Convention is a toothless piece of consultation
WORLD VIEW:Constitutional forum’s narrow agenda rules out debate on major political reform issues
THE ATTITUDE of our Coalition masters to the constitutional convention they are establishing is mystifying to many pragmatic observers of the political scene.
This is, after all, a Government that will get little credit, grudging if any, from the electorate for its agenda of further economic pain and austerity.
To be quite cynical, what it needs is a “project”, a cause, with which to brand itself and by which it will be remembered – a means of returning to the electorate with a solid popular achievement, preferably one that does not involve the expenditure of cash.
The last election would suggest the reform of the political system is just such a project. But instead of embracing it as they had promised, all we have been offered is a piece of unconvincing theatre, what Prof Donncha O’Connell has described as “a quasi-therapeutic encounter between a selection of politicians and a glorified focus group of citizens” – a constitutional convention whose limited remit is confined to a review of the Dáil electoral system, the voting age, presidential terms, same-sex marriage, participation of women in politics and public life, and blasphemy.
This purely consultative mechanism, whose proposals will merely be considered by the Government, is, let us not forget, supposed to be a response to a widespread sense that our political system is dysfunctional, increasingly discredited and alienating.
And even the notion that this is not the way to proceed, that a wholesale redrafting of the Constitution rather than piecemeal reform is what is needed, is not up for the convention’s discussion.
Frankly, despite a passionate interest in politics, if my name is pulled from the lottery for its 66 “representative random” members – most unlikely, as this household never wins anything – I will have to think long and hard about whether to accept the “honour”.
I would not be alone.
The Opposition in its various incarnations has rightly protested at the limitation on the agenda, as have a plethora of civil society groups such as Amnesty and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, for whom any discussion of constitutional reform must include consideration of fundamental rights, not least socio-economic rights. And why not children’s rights and the abolition of the Seanad?
This week Brendan Halligan, chairman of the Institute of International and European Affairs, speaking at the Parnell Summer School, has also drawn attention to perhaps the largest, unspoken-of elephant in the room – the omission from the convention’s agenda of discussion of our constantly evolving relationship with the EU.
The Constitution can only be read in the context of the EU treaties it adheres to, and it is most anomalous that the single issue that has given rise to most amendments – and will certainly do for many years to come – is excluded from its remit.