Post by David Farrell (August 13, 2011)
As reported in earlier posts on this blog, this government has made some quite impressive progress on implementing the political reform proposals proposed in its Programme for Government. They’ve made a good start. But, arguably most of this has been the low-hanging fruit, the relatively easy targets. We’ve still to see the real meat of reform.
A point that has been made by several of us on this blog and elsewhere on several occasions is that if true reform is to happen it will have to be radical, ambitious, large-scale, and – most crucially of all – involve the active engagement of the citizens. The last point is important for a number of reasons not least the fact that ultimately since any major changes (involving constitutional reform) will need the citizens’ vote in a referendum then it’s better to have something that citizens are more likely to buy into.
In their respective policy documents published before the election, Fine Gael and Labour promised that citizens would be involved in the political reform process they each advocated. The same promises found themselves into their party manifestos (with similar promises being made by all the other political parties too).
There were important differences: Fine Gael proposed the establishment of a citizens’ assembly to consider electoral reform, whereas Labour’s preference was for a constitutional convention – with ordinary citizens comprising a third of the membership (the other two thirds being lawyers and politicians) – that would look at a wider set of issues. When the time came to agree the Programme for Government, these differences were parked: the language was studiously vague about the make-up of the Convention; although we were given a fair bit of detail about its agenda:
to consider comprehensive constitutional reform, with a brief to consider, as a whole or in sub-groups, and report within 12 months on the following:
• Review of our Dáil electoral system.
• Reducing the presidential term to 5 years and aligning it with the local and European elections
• Provision for same-sex marriage.
• Amending the clause on women in the home and encourage greater participation of women in public life.
• Removing blasphemy from the Constitution
• Possible reduction of the voting age
• Other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by the Convention.
No details were provided on when all of this will happen, or on how the Convention will be organized. Since then, there have been the odd nod and winks, most recently in a speech by Brendan Howlin giving some clues about the timescale:
the two parties in Government are discussing the modus operandai of the convention and will publish proposals after the series of referenda to which we are already committed…
But still no details about how this convention will be comprised.
The referendums that Minister Howlin refers to are expected to coincide with the presidential election in late October. It will take time to establish a constitutional convention, to select its members and agree its agenda. Let’s hope that all of this starts before too long.
The government parties made clear and unambiguous political reform proposals in the election a few months ago. Let’s hope they keep their promises, and start moving on them sooner rather than later.