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