How should we rewrite our constitution?

Looking on from abroad for most of the campaign, I was amazed at some of the proposals for reform that emerged. Both of the government parties have posted documents detailing these promises on their websites. In my opinion, Labour had one of the most radical political reform policy platforms of the campaign. The key plank of that platform was laid out in: ‘Labour’s Plan for a New Constitution’ which was issued on Feb 18th, 2011.

It was made very clear that this was a key policy priority for the Labour Party:

‘‘ ‘A vote for Labour is a vote for a Constitutional Convention. I urge you to vote Labour to seize this opportunity to design tomorrow’s Republic’.

Eamon Gilmore TD

Leader, the Labour Party”

I urge all readers to follow the link and check out the detail of the proposal. Reading it, I was struck by two thoughts. Firstly I thought that the plan is very radical, envisioning nothing less than a referendum on an entirely new constitution for Ireland ‘before 2016’. My second thought was that, for such an important plan, it’s rather sketchy on the details.

However, Labour’s plan reads like a Ken Follet epic next to the details on the Convention in the negotiated Programme for Government. As I understand it, our current masterplan for Irish constitutional overhaul is sketched out over about half of a page.

Furthermore the contents of that half page are fairly bleak, as they imply that the Constitutional Convention will be limited to a narrow range of topics, and will be empowered merely to ‘report’ its findings to the government.

In the time since the election, political reform has evidently not been prioritized by a government facing multiple chronic problems, at home and abroad. However, during that time a group of volunteers (including the author) in an Irish civil society organization called Second Republic have been trying to fill in some of the details, in order to get the reform process moving. Our main goal has been to design a Constitutional Convention (or citizens’ assembly, or whatever you prefer to call it!) that could: 1) Actually work in practice and 2) Give Irish citizens ownership over the process of reforming their state. We have drafted a plan that tries to drill into how such a project could operate. You can read a draft version here.

We have already had help from dozens of people, and we are currently working on costing the proposal, and dealing with some of the outstanding issues that we list at the end. The document is in the process of being redrafted (we hope to release early in September). Any comments on how we could improve it would be most welcome, as we will be asking the government to implement this proposal, in fulfillment of their promises during the election campaign. You can contact all of us who are working on this with comments and suggestions at:

7 thoughts on “How should we rewrite our constitution?

  1. I don’t think we need a new constitution and perhaps need to delete bits of the one we have so that the constitution can be what it’s meant to be and that’s vague enough it can bend to the realities of each generation living under it – leave the specifics to acts of law.

    What we need more than a new piece of paper is a change in attitude toward those who temporarily hold authority on our behalf.

    Enda Kenny spoke brave words about the church but had little to say about the role of the state and its officials in allowing the church to inflict so much abuse.

    He speaks fine words on many subjects but he does nothing to reform the salary, pensions, expenses and funding of politics to make it honest and accountable and on many issues that relate to honesty, transparency and accountability Mr Kenny speaks well but acts little.

    He’s running out of time before we will start wanting to see this reform he speaks so often about.

    Is Eamon Gilmore the same man who tried to justify the obscene money paid to his wife for a peice of land as having nothing to do with him? The mentality that led him to claim that, even if he genuinely believed it, is at the root of what is wrong in so many areas of Ireland indicitive of how much still needs to be done to implement real reform.

    • A new constitution on it’s own is just a piece of paper, as you say. No matter what the rules, politics will always be a result of human decisions and actions.

      However, if you look at political systems around the world, I think you will see that the institutional framework of a political system is also very important for the condct of politics and the type of political outcomes that emerge. Most modern political science research that looks at these questions emphasises the interplay and mutual interdepency between political institutions, political culture, and individual decisions.

      I think the change of attitude that you’re looking for will require a change of priorities among the electorate, but that it will also require a change in some of the rules of the Irish political game. Both of these objectives are linked, as their achievement requires Irish citizens to take greater responsibility for their political system, rather than outsourcing all political responsibility to their representatives.

  2. > “The 2009 Australian Citizen’s [sic] parliament offers another variant.” (p 4)

    As an Australian who occasionally reads the newspapers, I have no idea what this sentence is referring to.

    At a stretch, there are three possible referents that this could have been mistaken for:

    (a) the 1998 “ConCon” (Constitutional Convention), half elected by postal ballot in 1997, the rest appointed by the PM, which mapped out the basics of the proposal to make Australia a Republic, which proposal was then legislated by the normal Parliament and put to (but defeated at) a referendum in 1999. (Irish citizens would be shocked to follow the “No” side’s victorious arguments and learn of the apocalyptic fate that awaits any polity declaring itself a republi…)

    (b) Kevin Rudd’s “Ideas 2020” summit, held April 2008, all of whose members were appointed by a government committee. (I never knew so many actors and sports stars were experts on the constitution, governance and public policy.)

    (c) Julia Gillard’s now-shelved plan for a 150-member citizens’ assembly to discuss carbon pricing models. (Now superseded by the Greens’ policy, as the price of their support in Parliament, to move directly to legislating a carbon tax).

    These are the nearest thing to a “2009 Australian Citizen’s [sic] parliament” that I can think of. And none of them is a very near thing.

  3. Anyone who reads the Constitution as it stands, without the blinkers caused by a myopic concentration on our current financial predicament must conclude that it needs to be completely reformed/reframed.

    To be completely reformed or reframed does not mean everything in it must be dropped or changed. But so much of it needs to be adapted, changed or reframed to meet the needs of a modern, mixed society that has joined an international political and economic union, and has outlived it’s paternalistic and catholic driven ethos.

    Our democracy has grown and matured enormously since 1937 and it is self evident that our State needs a modernised document to meet the needs of a 21st century country that is now part of the EU and part of a global interconnected economy.

    In the modern world reform is something that should constantly be on the agenda. The world is changing every day. Our country is changing. Our Constitution and our government need to change and adapt.

    I suggest that our country is capable of doing two things at one time. We are capable of tackling our economic woes as well as tackling reform

  4. It’s a well produced and attractive document. IMO part 1 is particularly strong and makes a well-argued case for the need for such an assembly.

    Designing such an assembly is, by its nature, a rather tricky balancing act. One question that crossed my mind when reading the document: is the organizing committee too strong in your design? I guess there must be an element of top-down organization in order to meld a group a random citizens into a coherent assembly and impose some order and guidance. And, of course, there is the scope for a degree of government capture (even if appointed by an independent body that was in turn appointed by the government). Perhaps a degree of government capture isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the assembly proposals are going to have a hope of being put to the people in a referendum (or the government constitutionally or legislatively tying its hands to do this in the first place)?

    The idea of a collection of ordinary citizens coming together to substantially amend or redraft the constitution is an attractive one. As I’ve mentioned on this blog previously, I’m a big fan of the general idea of citizen juries (as in Ancient Athen’s Boule of 500 randomly chosen citizens who served for a year). Having a portion of citizens randomly selected from the electoral register was an idea previously proposed as a means to reform the House of Lords. My ideal Seanad would consist of perhaps 60 elected politicians and 60 ordinary citizens randomly chosen from the electoral register (perhaps serving for a year and being replaced in a graduated manner, say 15 such members being replaced every 3 months) with powers of delay and perhaps a 2/3 majority able to refer bills to the people for a referendum. A randomly-selected Seanad component would break the stranglehold of any one political party or parties over a second chamber and give ordinary people a real voice in politics. Such randomly chosen citizens could also be very effectively involved in the public appointments process. There was actually an interesting article in yesterday’s Guardian on this topic describing how 56 academics, writers, trade unionists and politicians, including Greg Dyke and author Phillip Pullman, have signed up for a campaign advocating a publicly funded citizens’ jury in the UK as a means to combat the influence of vested elites on government and perhaps advise the government on reforms.

    Notwithstanding my enthusiasm for citizen involvement in political structures, I do have some reservations on whether a citizens’ assembly is actually the best means to redraft a constitution. Its planned scope would be very broad. A lot of expertise would be needed. Participants will inevitably be heavily influenced by the opinions of the particular advisors and experts chosen (perhaps any citizen’s assembly should have the ability for citizens to call in some external experts of their own choice to help counteract this). After a few months of intensive coaching the participants will likely resemble 1st or 2nd second year pol-sci university students! 🙂 Citizens will enter into such a process with opinions fairly representative of the ordinary population, but their opinions will likely diverge after a few months of expert tuition, potentially creating an opinion gap between participants and the general populace. I’d actually wonder if a directly elected body might not be better. That would also be prone to being captured by politicians, just in a different manner. One is likely to have political party types going forward for election to such an assembly. But the process would be more explicit. It would no longer be an answer-free black-box. Candidates would explicitly have to persuade electors around to their point of view in the election. In this case it would probably be best to give several years advance warning that such an assembly was going be constituted, allowing plenty of time for reform proposals to be drafted and researched by potential groups and their candidates. For example, such a body could be put on a constitutional basis, with it first being constituted perhaps in time for the 2016 rising anniversary (safely beyond the lifetime of the present government). Ideally, various competing groups would go into such an election with a fully drafted programme of reforms and constitutional amendments. Whether the electorate would be sufficiently interested or if they’d even be much of a turnout is another matter entirely. Such groups, though, might be better able to publicly argue for any proposed reforms such a body might put before the people in a referendum.

    There’s a lot of built-in inertia in a constitution only changeable via referendum. A citizens’ initiative mechanism might be one way to counteract this. Another could be a constitutional convention, parallel to ordinary Oireachtas structures, perhaps automatically formed at regular intervals (perhaps every 25 years or so), maybe sitting for a year and with the power to put whatever constitutional referendums it wants to the people.

    Your citizen assembly could indeed still work, but only I feel as a tool used by a government genuinely intent on fairly radical reform. I sincerely hope that’s what we have! And IMO it would be a little much, I think, to expect the citizens taking part to develop all of the reforms themselves. Perhaps if participants were presented with a comprehensive suite of potential reforms, with several well worked out and varying alternatives in each of the reform categories you describe, with all the pros and cons of each alternative clearly laid out, and perhaps with a diverse range of differing opinions from experts on the options, then such a group of citizens might be able to make a reasonable selection from amongst these.

    Anyway, don’t think there’s any one right solution. I suspect there are differing opinions even within your own group. There are pros and cons to every approach. IMO it’s a well thought out outline for a constitutional convention that’s composed of ordinary citizens.

  5. Pingback: Seanad abolition and ‘a brainstorm in front of a television camera’ «

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