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.