Senator Dan Boyle wants to amend the Constitution to provide for an offence of “economic treason”. The phrase is an effective political barb, recently thrown at Brian Cowen by Eamon Gilmore in a clearly political exchange, but what does it actually mean?
The ordinary offence of treason is punishable by a life term in prison. Deputy Gilmore and Senator Boyle appear to refer to alleged mismanagement of national affairs by the government. Senator Boyle has not gone to the effort of defining the offence with sufficient precision to understand what is actually proposed and the question arises as to why primary legislation cannot be drafted to introduce whatever nebulous offence he has in mind.
What existing aspect of constitutional law bars the creation of a new offence? Or, indeed, what deficiency exists in the current laws that requires a new law? On the evidence of the draft bill, these questions do not appear to have been considered.
The draft provision states:
Economic treason shall consist of actions that result in reputational damage for the country, an unacceptable economic cost, or a loss of economic sovereignty for the State.
The lack of precision suggests that any reputational damage done to the country (what is the country? why not the State?) constitutes an offence. Likewise, any circumstances leading to an unacceptable economic cost could constitution treason. And what, politics aside, constitutes “a loss of economic sovereignty”? The various European Union treaties ratified by the State involved some loss of economic sovereignty; are all taoisigh since Jack Lynch guilty?
Well, of course, those events happened in the past. However, the draft Article 49.3 suggests one constitutional problem which Senator Boyle wishes to overcome. It provides:
Nothing in this section shall preclude the drafting of legislation, applying these definitions retrospectively.
If this provision is to be interpreted as intending that a criminal offence of retrospective effect could be enacted, Article 15.5.1 prohibits it.
The Oireachtas shall not declare acts to be infringements of the law which were not so at the date of their commission.
One might suggest that Senator Boyle’s Article 49.3 be amended to provide that nothing in the Constitution shall preclude retrospective effect. That option is not available. Article 7 of the European Convention of Human Rights provides:
No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence under national or international law at the time when it was committed.
It would appear, then, that the proposed amendment takes Deputy Gilmore’s soundbite and proposes to paste it into the Constitution, without any serious thought as to the possibility or consequences of doing so. It is not a serious proposal and one can only see it as a purely political stunt.