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 ( 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 ( 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 (, 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.

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

  1. The major difference i saw in both Gilmore and Higgin’s speeches, in comparision to Fine gaels proposals, was the acceptance of the need for real reform, within political but also economic and most especially the social sphere. This inherently requires a populist and intellectual approach as far apart from the anti-intellectual speculative gombeenism which has alternated between, jack the lad(Fianna f.) and pious pronouncements to pull the public(Fine Gael), the two wings of the business party. And empirical evidence shows the alienation of the irish academic community through dismissal or ignorance of the vast majority of research brought to the governments attention(Read on publication on TASC website).
    In my opinion, society has on the whole been atomised, by importation of neo-liberal ideologies, people feel they don’t share the same social and economic needs as their neighbours, and in a crisis opposing grievances i.e Quinn employees against regulator, villification of public sector workers in the “free” media which never spoke out about bad policy in any strength before Recession Eve. And now prone to the lines “We’re all to blame” “we’ll all have to take a hit” blah blah, at least Charlie Haughey used to “address” the nation about such things, tell them how it should/would be fixed, now the P.R wing of the business party does it and never brings alternatives agreeable to the public up or even allows for the observable major idealogical differences between the majority public and the government and all in the name of “international standing” and market dictations.
    They(ff&fg) don’t even know what ideals they stand for, more likely the last couple decades they simply have grown to a state of deluded grandeur perpetuated by claps on the back from their imperialist overlords over a globalised easy ride economic model.Delusion is defined as “a false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.”The final line is the controversial part of the definition why? It infers that if the whole culture/subculture accept this “delusional belief” it becomes true, within that subculture only ofcourse.

    • I stopped whniactg RTE television over a year ago because the right wing bias was driving me insane. If only I could resist turning Kenny or Mary Wilson on I might be living in blissful ignorance.Rory

  2. Pingback: The Labour Party’s “One Ireland” and a Constitutional Convention « Human Rights in Ireland

  3. You’re right it was a wonderful speech – a model of rhetoric. Unusual in Irish politics – and probably every other country’s politics. I also agree with you that the desire to have such a widespread review will inevitably mean that any reforms will get lost in the long grass. I also wonder why they feel the need for these difficult reforms, when there are easy reforms of the Dáil that could get cross-party support immediately. Why don’t Fine Gael and Labour suggest changes to the Standing Orders of the Dáil? It might be hard for the Greens to vote against something they’ve championed for years. If these ‘minor’ changes have no impact, then in 2012 the new government could start a more widespread process.

  4. Pingback: Irish Labour Party Releases ‘New Government, Better Government’ Proposal « Fair Voting BC

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