A shadow constitutional convention

From Eoin Daly (posted by Jane Suiter)

2012 marks the 75th anniversary of our Constitution. The present Government has committed to establishing a “constitutional convention” this year, as part of its political reform agenda and on foot of the Programme for Government. However, the convention will serve essentially as an advisory group, constituted of citizens and elected representatives. Moreover, its remit looks set to be surprisingly limited, focusing on a handful of issues including blasphemy law and the duration of the presidential term. Disappointingly, it appears that it will not address crucial issues such as executive dominance, or the codification and strengthening of constitutional rights in key areas. Insofar as the convention embraces the idea of citizen participation – and accordingly, of lending a degree of popular legitimacy to the reform process – the risk is that this participative dimension will be heavily managed and directed in advance by removing certain key issues from discussion.

To mark the Constitution’s anniversary, and to coincide with the constitutional convention which is set to be held later this year, Human Rights in Ireland will host a “shadow constitutional convention” – a series of short essays on ideas for constitutional reform. Beginning later this spring and running over the remainder of 2012, this series will also include reflections on the Constitution, and the process and challenge of constitutional reform more generally. We will run essays on ideas for constitutional reform in particular areas, as well as broader observations on constitutional revision as an instrument of social and political change.

Bearing in mind the limited remit of the Government’s proposed project, we propose to address a broad range of constitutional questions within a variety of different perspectives. We hope that at least in some small way, this will help to contribute to public discourse on the Constitution as a blueprint for our democracy. We envisage that this project will be broad and inclusive, and that the conversation it generates will extend well beyond lawyers. We hope it will facilitate discussion on broader themes of democracy, sovereignty, national identity, equality and republicanism. Accordingly, while we have already invited contributions from a number of figures, we invite proposals for contributions to this project. We especially welcome perspectives from political scientists, political theorists, constitutional historians, human rights lawyers and critical theorists as well as constitutional scholars. Please email any proposals for contributions to shadowconstitutionalconvention@gmail.com

Dr Eoin Daly is a lectuer in the School of Law and Government, DCU
This post originally appeared on the Human Rights in Ireland blog

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10 thoughts on “A shadow constitutional convention

  1. This is getting hilarious. One would need to summon up the shades of George Orwell, Flann O’Brien and James Joyce to do this justice. Let me see if I can make my feeble attempt.

    The Government is determined to press ahead with its version of a ‘constitutional convention’ which is really an optical illusion, because, although it is proposed to address some constitutional issues, its ‘narrow and disjointed pre-set agenda’ means that any consideration of the fundamental dysfunction in the current system of democratic governance will be determinedly and comprehensively excluded. The Government says it is a ‘constitutional convention’; it is doing everything in its power to convey the impression that it is; it looks like it will have all the trappings; but it is no more a ‘constitutional convention’ than my desk is a Boeing 747. It is simply an optical illusion.

    Now there appears to be, not surprisingly perhaps, some dissent being expressed by some of ‘them what should know a bit about these things’. But instead of confronting head-on this charade the Government is going to put on and demanding that it be scoped, resourced and empowered to address the fundamental problems in the system of democratic governance on this benighted isle, the intent is to mount a ‘shadow constitutional convention’. What on earth is a ‘shadow’ of an optical illusion?

    It’s bad enough that the Government is putting resource and effort in to its ‘optical illusion’ – and inrtending to bother and detain 66 honest citizens for no good purpose to boot – but this ‘shadow’ thingy is taking us in to another dimension – perhaps a parallel universe?

    I presume that those who are contemplating going on this space journey have given up any hope of being invited by Government to participate in this Expert Advisory Group. Participating in both exercises would probably generate a ‘conflict of interest’. But would such a conflict be real, since one is a ‘shadow’ and the other is an ‘optical illusion’? However, I suspect the Government, projecting its own optical illusion, would view anyone participating in the ‘shadow’ as having automatically excluded him or herself from participation in the optical illusion. Though there might be a ‘worm-hole’ between this shadow/parallel universe and the Government’s optical illusion? I’m getting all confused now.

    It’s little wonder that Ireland is in the political, economic and financial mess it’s in when so much effort and resource is devoted to avoidng getting to grips with some fundamental problems.

  2. Paul,

    It’s just a series of essays about political reform and constitutional reform, collated and sequenced thematically on a website. The word ‘shadow’ refers to the fact that it takes place roughly parallel to the Government’s convention, and that the participants are disappointed with the narrow remit of the convention. That’s all. It’s meant to be open and inclusive – anybody can submit a proposal for an essay; they don’t necessarily have to an academic etc.

    As for “I presume that those who are contemplating going on this space journey have given up any hope of being invited by Government to participate in this Expert Advisory Group” – well, I have no idea whether the Government has finalised or even contacted any of the members of this group. Insofar as I understand, the purpose of this group would be to provide guidance on constitutional issues to the members of the advisory assembly, rather than having any substantive or deliberative input as such. I’m not sure this is incompatible with proposing an idea for constitutional reform in a different forum. Many of the members of this group will presumably do that anyway in various different fora all the time. I’m not sure this forum being labelled a ‘shadow’ convention makes all that much difference.

    Eoin Daly

    • @Eoin Daly,

      My response to Jane Suitor on another thread (but apparently awaiting moderation):
      https://politicalreform.ie/2012/03/27/change-we-can-believe-in-the-governments-proposed-constitutional-convention/comment-page-1/#comment-8581
      may also be relevant here.

      In addition, I obviously have no problem with you and your mates taking your ball and playing your game on another pitch. It’s just that, to me, it seems to be a gloriously ineffectual way of registering your disappointment with “the narrow remit of the convention”. Do you not realise that probably the main reason you and your mates are taking your ball and planning to play your game on another pitch is that not only does the government own and control the main pitch – and the stadium – but it ‘owns’ the game? It makes and enforces the rules, it is the referee, the manager, the coach, it selects the team and decides on tactics and employs and directs all the support staff.

      You have a choice. You can turn up with your team at the main pitch and demand a game. Or you can play on your own pitch – and convince yourselves that you’re all Liionel Messis – but nobody will take a blind bit of notice.

  3. @ Paul Hunt

    I don’t know about this Paul, it doesn’t sound to good. It’s starting to resemble praying to stumps of trees. Second thoughts maybe that would bear more fruit.

  4. @Eoin
    Is the Shadow Convention to be a sort of shadow boxer tailing the real Convention and taking punches at it when it gets a chance?
    Or do you intend to feed your Shadow Convention’s papers into Enda Kenny’s upcoming False Constitutional Review Convention’s online postboxes?

    Have you expressed your reservations regarding the Convention to the media and to politicians?

    Do Human Rights Ireland see the Constitutional Review Convention as a fait accompli?

    • @Deputy Tuffy,

      I welcome your wliingness to engage on this blog, as I’m sure others do – and it would be wonderful if more TDs were prepared to do so, but I think, given the charade the Government seems determined to mount, that it’s a bit rich for you to criticise this ‘academic’ shadow exercise because it appears to lack breadth and depth of participation.

      Yes, I know this optical illusion of a Constitutional Convention has emerged from the horse-trading that went in to agreeing the Programme for Government which, in turn, is extracted from the two parties’ election manifestos which were filtered, refined and polished from the policy drafting of the ‘backroom boy’n’gals’ in FG and Labour. This allows for a lot of ‘arm-waving’ about a democratic mandate, but anyone you looks closely at the exercise will see that this is mainly stuff and nonsense.

      FG’s backroom team put it quite a bit of effort prior to last year’s election, but they studiously avoided any meaningful consideration of the excessive centralisation and dominance of the power of government and its apparatus – and the corresponding weakness of the Oireachtas. Labour’s backrooom team sniffed the wind and did a fairly rushed ‘me-too’ job. The FF policy wonks pushed the boat out probably further than most, but they knew they were on a hiding to nothing and wouldn’t have to implement it – but it would give them a stick to beat the Government from the opposition benches.

      So we’ve ended up with this rag-bag of trinkets that can be dressed up in various ways to convey the impression that they will deliver real change, but every effort is being made to ensure they will not impact on the executive dominance of government in ven the slightest respect.

      It’s a hoary old adage, but, while government might be able to fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of time, it will be able to fool all of the people all of the time. Given that it is almost certian the Government will press ahead with this ‘optical illusion’ and the unsurprising unwillingness of our ‘public intellectuals’ to challenge it, I can only hope that those decent citizens who are selected to participate in this charade will have the good sense to tell the Government where to stick this nonsense.

    • Joanna,

      We said in “particular” political scientists, etc, simply on the basis that we think these are the people most likely to want to contribute. But anyone is welcome to submit a piece, including people outside the political and legal ‘establishments’. Any piece will be given the same consideration based on its content and ideas whether written by famous professor or the citizen on the 25A bus.

      Eoin Daly

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  6. @Eoin
    Is the Shadow Convention to be a sort of shadow boxer tailing the real Convention and taking punches at it when it gets a chance?
    Or do you intend to feed your Shadow Convention’s papers into Enda Kenny’s upcoming False Constitutional Review Convention’s online postboxes?

    Have you expressed your reservations regarding the Convention to the media and to politicians?

    Do Human Rights Ireland see the Constitutional Review Convention as a fait accompli

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