Convention takes the Constitution in one hand and direct democracy in the other
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, constitution.ie.
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