Convention takes the Constitution in one hand and direct democracy in the other

Mon, Dec 3, 2012, 00:00

It’s a messy business, democracy. Start involving citizens – aka regular people – and who knows where it will end?

After a fraught few weeks when it seemed like bits of the new Constitution might be shaped by sinister, hooded monks from The Da Vinci Code, we came face to face with these mythical beings on Saturday. It was a tad anticlimactic, frankly. There wasn’t a hoodie in sight and the only one in big, dark glasses was a postoperative Gerry Adams, dressed in a symphony of soft, mossy greens. Apart from the woman in an outstanding pair of sparkly red boots and the (mostly) perky-looking politicians, this crowd could have been a nice, slightly wary gathering of the Fine Gael/Labour faithful.

And that’s probably what they are, mostly, since the 66 are rigorously representative of people on the electoral register. Very white and tending towards middle age. It didn’t help that several of the 12 under-24s were missing in action, having excused themselves for weddings and holidays and the like.

It’s the kind of detail that elicits a wince of sympathy for the ConCon secretariat. To find 66 citizens representative of every demographic, Behaviour Attitudes was dispatched to slice up the country, pinpoint locations and knock on every ninth door. And because real lives are messy and Worried Mother of Four from the Midlands may find her husband can’t cope in her absence and she has to drop out (a genuine case), BA also had to find 66 “shadows”.

Even so, by lunchtime, Fine Gael TD James Bannon had yet to find anyone from Longford-Westmeath: “So it looks like I’m left to carry the whole two counties on my own broad shoulders,” he said happily. “But I can do it.”

Since there were no clear rules of engagement, the few members of the media present practised unusual sensitivity, some assuming Chatham House rules applied and conversations with the citizens could not be reported.

Still, the 66 looked apprehensive.

August surroundings

And yet, the odds are that most regular people will be a trifle muted when shuttled into the august, chandeliered surrounds of St Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle, seated amid folk such as Martin McGuinness and grandees such as Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald and Charlie Flanagan, handed copies of Bunreacht na hÉireann and then lectured by a High Court judge and an emeritus professor of history. Even after a very decent lunch of soup and fillet beef.

It could be said that the day’s hard-fought agenda did its job. It was the seventh version in a couple of days, according to Art O’Leary (who makes up the three-man secretariat with Richard Holland and Nason Fallon of the Department of the Taoiseach). Even if the citizens’ feedback to Charlie Flanagan called for “less legal and political jargon and plain English”, the speeches setting the 1937 Constitution in context were undoubtedly inspiring for those with a decent attention span. Though how long the under-24s will put up with “blokes in suits and comb-overs talking at them”, as one man put it, will be interesting.

As well as the agenda, the light mingling of media and citizens was useful, according to O’Leary. “They found you an extraordinary breed and not as bad as people make you out to be,” he said cheerfully.

Publication of names

By close of business there were still a few hold-outs on the anonymity issue. But by yesterday afternoon he was able to say the list of names and general locations would be on the constitution.iewebsite today.

It was a good day’s work overall. The requisite degree of ceremonial was provided in a beautiful place weighted with historical significance and a magnificent Christmas tree in the courtyard. The real work starts in January, when the 66 unpaid citizens will be required to give up a weekend every month for eight months.

The weekends, from 9am on Saturday to teatime on Sunday, will entail two overnights for most. The hospitality will not be lavish since, as O’Leary jokes, they will be running the whole enterprise on “about a fiver”.

Maybe they could invite Tom Arnold (American actor, once married to Roseanne Barr) as a guest speaker. O’Leary directed tweeters to him instead of chairman @TomArnoldCEO. Easy mistake. The actor must be wondering what he has done to deserve this.

The identity issue ‘You’re not just representing  yourself but everyone in the country’

Gerry Farrell (54), a shift manager with Coca-Cola in Drogheda before it closed and left him unemployed, revealed the reasoning behind the fear of revealing identities of the members of the convention.

When he agreed to participate, he said, it never occurred to him the media would be involved.

“Maybe I had a narrower vision, some idea that it would be enclosed – and, unlike a lot of these people, I’m someone who was used to working in forums with people from many countries . . . It was only last week that I understood the press were concerned about knowing the names of people.”

Which is when he and many others began to worry about media intrusion and lobbyists camping in their front gardens.

“I’m very interested in politics though I have no party-political affiliations, but I did wonder about things like – would journalists be digging into your background and asking why was this person selected?”

The fear factor is real and perhaps not sufficiently recognised. Farrell adds:

“I honestly don’t see why revealing my identity could be in any way good for me.”

In the end he gave his name to The Irish Times because having talked to Tom Arnold and listened to the speeches, he had come to understand the “true weight and significance of this . . . and the fact that you’re not just representing yourself here but everyone in the country”.

Arnold hails chance to ‘shape future’

The constitutional convention has provided “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the future of this country”, chairman Tom Arnold told the inaugural meeting of the convention at the weekend.

“The shapers of the 1937 Constitution did a good job. Now it is our time and our turn,” he told an audience of political leaders and convention members at Dublin Castle.

Along with Mr Arnold, the convention consists of 33 elected representatives from North and South and 66 members of the public, who will have 12 months to consider and recommend changes to the Constitution.

“We have to go about our work in a very open and transparent way,” Mr Arnold said, adding that the public sessions of the convention were being streamed online on the convention website,

He said he hoped the convention and any public debate would be conducted with “tolerance, respect for divergent opinions and good manners”.

The first working session will be on the last weekend in January. The initial topics are proposals to reduce the presidential term from seven to five years and the voting age from 18 to 17 years.

Mr Justice Gerard Hogan of the High Court said the Constitution was initiated by Éamon de Valera in 1934 with the establishment of a top-level committee. The members included “a really remarkable civil servant”, John Hearne, legal adviser to the then-department of external affairs, who was instructed to prepare the drafting of a new Constitution.

The role of John Charles McQuaid, later archbishop of Dublin, had been “somewhat overstated”, and civil servants, judges and a Jesuit committee played a significant part.

He said the final document was voted on by the people in July 1937, “the first Constitution ever to be put to a popular vote”, and it came into force the following December. Although it had “obvious faults”, it was intriguing that its “strengths and considerable achievements are almost never mentioned in public discourse”.

Dr Jane Suiter of DCU said debates about constitutional reform used to be dominated by lawyers, but “more and more now, ordinary people are being asked for their views”.

Prof Dermot Keogh of University College Cork said the Constitution had received “very negative press in recent years” but popular criticism often lacked any historical base. DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN, Political Correspondent