Convention is a toothless piece of consultation

Sat, Aug 18, 2012, 01:00

WORLD VIEW:Constitutional forum’s narrow agenda rules out debate on major political reform issues

THE ATTITUDE of our Coalition masters to the constitutional convention they are establishing is mystifying to many pragmatic observers of the political scene.

This is, after all, a Government that will get little credit, grudging if any, from the electorate for its agenda of further economic pain and austerity.

To be quite cynical, what it needs is a “project”, a cause, with which to brand itself and by which it will be remembered – a means of returning to the electorate with a solid popular achievement, preferably one that does not involve the expenditure of cash.

The last election would suggest the reform of the political system is just such a project. But instead of embracing it as they had promised, all we have been offered is a piece of unconvincing theatre, what Prof Donncha O’Connell has described as “a quasi-therapeutic encounter between a selection of politicians and a glorified focus group of citizens” – a constitutional convention whose limited remit is confined to a review of the Dáil electoral system, the voting age, presidential terms, same-sex marriage, participation of women in politics and public life, and blasphemy.

This purely consultative mechanism, whose proposals will merely be considered by the Government, is, let us not forget, supposed to be a response to a widespread sense that our political system is dysfunctional, increasingly discredited and alienating.

And even the notion that this is not the way to proceed, that a wholesale redrafting of the Constitution rather than piecemeal reform is what is needed, is not up for the convention’s discussion.

Frankly, despite a passionate interest in politics, if my name is pulled from the lottery for its 66 “representative random” members – most unlikely, as this household never wins anything – I will have to think long and hard about whether to accept the “honour”.

I would not be alone.

The Opposition in its various incarnations has rightly protested at the limitation on the agenda, as have a plethora of civil society groups such as Amnesty and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, for whom any discussion of constitutional reform must include consideration of fundamental rights, not least socio-economic rights. And why not children’s rights and the abolition of the Seanad?

This week Brendan Halligan, chairman of the Institute of International and European Affairs, speaking at the Parnell Summer School, has also drawn attention to perhaps the largest, unspoken-of elephant in the room – the omission from the convention’s agenda of discussion of our constantly evolving relationship with the EU.

The Constitution can only be read in the context of the EU treaties it adheres to, and it is most anomalous that the single issue that has given rise to most amendments – and will certainly do for many years to come – is excluded from its remit.

Halligan argues the unpredictable and sometimes irrational referendum process in the long term may actually be a threat to our membership – despite its overwhelming support among voters.

Also, he argues, we need to consider other forms of the necessary democratic legitimising of the onward march of European integration.

“The best way to handle this threat is to put our membership of the EU on the agenda of the forthcoming constitutional convention,” he argues, “and ask it to come up with a formula that would express Ireland’s political commitment to membership of the EU as an enduring policy choice.

“If that proposal were freely accepted by the people as part of their Constitution it would leave the ratification of future EU treaties in the hands of Dáil Éireann, the democratically elected parliament of the Irish people, which under the Constitution is charged with ratifying international treaties.”

Whether the direct democracy of referendums is ultimately superior as a means of expressing popular sovereignty to the representative democracy that is the predominant mechanism in our Constitution, and those of all our partners, is surely precisely the sort of argument that a real constitutional convention should be addressing. It is certainly not a given.

And there is a specific argument to be made in relation to EU treaties and referendums. The EU’s explicitly dynamic, evolving nature, expanding and deepening – a reflection of the Treaty of Rome’s commitment to “ever closer union” – makes its ever-changing legal relationship to a member state’s static constitution inherently problematic. Our partners have every right to ask whether our decision-making rules are really fit for purpose.

And, finally, a curious non sequitur on the history of the referendum: six weeks ago the people of the tiny principality of Liechtenstein (pop 36,000) overwhelmingly – a 76 per cent majority – rejected by referendum a proposal to curtail the political power of the royal family.

Crown Prince Alois was allowed to retain his power of veto over decisions made in nationwide ballots (his veto on parliament’s decisions was not in question).

Last year he threatened to veto a proposal to liberalise abortion if it went through by referendum – it didn’t. Had the June vote gone the other way, however, the prince, it is believed, would have exercised his veto to save his veto.

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