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.