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.