Constitutional change

Fri, Feb 24, 2012, 00:00

THE CABINET has finally agreed “in principle” to establish a constitutional convention and Opposition parties will be consulted on its architecture and agenda. Delay in setting up the convention, along with uncertainty about its composition and remit, is a cause for concern. There should be no more fudging or prevarication: comprehensive political and administrative reform is required if the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated.

Government briefings suggest the convention may be asked to consider an initial agenda involving a reduction in the voting age, same-sex marriage and a shorter presidential term. These are important but largely peripheral issues and could obscure, if not derail, pre-election undertakings involving major political, administrative, electoral and structural change.

They do not cut to the heart of the problems that manifested themselves in recent years, where some ministers devoted as much time to their constituencies as to government business, and the overwhelming power of the executive served to diminish parliament and its oversight role. Even the precise make-up of the convention is unclear. The appointment of 30 lawyers and constitutional experts, along with 30 politicians and 30 citizens drawn randomly from the electoral register has been suggested. These matters should be clarified as quickly as possible.

Improving the level of trust and dialogue between voters and politicians is a critically important project, as is the introduction of electoral and administrative change. Engagement with Opposition parties has been belated and only driven by the need to agree a basic agenda and secure their co-operation The convention’s programme and deliberations should not be dominated by party-directed agendas. One of the great flaws in our society has been an absence of accountability. The higher up the chain of command you go – in politics, banking, religion or business – the more obvious it becomes. Failure by regulatory authorities and the police to pursue and punish wrongdoers is part of the problem. To drive reform and political and administrative effectiveness, individuals in positions of power must be held responsible for their actions, whether it amounts to basic mistakes, poor planning, abuse of power or corrupt actions. In that regard, Government promises to specify in law the separate responsibilities of ministers and senior civil servants await implementation.

The constitutional convention will be directed to produce a final report within 12 months. That is an extremely tight schedule, given the complexity of the issues involved. Any reform of the PR voting system will generate controversy because of its likely impact on Dáil representation and local communities. The same holds true for local authorities where extensive change has been proposed involving the amalgamation of councils and new financing methods, but without considering political representation. In spite of that, a radical review could help in making the political and administrative systems fit for purpose in a modern republic.