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Democracy and Free Speech

In Ireland, we have difficulty understanding broad concepts, or so it seems.

Currently, the Irish Times (one, at least, of its “opinion columnistsâ€?) and the Sunday Business Post (the editorial) are citing the principle of democracy to accord respect (and, possibly, equality with the Irish referendum verdict) to the “viewsâ€? of other EU member states on the Lisbon Treaty.

The Government itself (the Taoiseach) defends Mr. Sarkozy’s “rightâ€? to express his reaction to the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by Ireland.

By contrast when Richard Corrigan expressed a criticism about Irish food he was attacked for doing so.

The Lisbon referendum was an exercise in democracy; anything involving the people is that.

Silencing Richard Corrigan is not a denial of democracy, it is a denial of free speech. Accepting Mr. Sarkozy’s right to express his opinion of the referendum result is a failure to defend democracy, not a defence of free speech.

Richard Corrigan is an ordinary person, addressing an ordinary issue; Mr. Sarkozy is not an ordinary person and positively rejects the referendum result.

The Taoiseach, in defending him is defending what he is saying.

The particular criticisms that may be made about the other EU member states in relation to the Lisbon Treaty are not really relevant to the above points, but, it is particularly indefensible to speak of the views of other member states in the context of references to democracy. It is fully acknowledged that the EU member states did not wish to submit the Lisbon Treaty to popular plebiscite and avoided doing so with one single exception.

This would have been beyond criticism, if popular plebiscite had not already been adopted (and came up with the “wrongâ€? result on the EU Constitution). It was, it did, and to reject it or avoid its use is not the fullest commitment to democracy imaginable.

Here in Ireland we are not exposed to “Free Speechâ€? very much.

The most notable recent exception is to be found in the 2006 Annual Report of the Information Commissioner.

She recounts her experience of addressing the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service and how she believed that each member subscribed to her views on Section 32 of the Freedom of information Act 1997. When it came to a vote, however, the Committee split on party lines, favouring the Minister over the Information Commissioner. (And in favouring the Minister, disadvantaged the citizens).

To the credit of the Information Commissioner, she declines to give up the fight in the face of power and sets out her views and experiences in her Report.

We need more of this, not least because we will come to learn the difference between Richard Corrigan’s opinions and Mr. Sarkozy’s opinions.