Eamon Gilmore calls for the establishment of a Constitutional Convention

In today’s Irish Times (http://bit.ly/azsuil) Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore provides more detail about his proposal for a Constitutional Convention:

“Labour’s proposal is that we should convene a 30-member constitutional convention with an open mandate. Ten of its members would be drawn from the Oireachtas, 10 from non-governmental associations and organisations, and 10 ordinary citizens selected rather as we select jurors today. Its mandate would be to review the Constitution and draft a new one within a year. Much of its work would be in working groups and much of that would be carried out online. The convention’s proceedings would be accessible online with the possibility for citizens to comment and make suggestions. The convention would submit its proposed constitution for adoption by the Oireachtas, and once approved, it would then be submitted to the people in a referendum. The aim would be a referendum which would take place in conjunction with the centenary of the 1916 Rising.”

There is much to welcome here — not least the fact that one of the country’s leading politicians is now leading the charge for full scale reform (which, together with Fine Gael’s New Politics document, bodes well for the possibility that serious reform might now happen).

I do, however, have a number of reservations about the details of this initiative, among them:

1.) The proposal that the Constitutional Convention should submit its report to the Oireachtas for its approval prior to a referendum being called builds in an inappropriate gate-keeping role for TDs (and Senators), the very people who are most likely to want to dilute any changes that might affect them. The beauty of the Citizens’ Assembly model (dealt with in previous postings on this site) as applied in British Columbia and Ontario was that in neither case was the parliament consulted on the details of the proposals prior to the referendum; the political elite were specifically kept out of the loop for the very reason that this citizen-inspired initiative should not in any way be seen as highjacked by anyone with a vested interest.

2.) Why the need to link to the 1916 centenary? I can see the symbolic attachment, of course, but the practical and political reality is that this date would mean holding a referendum late in the electoral cycle, by which time the government responsible for initiating it will have used up its political and moral capital (a basic fact of political life). As we all know, referendums can be used by citizens as a means of kicking governments, as mid-term tests: i.e. the vote can often be about something other than the actual issue being voted upon. The best way to minimize that risk is to try and hold the referendum as early as possible in the government’s term. I guess an alternative option — if the desire is to keep with the 1916 date — might be to have an election to coincide, but this would require political altruism by the parties in government of a scale never before witnessed in Irish politics.

3.) I’m not convinced about the proposed membership of the Constitutional Convention. Why the need for 10 members of the Oireachtas? Why so few citizens? Perhaps an alternative might be to have several parallel panels, all feeding into one larger body and each with its one area of responsibility? But certainly, if this is to be seen as a truly citizen-oriented process, then surely there should be no Oireachtas members involved.

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3 thoughts on “Eamon Gilmore calls for the establishment of a Constitutional Convention

  1. I agree entirely with your view that the structure Eamonn Gilmore proposed needs very careful consideration.

    If Oireachtas members (who are also citizens!) are excluded, how is the final proposal to be carried forward? Including them would mean that they could not that easily kick the result to touch.

    Oireachtas members were not members of the last complete review chaired by Dr. T. K. Whitaker – for the membership see
    http://www.constitution.ie/constitutional-reviews/crg.asp
    The report is here
    http://www.constitution.ie/reports/crg.pdf

    IMO, the Whitaker report was deeply conservative in its consideration of the institutions of government.

    Rather than continue the Whitaker approach (ie. “big bang” review), I suggest a series of groups being set up to review parts of the constitution – focused on writing the new words to be included.

    We could then have a series of referenda as consideration of each part is brought to a conclusion. This raises the question of why the reports of the various Oireachtas committee have not been acted on. The same is true of the reports of the Law Reform Commission, the Commissions on Taxation etc. etc

    Lastly, we should not overlook that many useful changes to our way of governing ourselves can be brought in without any change to the constitution eg.
    1) Reducing the numbers of Cabinet Ministers and TDs;
    2) Much improved management of public finances at all levels;
    3) Bringing back full Freedom of Information and extending it;
    4) Reorganising all levels of government as the Danes did in the 1970s.

    On this last point, I would appreciate some references to this.

  2. Given the role that the members of the Oireachtas (from all sides) have played in preventing the limited reforms proposed for the Seanad by the Oireachats itself.

    I can’t for the life of me see why with the technological infrastructure we know have that the citizen’s assembly need be confined to only a few dozen or even a hundred or so people. Why not allow thousands even tens of thousands contribute on-line? With perhaps a designated few hundred tasked with reading the ideas of the citizenry far and wide and bringing those ideas together for further discussion.

    Donal, I would support the notion of organising local government (or to call it what it is, local administration) on the basis of new units of 300/400K modelled on the French department model with the centre of each unit being within 1 hour’s drive for 80% of the population. We should use CSO data on commuting patterns to create the exact boundaries for the new units. We should have one unit for the Greater Dublin Urban Area, with about 12 for the rest of the country.

    I was part of making such a proposal of behalf of the Limerick An Taisce Association in respect of the Limerick Local Government Committee and in polite terms had the head eaten off me by local representatives for suggesting the decimation and annihilation of Clare and Tipperary. I think just fell short of comparisons with Cromwell.

  3. Daniel,
    I agree entirely with you about using modern technology as part of the process of working out, considering, debating and concluding ways to govern ourselves.
    That said, I would not exclude any type of forum, as one never knows how people like and/or have the facility to participate in any forum eg. traditional meeting with people presenting option if only for information initially, smaller groups for considered debate/working out words, larger assemblies for that and expanding those in the know.

    re. Departments a la France.
    Below the level of Department, France has over 30,000 communes some of which are very small but most of which have a directly elected Maire. Sometimes you have “communes des communes” providing services. Above the Department, there are Regions.
    With a little imagination, it would be possible to keep Clare and Tipperary (North and South) :-).
    What I would like to know is
    1) what the Danes did during the 1970s;
    2) how do the Danes now see it;
    3) what changes, if any, they have made since the 1970s;
    4) What can we learn from this?

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