We ourselves are fit to make a new republic
Change could happen if the 66 citizens set for the constitutional convention did not fall in with the tame plan
THE MOST radical and effective thing ever done by Irish nationalists did not involve shooting anyone. Seventy-three people declined to get on a boat to England. They had been elected to the Westminster parliament in 1918 on a Sinn Féin manifesto that promised to withdraw “the Irish representation from the British parliament” and to establish instead a “constituent assembly comprising persons chosen by Irish constituencies”.
They did as they promised – and met in Dublin as the first Dáil. In doing so, they created a new democratic reality.
I suggest there is now both the need and the opportunity for a similar act of secession. Sixty-six citizens are about to get the chance to make a new democratic reality.
In the next few weeks, a polling company acting for the Government will choose 66 names from the electoral register. These people will be broadly representative of the electorate as a whole in terms of region, gender, social class and age. The Government’s idea is that they will be joined by 33 politicians to form a constitutional convention. Together, they will draw up reports on nine questions – the first two are the possible reduction of the presidential term to five years and the possible reduction of the voting age to 17.
The 66 citizens who are drawn out of the hat will have three options.
They can go along with the Government’s plans for a tame assembly. They can opt out of the whole thing. Or they can do something that would give some hope and energy to their fellow citizens: they can secede.
They can constitute themselves as a free, open, deliberative forum that engages in a calm but urgent way with the reality that is so clearly before our eyes: that the Irish Republic, insofar as it ever existed, has collapsed and that, before it can be rebuilt, it must be reimagined.
The best argument for not obediently going along with the Government’s plans is provided by Fine Gael and Labour in the manifestoes they put before the people last year. They told us the republican system of government had collapsed and that this was why we need the radical innovation of a people’s convention. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore promised a citizens’ assembly to “collectively design the kind of Republic that meets the needs and aspirations of the Irish people”.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny sounded an even more radical note: “Ireland today is a republic in name only” and thus “needs more than piecemeal reform. It needs radical root-and-branch change.”