Constitutional Convention Debate on Tonight With Vincent Browne on TV3 (posted by Matt Wall)

Really interesting debate on the government’s plans to involve citizens in Irish constitutional reform with contributions from: this site’s Elaine Byrne, Conor O’Mahony, a constitutional law expert from UCC, and Oliver Moran from the Second Republic civil society group. Labour’s Alex White gamely defending the government’s performance and plans to date – though he was batting on a sticky wicket on many specific points. I get the feeling that many Labour members are feeling rather shortchanged on their party’s campaign promise to completely re-write the Constitution by 2016. If you didn’t catch it last night, it’s well worth a watch on the TV3 player.

I’d say that, if the government wants the convention to be a success, they have to be willing for it to make some findings that they disagree with. In order for the convention to do this, however, several things need to happen (or, rather, need not to happen):

1) It cannot be shackled to a government-selected agenda. The ‘8th issue’ on the current agenda: ‘Any other business’, is, perversely, the most important issue, as it empowers the convention to set a new agenda for itself.

2) It cannot be comprised of a nominated sub group of our elected representatives. The whole point of the exercise is for non-elected, randomly selected citizens to arrive at a series of proposals for political reform. There is no reason why elected representatives should be VOTING members of the assembly, though there is a great opportunity for TDs, Senators and other elected polititicians to interact with the assembly, and bring their knowledge and ideas to bear.

3) It cannot be bound only to report to the government. The government objection to this idea lies at the core of their control of the constitutional reform process in Ireland. The constitution cannot be reformed save by referendum, and a referendum can only be proposed by the Houses of Parliament – every branch of which is tightly controlled by the government. In my opinion, the convention should be preceded by a referendum that empowers it to direct specific constitutional reform proposals to the public for referendum. If they wish to avoid the complications of a referendum on this topic, the government could still give a guarantee (indeed, we’re quite comfortable with the concept of government guarantee schemes in Ireland these days) to forward the proposals unchanged to the public for a referendum vote.

4) Finally, it cannot be starved of resources and media attention. In order to gain legitimacy, a processes like this requires extensive public participation, which entails substantial operational costs. The citizen participants also require informational supports in order to come to terms with the complex issues that they are tasked to consider. I’m afraid that these things cost money – though i don’t see why it couldn’t also be an excellent ‘Job Bridge’ program for many currently unemployed students of politics and society. The government has to think big on this project, which is unique and potentially innovative, but also extremely complex and challenging. But in order to do so, it has to accept that it may not agree with 100% of the proposals that emerge, but nonetheless commit to putting these proposals, unchanged, to the people.

12 thoughts on “Constitutional Convention Debate on Tonight With Vincent Browne on TV3 (posted by Matt Wall)

  1. @Matthew,

    The gulf between the optical illusion being projected for this Constitutional Convention and the sad reality of a largely irrelevant sideshow is widening by the day. But the Government is determined to continue this optical illusion and there is hardly anything that can be done to stop it or to make it of some use. The only hope is that the ‘academic experts’ invited to participate will decline – though I can’t really see this happening (there will always be those keen to sup at the Government’s table) – or that some or all of the 66 unjustifiably importuned citizens randomly selected will refuse to participate in this charade. But I can’t see this happening either as the Government will make sure there is a process for selecting alternates or substitutes and anyone who might refuse to participate will be marked down as ‘unavailable or ineligible’.

    The latest announcement by Minister Shatter:
    on changes to the court system and on reducing the need for EU-related referendums is far more significant than anything the Constitutional Convention might consider. It looks like there’s a bit of a turf war between Ministers Shatter and Howlin and the effect is likely to be a reduction in the latter’s department’s role in anything that smacks of political or constitutional reform.

    I think it is being a tad naive and idealistic to think that those who are not just part of the problem, but the problem, will miraculously be transformed to be part of the solution.

    • “I think it is being a tad naive and idealistic to think that those who are not just part of the problem, but the problem, will miraculously be transformed to be part of the solution.”

      Yes, indeed.
      For an example of what is basically wrong with our way of governing ourselves, it is worth listening to the interview of John McGuinness TD, Chair, Public Accounts Committee(PAC)/Dáil on Morning Ireland on Friday 6th July last. He was being interviewed on the proposed PAC investigation into the banking crisis.. All the quotes are what John McGuinness actually said

      “….We would urge the Government to make a quick decision in relation to this report and to allow the Public Accounts Committee to complete its work and to get the inquiry under way. We see a clear roadmap ahead where if government makes the decision early, we could be holding public inquiries as early as January next year…”

      “…and secondly we would ask that the whole issue of compellability, to compel witnesses to attend , would be dealt with before we set off on the inquiry….”

      “…Well, having examined all of the aspects of this inquiry, we’re convinced that with Government approval and the various changes in legislation that yes, it can go ahead. The legislation can easily be done before the end of this year. …”

      “…We’re now dealing with €64bn taxpayer’s money and I believe that it is quite clear, given that Brendan Howlin is our line minister, we are responsible to him, that there is no need to change the rules in this regard. ….”

      “…There are three pillars to this inquiry and if we are allowed to do this, we would base it on the report we now have which is as I said a clear road map. …”

      This is a very clear an expression of the complete subservience of the Dáil to the government. It also shows clearly the total control of the Government/Executive on any possible inquiry that any Dáil committee might judge necessary.

      What is worse is that the PAC Chairman does not appear to see the complete ineptitude of his position, when he describes a Government Minister as “our line minister” He goes further and takes the complete opposite view of what modern forms of parliamentary democracy are supposed to be about whe he said ” we are responsible to him”

      I suggest that few, if any other TD or Senator, would find anything wrong with the perspective underlying what John McGuiness actually said, because they do not actually believe in the complete separation of the directly elected legislative assembly/Dáil from the executive/Government.
      Separation of powers only means the special position of the judiciary.

      With this perspective on all side of the Dáil and in all political parties, it is very difficult to have any faith in the workings of and outcomes from the Constitutional Convention.

      The full interview starts at minute 21 on this podcast

      If this link does not work, I refer you to the RTE Morning Ireland website section for podcasts
      The interview was broadcast at 08.24 ie. the second hour.

      • The contrast between the recent behaviour of UK House of Commons Cttees and the behaviour of our Irish ‘parliamentarians’ could not be more pronounced or insightful. Britain is not becoming ungovernable; it’s simply that the cosy deals between governing politicians, policy-makers and regulators, on one side, and large, well-resourced and influential companies, on the other side, are coming apart and sufficient public anger has finally been aroused as the damage to the public interest is being revealed. British MPs are simply doing their job, communicating and channelling this anger and seeking to hold those in positions of governance, authority or influence to account.

        Perhaps most Irish voters can’t decide between having TDs as their personal brokers with an over-mighty, highly centralised and expansive government apparatus or using their TDs to subject this expansive apparatus to scrutiny, restraint and accountability – with a traditional preference for the former. Many British voters seem to be much more in favour of the latter – and their MPs, having long been in disgrace and considered ineffectual, are realising that they have to bare their teeth at, and to bite, government, if they wish to be re-elected.

        Perhaps an increasing number of Irish voters will come to realise that’s what their TDs are really for; but, then again, perhaps they won’t. There seems to be this innate distaste for, even fear of, robust, adversarial disputation and confrontation. And, of course, smothering and suppressing any dissent or confrontation suits those who exercise power and influence absolutely perfectly.

  2. What struck me as the most bizarre was newly elected Deputy White’s equating “accountability” with the whip system when the first word that comes to most peoples’ mind re accountability is the word “resign” and the second word is “prison”. Neither of these apply to Irish establishment figures. White seems already to be ring fenced by the narrow parameters of the party system. There should be a clause in the constitution stripping pensions from politicians who are found guilty of corruption by a court of law.
    Elaine Byrne dismissing Freedom of Information when it was mentioned as something that should be inserted in the Constitution was disappointing.
    Vincent Browne hadn’t done his homework – he didn’t even know electoral reform was on the agenda of the Constitutional Review Convention.
    The major announcement yesterday re the changes to the legal system (requiring a referendum) combined with the abolition of the Senate puts the Convention’s agenda in the halfpenny place.

    • “What struck me as the most bizarre was newly elected Deputy White’s equating “accountability” with the whip system when the first word that comes to most peoples’ mind re accountability is the word “resign” and the second word is “prison”.”


    • “Elaine Byrne dismissing Freedom of Information when it was mentioned as something that should be inserted in the Constitution was disappointing.”

      IMO, Elaine Byrne simply pointed out that the current culture of the public appears to be such that they will look for ways to circumvent Freedom of Information provisions, even if such measures are explicitly grounded in Constitutional articles. I agree that she did not say this, but that is what I took from her response. Her resp

      As I pointed out in a recent article in the
      “Abuses of position, cronyism and corruption need secrecy. We have learnt this from investigative reporting, tribunals, leaks and special inquiries. What is less obvious is that bad management and inefficiency also thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy.”

      The kind of circumventing FoI provisions suggests that the culture and practice of the senior public service has little sense of fiduciary responsibility. There are other examples
      1) the Dept of Finance
      “Who is to blame? Ultimately, and again, it is political leaders. But that does not exonerate officials, and all the
      more so in a political system where top-down pressure for change is unusually lacking. Among the central questions… why officials,… did not do more to drive change, particularly in administrative and technocratic areas with few if any political implications…. Why was it beyond the ambition of senior officials to take advantage of this to beef up their own capacity and bring on board the sort of expertise that any finance ministry needs in a modern economy?..”
      Dan O’Brien “Looking back on a unique absence of foresight” Irish Times 28 June 2010

      2) the Dept of Health and beyond
      “However, we have learned most about how the civil service operates from the enquiry by John Travers into the Health Department’s performance in charging poor people for long-stay institutional care. What it reveals is more damning than even the findings of the Cromien report on the Department of Justice had been. The illegality of the Department of Health’s behaviour over nearly three decades will now cost the State many hundreds of millions of Euro. Travers’s summing up, ‘long-term overall systemic corporate failure of public administration’ at the highest levels,
      certainly has very much wider application than just to the Department of Health and Children…….

      Over all these years, as Travers notes, an immense amount of administrative resources within the Department of Health were wasted ‘in attempting to defend a legally suspect charging regime and in undertaking a sequence of reviews of a practice clearly seen to be problematic……

      Frustrating the Ombudsman
      The performance of the Department of Health and Children is put into a wider context by the comments of the Ombudsman on the Travers Report to the relevant Oireachtas Committee in June 2005. She claimed that nothing of what Travers had uncovered had been revealed to her predecessor…In his presentation to the Dáil Committee in 2001, her predecessor had referred to ‘a
      breakdown in the accountability relationship between Ministers and senior civil servants and at the very least a distinct lack of transparency in that relationship.’”
      William Kingston “Systemic Corporate Failure of Public Administration” Reflections on the Travers Report Studies
      94 (394) Winter, 2005 p. 385-395

      The Travers Report was on “Certain Issues of Management and Administration in the Department of Health &
      Children associated with the Practice of Charges for Persons in Long-Stay Care in Health Board Institutions and Related Matters.”

      • Donal,- Are our Public Representatives namely TD’s, Senators & councillors up to speed and aware of the info you have posted here ? more importantly are the Civil Servants who ‘inform’ the Minister(s), & supposed to be assisting in upholding ‘Law & Order’ and the proper functioning of governance by the coalition aware and if not why not . The recent debate in the Dail & Senate was pathetic both from the coalition and opposition sides on the ‘resolution’ and some displayed total ignorance of the subject . So until we can STOP the ‘powers that be’ from carrying on with their ‘dubious’ party interests by changing the structures through which they have usurped that power and robbed the electorate of the democratic process it will be ‘more of the same’ . The spokesperson for the coalition on the VB show gave us a taste of the ‘authoratarian’ kind of response that may be expected to submissions – to whoever- regarding the Convention . – . An illustration of the ‘misinformation’ or the misleading by the parties occurred recently when one party tried to distance itself from the corruption involving some of their members and Richard Boyd Barrett of ULA bravely brought them back to reality by reminding the house that the tribunals had categorically stated that corruption was rampant throughout the political system – this was a serious moment and one could see the deputies cringing – there was total silence in the house – in fact if one watched closely you can see the Cathoirleach hanging his head. ! We need to encourage those who will bring the Dail & Senate back on track and make the government accountable in managing the affairs .of our ‘soverign ‘ state for which all in management are highly paid through revenue generated by the citizen.

  3. The coalition lackey -Alex White was indeed ringfenced , rattled and quite arrogant – why should anyone dare to question the ? government resolution on the Convention . It seemed that he took every point raised by those on the panel as an affront to him and the ‘government’ as if the government ‘agenda’ should not be challenged & of course using the argument of democratic proceedure being observed – the people having spoken. Indeed the people did speak at the last election but the promises,(the mandate on which our public representatives were elected) given by the parties in coalition during the campaign have been swept under the carpet and conveniently forgotten. The electorate demand now is that there is urgent and adical reform of politics under many headings . And if this is not implemented we will continue with the culture of a banana republic we have had to endure for far too long.

  4. @Billy
    The electorate have not yet got to the stage of demanding anything re political reform and so the govt. can proceed unchallenged in avoiding reforms such as adressing Cabinet tyranny.

    • @Manus,

      Dan O’Brien is getting to grips with some of the fundamental issues in today’s IT:

      I know he has never allowed himself to be constrained within the economics ‘silo’, but it’s good to see him striding in to territory that the pol sci heads might consider theirs alone.

      Irish voters have to decide as to whether the primary role of TDs is to act as their personal brokers with an overmighty, centralised and expansive government apparatus or to subject this expansive apparatus to scrutiny, restraint and accountability. These are not mutually exclusive activities, but one has to take precedence over the other. The profound failures of governance, policy and regulation, interspersed with relatively short periods of moderately good governance, over the last 35 years have been caused by the almost excessive focus on the former activity – and an almost total neglect of the latter.

      But voters can’t choose unless they’re offered a choice. And so we’re back to the primary responsibility of existing and aspiring TDs. While the preference of some voters for independents and others outside the traditional party ‘mainstream’ might be viewed as a preference for a traditional ‘clientelist/broker’ relationship, it might also signal a disaffection with the traditional ‘my party, right or wrong’ approach of the dominant party TDs – irrespective of their voters wishes.

      So, to all TDs and aspriring TDs: decide whether or not you wish to give voters a genuine choice about what you do – and then do it. Among all electorates in long-established democracies, Irish voters have a well-deserved reputation for thier patience and their willingness to bide their until they have an opportunity to cast judgement in the secrecy of the polling booths. Currently the patience and willingness of many voters to bide their time are being sorely tested. Governing politicians and all TDs should not abuse these laudable and long-standing attributes of the vast majority of Irish voters.

  5. Here is someone doing a great service for the country maybe more than us armchair reformers.
    Shouting in the Senate that our future is being ignored he called attention to the Constitutional Review Convention not being debated in the Senate.
    Why would any TD blog here? Unless they are a minister they hav to be “accountable”to their whips which in effect means speak when and what you are allowed

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