal than others

The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill 2013 is due before the Seanad on the 9th of December and is scheduled to be enacted into law this year. This is an important piece of legislation, which may apply to any one of us now or in the future. The Bill aims to secure supports and safeguards for any person who may have difficulty making a decision due to a disability, Alzheimer’s disease, a road traffic accident or a period of ‘mental distress’. The legislation includes provisions for advance healthcare directives, which will allow us to specify future treatment or other life choices in a legal document and/or to appoint a trusted decision-maker, in the event we have difficulty communicating or making a decision for ourselves in the future. In these circumstances, the advance healthcare directive will help your doctor or a family member understand your wishes regarding medical treatment or other life choices and specify who you trust to communicate these wishes or to make decisions in accordance with your beliefs and values.  Continue reading “Morrissey on the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill and Advance Directives”

Morrissey on the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill and Advance Directives

Open Letter: Recognition of the Travelling Community as an Ethnic Minority in Ireland

We would like to lend our strong support to the motion recently before the Dail to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority. This is a long overdue development. The preventable tragedy of Carrickmines brings this imperative further to the fore. History will not look kindly on those individuals and political parties voting to deny Travellers this basic right to ethnic recognition.

c/o Dr. Paul Downes, St. Patrick’s College, Dublin City University

Professor Gerry Whyte, Trinity College Dublin

Leah O’Toole, Marino Institute of Education

John Fitzgerald BL

Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan (retired), St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra

Dr. Padraig Carmody, Trinity College Dublin

Professor Ursula Kilkelly, School of Law, University College Cork

Dr. Stephen Kinsella, University of Limerick

William Binchy, Fellow Emeritus, Trinity College Dublin

Siobhan Phelan SC

Professor Aoife Nolan, School of Law, University of Nottingham

Professor Fionnuala Waldron, St. Patrick’s College, DCU

Marion Brennan, Early Childhood Ireland

Dr Mark Taylor, Goldsmiths, University of London

Dr. Marie Moran, University College Dublin

Professor Carmel Cefai, University of Malta

Dr. Audrey Bryan, St. Patrick’s College, DCU

Declan Dunne, Sophia Housing and Homeless Services,

Denise Mc Cormilla, National Childhood Network

Dr. Maggie Feeley, UCD

Dr Anthony Cullen, Middlesex University, London

Dr. Sylwia Kazmierczak-Murray, Cabra School Completion Programme

Dr. James O’Higgins Norman, DCU

Dr. Padraic Gibson, The Bateson Clinic

Dr. Susan Pike, St. Patrick’s College, DCU

Fran Cassidy, Social Policy Consultant/Filmmaker

Dr. Maeve O’Brien, St. Patrick’s College, DCU

Frank Gilligan, Ballyfermot Local Drugs Task Force

Dr. Geraldine Scanlon, DCU

Dr. Catherine Maunsell, St. Patrick’s College, DCU

Dr. Majella McSharry, DCU

Dr Liam Thornton, UCD

Open Letter: Recognition of the Travelling Community as an Ethnic Minority in Ireland

The Labour Party #repealthe8th Proposals: An Analysis

By Professor Fiona de Londras, University of Birmingham | E: f.delondras@bham.ac.uk | T: @fdelond

Today the Labour Party became the second party to outline its plans for repeal of the 8th amendment and the possible legislation that would follow constitutional change (the first was the Green Party, whose proposals I analysed here). The proposals seem to have temporarily disappeared from the Labour page, but the Heads are uploaded here.

I must start this post by saying that, together with nine others (Mairead Enright, Vicky Convway, Mary Donnelly, Ruth Fletcher, Natalie McDonnell, Claire Murray, Sheelagh McGuinness, and Sorcha uí Chonnachtaigh) I was involved as an independent expert in the Labour Women Commission on Repeal of the 8th Amendment. This Commission comprised a political group, a medical group, and a legal group. Our job, as the legal group, was to propose a piece of law that might act as a “model” for post-amendment legislating, listening to the views of the medical experts and feeding into the political decision-making processes of the political group.

Our involvement did not mean that the political group would automatically endorse our proposals, or that the Labour Party’s policy objectives would determine our proposals. Inevitably, the context in which we undertook the task of drafting such a law informed our approach to it, and we explain the thinking behind our draft law here. The draft law itself was published open access here. As is clear from the analysis that follows, the final proposals from the Labour Party adopt some, but not all, of what we proposed (just as the Green Party proposal did), and we all remain at the disposal of other political parties to discuss the proposals as they (we hope) formulate their policies on abortion coming up the general election. Continue reading “The Labour Party #repealthe8th Proposals: An Analysis”

The Labour Party #repealthe8th Proposals: An Analysis

Book Launch: International Human Rights: Perspectives from Ireland, 8 December 2015

EganOn December 8th 2015,  UCD School of Law will host the launch of Suzanne Egan’s new edited collection International Human Rights: Perspectives from Ireland. The book will be launched by the Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), Emily Logan.

Location: Gardiner Atrium, UCD School of Law

Time/Date: 6.30pm on 8th December 2015. 

RSVP: law.events@ucd.ie 

International Human Rights: Perspectives from Ireland examines Ireland’s engagement with, and influence of, the international human rights regime. International human rights norms are increasingly being taken into account by legislators, courts and public bodies in taking decisions and implementing actions that impact on human rights. Featuring chapters by leading Irish and international academic experts, practitioners and advocates, the book combines theoretical as well as practical analysis and integrates perspectives from a broad range of actors in the human rights field. You can access the full table of contents for this book here.  Egan’s collection explores:

  • The philosophical development and challenges to/of human rights;
  • The international human rights framework (UN human rights council; UN Treaty system; EU and ECHR);
  • Implementing human rights in Ireland (Magdalenes, socio-economic rights, rights of the child; human trafficking; religion; privacy; refugee definition; criminal justice, policing and conflict).
  • Implementing human rights abroad (Irish foreign policy and obligations of Irish organisations).

Bloomsbury are offering all registered students (full and part time) a 40% discount on the book, with the discount code: IHR40%. You should enter this code at checkout

Book Launch: International Human Rights: Perspectives from Ireland, 8 December 2015

FLAC: 2016 Thomas Addis Emmet Fellowship

FlacThe Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) is now accepting applications for the 2016 Thomas Addis Emmet Fellowship – a unique opportunity awarded each summer to an Irish law student interested in working on critical social justice issues and developing skills in public interest law practice.

Run in conjunction with the University of Washington, the recipient will spend two months with a public interest law justice centre at the forefront of human rights and social change in Seattle, Washington, gaining hands-on experience of targeted public interest litigation, policy development and campaigns.

The Fellowship is open to all current law students, including students that have studied law as part of their undergraduate degree, postgraduates in law, and students of the King’s Inns or Law Society professional practice courses.

To apply please submit an essay on an area of public interest law of your choice (max. 2000 words) along with a cover letter and CV to info@flac.ie by Friday 15 January 2016.

For more information, please download the information sheet.

FLAC: 2016 Thomas Addis Emmet Fellowship

The Green Party’s Reproductive Rights Policy: An Appraisal

By Professor Fiona de Londras, University of Birmingham E: f.delondras@bham.ac.uk T: @fdelond

The Green Party has released a reproductive rights policy in advance of the general election. The policy is very welcome, and is a further indication that reproductive justice is likely to be a central issue in the forthcoming election. The policy is especially interesting in that it speaks to a broad reproductive rights policy, endorsing better maternity care and more choice in maternity and birthing options, and committing to access to safe and affordable contraception, which is a very welcome development. The publication of this policy also speaks to the Green Party’s decision to support repeal of the 8th Amendment by means of a referendum, although its support is given “on the condition that the Government have provided draft legislation which will be put in place if the referendum passes”. It is on this proposed law that I want to concentrate here. Continue reading “The Green Party’s Reproductive Rights Policy: An Appraisal”

The Green Party’s Reproductive Rights Policy: An Appraisal

Carroll on Marrying youth and politics: more than a click away

Aengus Carroll (LL.M) is co-author of State Sponsored Homophobia 2015, a global survey of law for the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). He is ILGA’s member on an Expert Steering Group to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on a Global LGBTI Inclusion Index to run in line with the new Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030).

Although Irish people of all ages voted yes in the marriage equality referendum on 22 May this year, the numbers demonstrate it was the youth vote that assured its success. Such youth turn-out was unprecedented in Irish political life, and flies in the face of conventional political wisdom that young people are apathetic.

Now that the largely untapped youth voice has clearly resounded across this country and with a general election on the horizon, a variety of campaigners and political parties are looking at how to quickly harness that voice again. Youth mobilisation has become a new holy grail in Irish politics. But what campaigners and politicians fail to see is that the youth mobilisation around the marriage equality referendum was the result of over a decade of youth empowerment and infrastructure building in towns and villages across the country by BeLonG To – Ireland’s LGBT youth organisation. Continue reading “Carroll on Marrying youth and politics: more than a click away”

Carroll on Marrying youth and politics: more than a click away

The Importance of the Women-y Fringe-y Excesses of Irish Pro-choice Activism.

Mairead Enright.

In the past year or so, Irish pro-choice protesting has taken on a new vitality. Some pro-choice actors have adopted the language of satire, humour, scandal and disobedience to show up the limits of the abortion regime. I have written before about the abortion pill train (which recently morphed into the abortion pill bus) and Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A., whose “Delivering the Word” (above) is a must-watch. Most recently, the comedian Grainne Maguire has been encouraging Irish women to “tweet their periods” to the Taoiseach, in an effort to “reclaim the humanity” of the abortion debate and to demonstrate that women are not ashamed to challenge a government which refuses to give up its control over women’s reproductive functions. For their pains, activists who choose these routes to political action are told that their methods are misguided, counter-productive, annoying, and an improper departure from those past feminist tactics which can now be celebrated and valued. The attempted suppression of disruptive political activism around abortion has its mirror in some official retellings of the marriage equality referendum, which close out both the history of Irish queer protest and the central role of working class campaigners and voters, in favour of a soft lens tale of constitutionalism and carefully choreographed deliberative democracy (on which see Anne Mulhall here). Closer to the root of the abortion issue, we find resonances with this government’s official discourse of abortion law reform. Fine Gael, which will not even commit to reforming the law on abortion information, much less to repealing the 8th Amendment,  thrives on its occupation of the “proper” position from which to instigate legal change. When challenged on his reluctance to examine the 8th, the Taoiseach presents himself as unflinchingly guarding ‘the People’s book’ (the constitutional text which perfectly reflects the democratic will of the ‘people’) from the undemocratic hordes and calmly refusing to be “rushed” (after over 30 years) into ill-thought-out law reform. (This paternalistic identification of his government with the measured and careful exercise of proper legal agency is, of course, also reflected its limited abortion legislation, which operates on the presumption that the law must be protected from the dangerous and disobedient agency of hysterical women).

This sort of denigration of those whose demands for legal change do not fit ‘legitimate’ patterns is grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of political action. I want to draw on Jacques Rancière’s distinction between ‘the political’ and ‘the police’. ‘Police’ here refers not to the police force but to the systems which establish a ‘distribution of the sensible’, dividing us into groups according to our attributed status and functions. These divisions are between the community of the “we” and those who belong outside it; between those who are included and excluded, accepted and unacceptable, and accordingly between the visible and the invisible, the sayable and the unsayable. What we think of as politics – limited deliberation in designated institutional spaces – usually consists in argumentation and negotiation around these divisions, undergirded by some “common sense” or consensus. True politics, by contrast, is about upsetting the dominant distribution of the sensible. Politics takes place when in moments of dissent “the part of no part” – those who normally should not be seen or heard – intervene in the established system of meanings, questioning it, and by that questioning insisting on their equality with others as political subjects and members of a broader “we”. For example, at this year’s March for Choice, the comedian Tara Flynn spoke movingly about Ireland’s abortion regime. In a lighter moment, she noted that reproductive rights campaigns were often construed in the public sphere as a ‘women-y fringe-y thing”. But, she said, of the assembled pro-choice marchers, “we are not some women-y fringe-y part of society, we are society”. That sort of statement gestures in its own way to the intervention of the “part of no part” in the distribution of the sensible – it signifies how those silenced by the dominant public settlement around the abortion issue have insisted on being heard and included in spite of systems of mockery, shaming and discursive degradation which diminish and devalue them. From this perspective, the very point of politics is to disrupt decided orders of power and civility. There can be no ‘proper’ set of political actors who are more entitled or more qualified than others to engage in acts of political subjectivization; to demand a new political place. And equality, similarly, is not a determinate goal which can be finally achieved in any sense,  but something with limitless potential which is presupposed and constantly expressed or verified in our political actions. In intervening in the distribution of the sensible, the ‘part of no part’ refigures political space, making sayable and thinkable that which previously could not be said or thought.

The basic “moderate” claim which circulates within mainstream discourses of abortion law reform in Ireland is that women are not allowed to be ‘angry’ about the 8th Amendment. We are read as angry when we make urgent demands for law reform, or compose or share satirical barbs, or draw attention to the bodily injuries, the despair and pain inflicted by the law. And that attributed anger is dismissed as worthless, even when it may be visionary. As Sara Ahmed says, the refusal of oppressed groups’ attributed anger and the insistence that they ‘go along’ with dominant political modes of work – the insistence on gentler, even happier forms of political action – is a classic tactic of political exclusion. When we are angry, we are accused, not only of the irrationality which should disqualify us from political participation in the first place, but of threatening the smooth communication which supports the political bond. (In this respect, the dismissal of more militant strands of the movement for abortion rights betrays a certain sense of the liberal mainstream’s vulnerability – its fear of fragmentation). But, on Rancière’s account of the political, we create political community through conflict. The apparent incivility of the oppressed is not something to be tamed and disciplined: it is the point of politics. That being so, it is never clear that there is a “right” or “wrong” mode of entry into the political. Contests about the ways in which we can speak properly about issues of central importance to the community matter. And it may be that the more unsettled and scandalised those with the most power to regulate the agreed boundaries of the “we” become, the closer things are to the heart of the political. Moreover, if equality can never be finally achieved, then it is never clear that a political struggle is over. The demands of equality always exceed what has already been achieved. (This is the point of Marlon James’ recent interrogation of the Liberal Limit.)

Those who insist that abortion rights campaigners conduct themselves in ways which do not “annoy” or “upset”, or talk too much about bodies, or otherwise tend to excess, may claim – in the grand tradition of liberalism – to be defending politics’ essential virtue and decorum, and to be guarding the proper way of doing things from untamed or naive outsiders. But in so doing, they are merely attempting to reinforce their own powerful position within the police order; insisting on a politics which can only be conducted on their terms; turning politics into an insurance policy for their own privilege.

The Importance of the Women-y Fringe-y Excesses of Irish Pro-choice Activism.

Hungary’s Border Control Actions: Past the Borderline of International Law

 

Bríd Ní Ghráinne is a lecturer in International and Refugee Law at the University of Sheffield. She holds a DPhil from the University of Oxford and an LLM for Universiteit Leiden. She can be contacted at b.a.nighrainne@sheffield.ac.uk. A shorter version of this article is available at the Oxford Human Rights Hub blog.

 As the European refugee ‘crisis’ worsens, the Hungarian government is resorting to more extreme border control measures that test the parameters of international law. The Guardian reported on 17 September that Hungary had fired gas canisters and sprayed water at crowds of frustrated refugees who had briefly broken through the fence that separates Hungary and Serbia. It was also reported that asylum-seekers’ claims were being assessed and rejected ‘within minutes’. These reports have ‘shocked’ the international community, and the purpose of this brief piece is to give an overview of the legal issues engaged.

There are three separate legal regimes that bind Hungary in respect of these events. International law, and in this case, the 1951 Refugee Convention, takes primacy for reasons that will not be discussed in detail here. European Union Law as well as the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights are also relevant as Hungary is party to the EU and the Convention.

Regretfully, history has shown us that rejection at the frontier is not an uncommon response in cases of mass influx of refugees, such as in April 1999, when Macedonia closed its border to Kosovar refugees at the Blace border crossing. Article 33(1) of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Hungary became a party in 1989, provides that no-one shall be expelled ‘in any manner whatsoever’ to the frontiers of territories where their lives or freedoms may be in danger. This provision applies to recognised refugees as well as asylum-seekers, and there is strong academic consensus that this provision applies to those presenting themselves at the border, as is the case in Hungary. However, whether the lives of the refugees who have been pushed away from the border with Serbia are now in danger is difficult to tell and therefore it is unclear if Article 33(1) has been engaged on this occasion. If they eventually have to return to Syria (if that is where they came from), then there has certainly been a breach.

A stronger argument can be made that Hungary’s ‘pushback’ actions are in breach of EU and European Human Rights Law. The Dublin III Regulation, which provides that the first EU country in which an asylum seeker arrives has responsibility for determining that asylum seeker’s status, does not render Hungary’s actions legal. Thus if another EU country has been entered prior to arriving at the Hungarian border, Hungary does not necessarily have the right to refuse asylum. Under international law (as opposed to EU law), there is no obligation incumbent upon a refugee to make an asylum claim in the first country of arrival. Further, many of the asylum-seekers trying to cross the Hungarian border would have first arrived in Greece, which does not have a functioning asylum processing regime. Thus Hungary would be responsible for deciding the claim, as set out in the Dublin III regulation. Moreover, the European Court of Human Rights found in the case of MSS v Belgium and Greece [2011] that sending an asylum seeker from Belgium to Greece (in the application of the Dublin Regulation) was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. This was because the conditions in Greece violated Article 3 of the Convention, which prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Hungary’s argument that Serbia is a ‘safe third country’ also fails upon scrutiny. The safe third country concept provides that asylum need not be granted in the state in which the application was made, provided an alternative state is willing to accept the refugee. Whether sending refugees to a third country is a breach of international law depends on whether effective protection is available in that country. A report by Amnesty International from July 2015 indicates that this is not the case in Serbia, where amongst other factors, refugee recognition rates are extremely low.

The reports of asylum claims being dealt with within ‘minutes’ as reported by the Guardian are also worrying, particularly because there seems to be no effective appeals system and refugees are given information only in the Hungarian language. These actions are arguably a breach of both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the EU Asylum Procedures Directive (Council Directive 2005/85/EC). Although the 1951 Refugee Convention does not formally set out the procedures involved in the determination of refugee status, Goodwin Gill and McAdam in their text The Refugee in International Law (OUP, 2011) argue that the Refugee Convention’s object and purpose of protection and assurance of human rights strongly support an obligation to adopt of effective internal measures. This was the position of the Executive Committee (ExCom) of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which in its Executive Conclusion No. 8 (XXVIII) (1977) set out a range of procedural guarantees to be followed in the determination of asylum proceedings; including that (i) Applicants should receive the necessary guidance as to the procedure to be followed; (ii) Applicants should be given the necessary facilities, including interpreters and contact with the UNHCR, to submit their case; (iii) failed asylum-seekers should be given a reasonable time to appeal and they should be allowed to remain in the country while appeal is pending.

Similarly, the Asylum Procedures Directive guarantees access to a fair and efficient asylum decision and it explicitly applies to applications made at the border. It mirrors the standards set out by the ExCom above, and goes into significant detail regarding the content of the rights granted, such as the conditions under which an interview must take place and the scope of legal assistance and protection. If the allegations of asylum applications being rejected ‘within minutes’ are true, it is highly likely that Hungarian authorities have not complied with these EU and international legal standards.

Finally, it is necessary to examine the legality of the use of tear gas as reported by the Guardian to force migrants back from Hungary’s border. According to the European Court of Human Rights case of Abdullah Yaşa and Others v. Turkey [2013], the use of tear gas in itself is not necessarily a violation of the Convention where a gathering is not peaceful. In the Yaşa case, the gathering was deemed to be ‘not peaceful’ as the demonstrators were throwing stones, as was reportedly the case with the migrants at the Hungarian border. However, the European Court of Human Rights also found that the use of tear gas can be a violation of Article 3 of the Convention where excessive force is used, for example, where tear-gas grenades are launched (Yaşa), or where tear gas is used on someone deprived of their liberty (Güneş v. Turkey [2012]). As the exact circumstances surrounding the use of the tear gas at the Hungarian border is not clear, it seems difficult to come to a conclusion whether the Hungarian authorities’ actions in this respect were unlawful.

In sum, the actions of the Hungarian authorities in allegedly dismissing asylum applications ‘within minutes’ and in rejecting refugees at the frontier are appropriately condemned as a violation of International, EU, and European Rights Law.

 

 

 

Hungary’s Border Control Actions: Past the Borderline of International Law

Gay Marriage in Northern Ireland

 

Northern Ireland Assembly Votes to Legalise Same Sex Marriage” proclaimed the headline in The Guardian. Few headlines have promised so much more than the subsequent story delivers. For in spite of the one-vote majority in favour of a change in the law in Northern Ireland in the Assembly on Monday, the DUP’s invocation of a “petition of concern” (POC) on the issue meant that it was able to veto the introduction of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. As Gerry Lynch put it, ‘it still felt like a punch in the plexus to finally secure a democratic majority through years of hard work only for it to be vetoed undemocratically’. With rich irony the Northern Ireland Act provisions designed to protect minority groups against predatory applications of majority power have been turned into a means of stymieing reform aimed at delivering marriage equality.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. With the spectre of the Northern Ireland Parliament’s permanent Unionist majority dominating the drafting of the arrangements for the Northern Ireland Assembly at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, POCs were intended to maintain consociationalism within Stormont by requiring a super-majority and cross-community support where Northern Ireland’s Unionist or Nationalist parties considered that a measure threatened the interests of their community. The ability of POCs to block any legislative change has instead seen them increasingly applied as a strong-arm tactic to prevent changes to the law with the aim of preserving the status quo or extracting concessions in return for a POC being lifted. DUP measures, indeed, appear to be block signed by party MLAs with the issue to which they are to be applied being added to the form at a later stage. Public confidence in the Stormont Assembly’s ability to address the needs of society in Northern Ireland has plummeted.

Whilst the DUP’s stance on gay marriage might be out of step with opinion polling across Northern Ireland, it remains popular with its own core supporters and so the political incentive to wield a POC (ahead of next year’s Assembly elections) remains strong. But if the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland remain so dysfunctional, will the courts intervene to permit gay marriage? Legal challenges to the limitations are already underway in the Northern Ireland High Court. The UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, whilst describing opposition to gay marriage as being on the “wrong side of history” (whilst maintaining his own vote against change), has told his party conference that he expects the new law to be forced upon law makers through the courts.

Forcing law reform through judicial decision could unblock this particular impasse. The need to react to an adverse court decision might help the Unionist parties to soothe the evangelical elements amongst their support base, being “saleable” as a long-resisted reform that was forced upon the parties. All the better if the judgment is not issued until after the Assembly elections. And for people who want to get married, a win is a win, and they are not likely to sniff at the courts forcing the pace of change.

So should the courts intervene? Under section 6 of the Northern Ireland Act the legislation of the Northern Ireland Assembly is not valid law if it is outside the legislative competence of the Assembly (a concept which includes making a law which breaches ECHR rights). But as the Northern Ireland Assembly has not made a law banning Gay Marriage, just failed to enact one allowing it, the general provisions of the Human Rights Act (and its incorporation of the ECHR into UK Law) will apply.

Whilst the ECHR includes a right to marry (Article 12) the Strasbourg Court has to date refused to rule that it is discriminatory for states not to apply this right to homosexual couples. In July, in its latest judgment on the issue, Oliari v Italy, the Court maintained that as only 11 of the 47 states signatory to the Convention had to date accepted same-sex marriage, there was no European consensus in favour of reading such a right into the terms of the ECHR. Many Unionist politicians picked up on this point in Monday’s debate:

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that same-sex marriage is not a human right, so this is not a rights issue. (Gordon Lyons, DUP)

There is no human right recognised by the European Convention on Human Rights or the European Court of Human Rights to same-sex marriage. It therefore cannot be and is not a rights issue, nor is it an issue of equality. Rather, there is a worked-up, phoney demand for rights where none does or should exist. There is no equality issue here. (Jim Allister, TUV)

These same politicians will eagerly and angrily decry any effort by the Northern Ireland courts to change the law on human rights grounds. But Article 12 is not the only applicable ECHR right. The Court has established that the relationship of a cohabitating same-sex couple living in a stable partnership falls within Article 8 ECHR’s protection of “family life” (Schalk and Kopf v Austria), this might provide a basis for arguing that, as same-sex marriages concluded in other parts of the UK are treated as Civil Partnerships within the Northern Ireland jurisdiction, the awkward legal transformation of a marriage into a civil partnership as soon as someone steps off a ferry or plane amounts to discrimination.

Moreover, the definition of marriage in Northern Ireland law – “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others” – rests on a nineteenth century judicial decision, Hyde v Hyde (backed up by secondary legislation – the Matrimonial Causes NI Order 1978). By altering this definition the courts cannot be accused of tossing aside legislation enacted by elected lawmakers, a fact which might embolden any judge concerned about the political backlash resultant from such a decision. They also have a much freer hand in terms of their powers under the Human Rights Act than they would have had if the definition of marriage was contained in primary legislation, if they can be persuaded to move ahead of Strasbourg on the issue of Article 12.

This room for manoeuvre makes the gay marriage cases crucial tests for the role of the courts in Northern Ireland’s system of government. On a range of issues from gay marriage, to the ban on gay blood donations to the strict limitations on abortion, judges in Northern Ireland are increasingly being confronted with cases which highlight the blockages in the Assembly’s law-making process. Some might decide that the time has come to chivvy the Assembly along.

 

 

 

 

Gay Marriage in Northern Ireland