The Constitution Review Group report – a great (free) resource for Irish citizens

A topic that emerged rather unexpectedly from the We the Citizens event that I attended in June was the importance of civic education. At my table, the argument for focusing attention on this topic was that citizens need to be politically well-informed in order to understand the powers of political offices and the consequences of  their political decisions.

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Political Reform Poll Results

By Jane Suiter

Political reform ran a poll here for a number of weeks, it has taken a little time to report the findings for which I apologise. We received some 485 responses to the poll with people from 16 to 65 responding from most counties across the country. These are of course not nationally representative but are probably representative of those that read this site. Some of the results make for interesting reading with unsurprisingly an appetite for political reform, some of it quite radical. Continue reading

ReformCard: a tool to help voters decide

The editors and contributors behind polticalreform.ie have teamed with a large volunteer team of project managers, web designers and others to produce ReformCard a measurement tool to rank each party based on the quality of their policies on political reform.  We hope this will prove a critical instrument in informing the election 2011 debate. It provides the 25 proposals for political reform in Ireland which we believe provide the best possible combination to transform the political system and ensure it is fit for purpose in the 21st century. Continue reading

A looming constitutional crisis?

By Michael Gallagher

There has been some discussion as to whether, in the event of Brian Cowen’s deciding not to contest the forthcoming election, it would be constitutional for him to remain as Taoiseach, given that the constitution states (Art 28.7.1) that the Taoiseach must be a member of Dáil Éireann. There has been speculation that this could create a constitutional difficulty, given that the Taoiseach is nominated by the Dáil. Would we then be without a Taoiseach until the 31st Dáil meets? Continue reading

Can we do it ourselves or must we await visionary leadership?

The Irish Times has an interesting series this week on where we should go from here. Some of the ideas so far are insightful and thought provoking. Joseph O’Connor points to the huge programme of political reform which is needed and argues for a bottom up approach that envisages change coming from the people inlcuding citizens, artists and sportpeople among others. He points to the affinities we owe to one another, as citizens of this “still beautiful place”. Maureen Gaffney
on the other hand while also recognising the need for reform appears to be envisaging a more top down approach with a hankering for visionary leadership.  Whether that is on offer is a moot point but there is surely a possibiity that the current elites may agree to a bottom up approach if only to assuage the current absence of trust in all polticians and the political system.

Paradise Deferred: Party Politics, Constitutional change, and the long finger in Ireland

By Bill Kissane.

There are  different ways of involving the public in higher law making. Constitutions can be drafted  by constituent assemblies or constitutional conventions directly elected  for that purpose. Constitutional change can result from extraordinary public debates  outside the  formal representative arena,  when  a majority of the people   back radical change. Alternatively, the people may simply approve  a constitution through the referendum. A fourth option is  a citizen assembly elected for  the purpose of  recommending constitutional change to   the people. Whatever the outcome  in Ireland constitutional change will involve some combination of these processes.

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So you want to help write your constitution?

Icelandic political scientist Silja Bara Omarsdottir writes about waking up as a newly elected representative to the country’s new constitutional assembly here. The assembly is a direct result of the Pots and Pans Revolution which took place in Iceland after the banking crisis tanked the country’s economy just over two years ago. Should we think about doing something similar here?

Election of a Constitutional Assembly in Iceland 2010

Posted by David Farrell (written by James Gilmour)

Following the financial crisis, demonstrations and riots outside the Parliament (Althingi), early elections in April 2009, and a significant change of government, the Icelandic Parliament voted on 16 June 2010 to set up a directly elected Constitutional Assembly “for the purpose of reviewing the Constitution of the Republic”. (Iceland has a written Constitution.)

The Constitutional Assembly has a very broad remit and is specifically tasked to address the following: Continue reading

Does Ireland need a new constitution?

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.

Labour Party’s proposals for constitutional reform a welcome addition to a much-needed political debate

Eamon Gilmore’s uplitfting ‘One Ireland’ speech to his party conference (http://bit.ly/crTAaq) this weekend ended with a set of interesting proposals for political, public sector and constitutional reform, with some pretty novel ideas such as the one to establish a Department of Public Service Reform. The major plus was just how many of the issues that were headlined appeared to overlap with Fine Gael’s recent New Politics document (covered in earlier postings on this site). By saying this, I do not in any way want to imply that Labour is somehow following in the footsteps of Fine Gael; there are plenty of indications of each party borrowing from the other – in both directions. At the micro level, it is clear that both parties want to bring in legislation to strengthen local government, to radically reform the public service, to regulate lobbyists, to enable whistle-blowing. There is also plenty of overlap in the idea of engaging with the citizens in the process of constitutional reform. Labour’s proposed vehicle is a Constitutional Convention, which would mix specialists, experts and ‘ordinary citizens’ (along the lines, I suppose, of Citizen Juries) in a root-and-branch reform of the Constitution.

Labour and Fine Gael (for now, at any rate) part company in two main respects: first, in Labour’s proposal that this Constitutional review should be widespread, an outright replacement of the existing Constitution, as opposed to Fine Gael’s objective of only reforming certain political and institutional processes of government; and second, in the proposed timescale – Labour proposes that this process should conclude in 2016, to commemorate the 1916 Rising, whereas Fine Gael wants things completed in time for a ‘Constitution Day’ by the end of its first year in government.

Clearly, there are pros and cons to both proposals, and we will all have our own views. Personally at present (this may change) mine is to err more on the side of the Fine Gael route largely on the grounds that I fear that a complete overhaul of the Constitution in all its respects would run the risk of slowing down much needed reforms in certain key areas. A basic truism of politics is that new governments have a limited time span of political capital, a short window of opportunity in which to implement radical proposals before the media and public opinion inevitably turns their fire on them, and the opposition parties start rounding on the government as jaded and in need of change. So the circle of political life continues.

Trying to change everything, inevitably will require a long, drawn out process – as Labour readily admits with the idea that this should take until 2016 to complete. The danger, thus, is that by trying to change everything, we may end up changing nothing.

And it is not as if there haven’t already been attempts to consider widespread constitutional reform before. In fact, in the past decade alone there have been no less than three constitutional reviews by Oireachtas Committees – the third of these is still ongoing (http://bit.ly/aIC2hu). None of their proposals have yet seen the light of day. It is undoubtedly true that a Constitutional Convention would carry more political weight than an Oireachtas Committee, and so there could well be reason for arguing that it should be given a chance. But it is a pity that earlier proposals by these committees, and for that matter by other influential bodies such as TASC (http://bit.ly/arK0KM), would appear to be just swept aside by yet another constitutional review process.

Finally, why 2016? Commemorating some great event in our history may well be symbolically useful if such a review is to succeed in the referendum, but is that really the best event for marking a new ‘One’ Ireland?

As ever, we can all find things to quibble about. The fact is that whichever party forms the next government will have to do so in coalition with at least one other party – and the best money right now is on a Fine Gael-Labour or (if Eamon Gilmore gets his way) Labour-Fine Gael coalition. Compromise on the details will be needed if any movement is to happen on the important principal of real and sustained political reform. The Fine Gael and Labour party leaders are to be commended for showing real commitment to this agenda. What we next need from them is political imagination and courage to ensure that the big picture doesn’t get lost between the cracks of inter-party squabbling. Ireland deserves more.