The government’s recently unveiled proposals on the forthcoming constitutional convention make for disappointing reading for those who, like this author, had hoped that such a body could facilitate profound political reform in Ireland.
The proposed convention, to be comprised of a chair, 66 members of the public and 33 elected politicians, is hobbled by a narrow and disjointed pre-set agenda, and limited to a strictly advisory role.
Reading through the text of the government’s proposal, it is difficult to disagree with Noel Whelan’s commentary that the convention will be ‘something that is one part Oireachtas Committee and two parts focus group’.
Civil society group Second Republic, who have been campaigning for the introduction of an empowered Citizens’ Assembly for over a year, described the proposed agenda as ‘clearly too narrow’, and the Independent technical group report on the proposal states the projected remit is ‘hugely disappointing’. Some of the issues included in the pre-set menu of topics are of genuine political significance, such as reform of the legislative electoral system and the introduction of a provision for same sex marriage. However key aspects of the political system such as legislative-executive relations, the powers of local government, open government provisions and reform of the public service are kept firmly off the table.
The Seanad, which, for all its weaknesses, is an important part of our institutional architecture, is also off-limits – government is determined that citizens will be faced with a ludicrous all-or-nothing choice on whether to abolish an institution that is so clearly ripe for reform.
The extent to which the Convention will be adequately resourced is also open to debate – Second Republic’s response draws attention to the danger that without considerable support, the 66 members of the public may find themselves significantly disadvantaged relative to the 33 professional politicians.
To my mind, the proposal’s most significant flaw is the refusal of the government to commit to any action whatsoever following on from the findings of the proposed convention. The proposal concludes that:
‘It is for the Government to decide whether or not to bring forward legislation proposing Constitutional change, and for the Oireachtas to decide on whether the matter should be put to the people in a Referendum.
It is proposed, therefore, that the relevant Ministers will consider recommendations from the Convention and report to Government as appropriate.’
Whenever I talk to friends and family in Ireland about politics there is a profound sense of cynicism and near despair. We talk about sterling deposits and dig outs; promissory notes; property charges; unemployment; emigration; and government-by-troika. It seems that we are fated to live in these interesting times; where many of the old ways of doing things have been exposed as inadequate, and there is no obvious, tried-and-tested way forward.
Ireland is not alone in facing such challenges, and it is not impossible to believe that we could be a world leader in adapting our democracy to the current threats and difficulties that it faces. However, it appears that, as envisioned, Ireland’s constitutional convention will not be equipped to make much of an impression on the status quo.
(Thanks to John Hughes for providing useful links and information as well as his insights on this topic).