Speed over citizens' convention key to reform process
* Removing the concept of blasphemy from the Constitution;
* Reducing the voting age to 17.
There is also the rather enticing statement that the convention will be free to consider “other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by it”, though this only after it has completed its work on the eight specified items.
The list bears all the hallmarks of compromise between the Government parties, marrying the emphasis of the Fine Gael manifesto on institutional reform with the social policy interests of Labour. And, while there may be questions over the decision to include some issues that are not terribly earth-shattering in their import (such as the length of the presidential term) or that strictly speaking are not relevant to the Constitution (eg steps to increase the participation of women in politics), there can be no dispute that the list includes matters of significance and controversy – the issue of blasphemy, the clause on the role of women, the electoral system.
Another thing greatly to be welcomed is the proposal to randomly select citizens as members: they will not be elected, nor will they be there to represent sectoral interests. This is consistent with the best international practice in deliberative democracy. Ordinary citizens are to be given a real voice. They will be allowed time and space to become informed about the issues and trade-offs involved, to discuss and debate them and then arrive at informed decisions.
Of course, there are aspects of the constitutional convention that are less than ideal. A wide agenda of items will be hard to manage, particularly in the tight one-year time frame envisaged. The mixing of ordinary citizens and elected politicians may cause problems. It would have been much better for all of this to have been done a year ago, when the Government was in the flush of electoral success and still enjoying its honeymoon.
Certainly, in an ideal world, this could have been managed better. But this shouldn’t take from the fact the constitutional convention will represent the most ambitious reform process undertaken since 1937, and the first ever to include the active involvement, from the bottom up, of ordinary citizens.
The Fine Gael/Labour Coalition has been presented with a historic opportunity. A year and a half ago it showed plenty of signs that it was ready to seize it. It needs to do it now.
David Farrell holds the chair of politics at University College Dublin