President McAleese: received bill on Wednesday

THERE is uncertainty in political circles as to whether President Mary McAleese will summon the Council of State in the coming days to examine the Civil Partnership Bill with a view to potentially referring it to the Supreme Court.

The president received the bill last Wednesday and under the constitution has until this Wednesday to sign it into law or refer it to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality.

If the president is to call a meeting of the Council of State, it will have to happen before Wednesday night as the process must be complete by then. The Council of State is made up of all the surviving holders – including incumbents – of the offices of the president, the Taoiseach and the chief justice, along with the current Tánaiste, president of the High Court, attorney general and the chairs of the Dáil and Seanad.

It has a role of advising the president but it is the president alone that has the authority to refer any bill to the Supreme Court.

While the referral of bills by the president is relatively uncommon, there would be little surprise in Leinster House if President McAleese does decide to summon the Council of State for advice on the Civil Partnership Bill and, possibly, the Criminal Procedures Bill. The latter bill does away, in certain circumstances, with the current double jeopardy rule whereby a person cannot be tried for the same offence twice.

The Civil Partnership Bill allows for the first time in Irish law same-sex couples to formally declare their allegiance to one another, register their partnership, commit themselves to a range of duties and responsibilities and at the same time be subject under new law to a series of protections in the course of their partnership.

It was passed unanimously by the Dáil without a vote and by 48 votes to four in the Seanad, albeit after an extraordinarily ill-tempered debate in the latter which also led to three Fianna Fáil senators losing the whip after voting against the legislation.

While welcomed as "historic" by the Gay & Lesbian Equality Network (Glen), the bill has been criticised both by conservatives and those who argue that it does not go far enough. However the government has argued that the legislation represents a balance between articles 40 and 41 of the constitution which deal with personal rights and the family respectively.