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.

All  assume  a  dualism between ordinary and constitutional  politics. Constitutional changes  require  special  procedures to generate legitimacy, and  will only occur episodically, because  the  public’s  capacity for engagement   is limited. Bruce Ackerman’s We  the  People sees  U.S.   constitutional history  punctuated by   three  ‘constitutional moments’ (1776, the   post-Civil  War Reconstruction  Amendments, and  the New  Deal),  when    public involvement in  constitutional debate gave direction  to   radical   change. Yet   our ‘constitutional moments’ have always been shaped  by  party  politics.  1919,  1922, 1937, and   1998,  were  all  milestones our  history. The  period  between 1969 and 1974, when  the   whole constitutional order came  under discussion, was potentially  another. Yet a  distinction  between  constitutional and ordinary  politics was   hard  to   observe  because   the  balance  between   change  and  continuity  always  reflected   party  strengths. The 1919  constitution  followed Sinn Féin’s 1918  electoral  landslide. The   constituent assembly elected in 1922, had  a pro-treaty majority,  and   with  the   anti-treatyites  absent because  of  the  civil war,  Labour  were powerless  to  force  progressive  amendments. The  plebiscite on the 1937 constitution  was  held on the same  day as a general election,  and only Fianna Fáil backed the constitution. The  debate after  1969 revived  civil war  politics for a  generation.  The inclusive  nature of  the  Belfast Agreement reflected  the  balance of power between the Northern parties  as it  stood in 1998.

The  dualism  between   ordinary   and   constitutional politics   also collapsed  because parties  responded  to   the  pressure of  the  moment by   putting change on  the  long finger.  Paradise   was  deferred. In 1919 Sinn  Féin did  not include the  Democratic Programme  as  part of   its   constitution, and   wanted to achieve independence before writing  a  constitution. Experimental features of  the  1922 constitution, such as the provision  for  functional  representation, were  put in  abeyance, until  the country became more  developed.  Between 1969 and 1974 the pressure for change was deflected by Jack Lynch  onto two party committees, deeply split  between Fianna Fáil and the rest. The long series  of amendments  which followed was less a moment, than a drawn-out war  between Fianna Fáil and the rest.   In 1998 key  issues  were  either  avoided (integrated education)   or deferred  (Irish unity). 1937 produced a  constitutional moment,  in a very  Irish way.  A constitution, with  the support of   a  small  majority of voters,  was  presented as  a  fait accompli. In   the 1930s  plebiscites  were  means  of   resolving international and territorial disputes and the civil war  background   ensured little   principled public deliberation of the system of government.  Backed  for  a long  time by  the Catholic Church, the  smaller  parties were  powerless to  oppose the constitution. Its  values remained  hegemonic until 1970  if not the 1990s.

The question  is  whether  we can  break the cycle and turn the crisis  into a constitutional moment that is  a  genuine example of the people’s involvement in higher law-making.  This requires  understanding   on   what  sort of crisis we face: one of values,  of governance, or  of economics. Appeals  to  ‘a  Second  Republic’ suggest  we need  new values, but when   similar  debates took  place in  the  1970s, they  actually diverted  attention  away from   socio-economic  problems for  a  generation. This is  the  danger of  constitutional populism.  Fine  Gael’s  New Politics document  suggests  changes to core  features of  the Westminster legacy, but  such   plans go back to  the  Just  Society programme of   the 1960s. The preference    has been  one for  deep  institutional continuity. The  economic dimension  raises  the question of   what  arrangements  would  better  provide accountability, deliberation, and  responsible government  under global capitalism. Without  a   consideration  of  this  context  we  may end up  trying to answer the  wrong question  with  political reform. Yet  we  have no   track record  of   debating  such larger  issues, and   consensus  may be  elusive. Irish    society  has  not  responded as  one  to the  current  crisis, and  the    Republic means  different  things to  the  five  parties of an Oireachtas which   includes  Sinn Féin. The  case for   addressing  the   Westminster   legacy  is  strong. I  do not  believe   reform  requires  a    new constitution, but   we   are  the  only  small  multi-party   European    democracy  with our core  legislative  machinery  based  on  the    British   model. There is  nothing in our record suggesting  that principled  public deliberation, rather than  party competition, will  determine the outcome of this constitutional moment. Yet  if  the  current  constitutional order followed  the entrenchment of  a  party in power, the reverse scenario  presents the opposition with an opportunity. Let’s see if  they act  on it,  or respond to   the pressure of the moment by  putting  reforms on the long finger.

Bill Kissane is a Senior Lecturer in the Government Department at the London School of Economics. He has published Explaining Irish Democracy (UCD Press, 2002) and The Politics of the Irish Civil War (OUP, 2005). His forthcoming book New Beginnings: Constitutionalism and Democracy in Modern Ireland (UCD Press, 2011), explores patterns of continuity and change in Irish constitutionalism since the 19th century.

4 thoughts on “Paradise Deferred: Party Politics, Constitutional change, and the long finger in Ireland

  1. Why do we need constitutional change to “provide accountability, deliberation, and responsible government under global capitalism”? Even if we’d had these over the last decade I don’t think we’d have avoided being in the mess we’re in, but it might have been less severe and slightly easier and less painful to extract ourselves. As a small open economy, located between the US and Britain, it would have proved impossible to avoid being swept up in the bonfire of financial regulation and supervision of real and shadow banks which the forces of financial capitalism (cheered on and assisted by ‘useful idiots’ in academia) compelled a weak and misguided US administration to ignite in the late ’90s. And the apparent ‘free lunch’ provided by hard-working German savers via EMU would proved irresistable.

    And any talk of constitutional reform causes the ‘long finger’ to grow another inch and encourages every group with an axe to grind (that is frequently totally unrelated to the current crisis) to emerge from the woodwork. All we need is a parliament that does what it says on the tin.

  2. Between 1922 and 1937 the constitution could be changed, and was, by a simple majority in the Dail, without any reference to the people. Its how Fianna Fail were manouvered into the Dail by “swallowing the oath”, and how FF then proceeded to dismantle the Treaty from the inside out. Could this be the source of the malaise Kissane idwntifies-reform being historically synonymous with partisan advantage and very much an elite process, with the peopke only indirectly consulted?

  3. We don’t need a new constitution to get things done in Ireland properly. We need honest politicians and an honest civil service for a start. The changes we need constitutional wise are merely a reflection of how Ireland has changed, they wouldn’t have prevented the mess we are in now, unless there were honest personnel in place in the first place.

    Sadly, although is a perfect opportunity to shape Ireland for the entire 21st century there’s little sign Fine Gael or Labour want to move from the 20th century, they just want to tidy up the rulebook, not rewrite it.

    There is complete silence from the proposed new government on issues like the separation of Church and State among other issues. It’s debatable how much the influence of the Catholic Church led to both the abuse of children and vulnerable adults and the institutions of the State itself through the policy of deference.

    Unless Fine Gael are holding back on revealing some breathtaking election manifesto of change and reform.

  4. Thanks for you post above, Bill. Contrary to two of the commenters above, I think it’s obvious that failings of politics underlie the current crisis.

    No state that is €85 billion in hoc to the IMF is without need of reform. We cannot blame political institutions for the action of banks, lender or borrowers. However, can ask why our local government, national parliament and government failed so spectacularly in their purpose of effectively managing the affairs of this state.

    Why did it take crashing into a wall for our state to apply the breaks? Putting the answer down to “a few bad apples” doesn’t cut it when things fail so badly. The political system of a state needs to be more robust than that.

    Readers who want to partake in a serious and sustained campaign for political reform may be interested in visiting

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