Yesterday’s conference on constitutional reform brought together lawyers, political scientists and economists to discuss the question whther Ireland needs constitutional reform. Though the only media coverage of the even related to Michael McDowell ‘slamming’ the media, a much more interesting conclusion emerged. There was a surprising consensus on the answer to the question set – no.
While most speakers agreed that the constitution is not perfect, most agreed that the constitution was not the proximate cause of the current economic crisis and the policy failures that led to it – though some of us argued that the political system can be blamed for those policy failures. In recent months many political leaders have called for radical changes and seem to indicate that under a new constitution these policy failures would not have happened. To be fair to those calling for reform, most are not setting out specific changes they want but indicating that they’d like a debate on changes. Stephen Kinsella pointed out that economic bubbles have been happening for centuries under all types of regimes and that it might have more to do with human nature than specific constitutional forms.
Nearly all the speakers referred to the high possibility of unintended consequences of constitutional change and the audience was reminded that a new constitution, as many politicians are calling for, might lead to us to have to cast aside case law that gives our current document a degree of predictability. Under a completely new document the judiciary might have a much more free rein to make law.
Some speakers spoke about specific reforms, such as the proposal to have an explicit article on children’s rights. As well as pointing out that children’s rights are already protected under the current document, Oran Doyle pointed out that a new explicit right would have to mean that judges have the right to determine what’s in a child’s interests, and there might not be the reasonable starting assumption that parents have the interests of the child at heart.
David Farrell reiterated the point we’re generally agreed on at this site, that electoral reform is neither necessary nor desirable, and that any change may lead to a more emasculated parliament because of the likely increased power of party leaders. I argued that we could separate government and legislature and create a class of parliamentarians if we made the Dáil much more independent of the government, by 1. rewriting the standing orders to remove the executive dominance and 2. allowing ministers to be chosen from outside the Oireachtas and forcing ministers to resign their seats if made ministers.
The general consensus one would have come away with was that while reform is necessary and welcome, one should proceed cautiously when dealing with the constitution. Radical and potentially effective reforms such as the setting up of a independent economic forecasting agency, or a strengthened C&AG that evaluated policy might achieve more, and more easily.