Convention will be vehicle for profound social reform


OPINION:The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste welcome a mechanism to close the lingering gap between people and politics

POLITICS IS about people. The political system needs to listen to the views of the electorate and recognise the reality of people’s lives. Many believe that a disconnection has arisen between politics and wider society. This week we are moving resolutions in the Dáil and Seanad approving the calling of a constitutional convention, which we believe can go a significant way towards bridging that gap.

The programme for government contains a commitment to creating a process to better equip our Constitution to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The setting up of the convention fulfils this commitment. It is an important and exciting initiative and it represents an innovative approach to examining constitutional reform – one that has never been tried before in this country.

Prior to moving the resolutions, we have held two rounds of consultation with Opposition representatives. Views expressed during that process were taken into account in finalising the arrangements for the convention.

The convention will be asked to consider a range of matters, covering both institutional and social issues. Initially, it will examine reducing the presidential term of office to five years and aligning it with the local and European elections, and reducing the voting age to 17. It is intended that the convention will report on these two items within two months of its first public hearing and this will provide an opportunity to review its operation in the light of experience.

Over the next year or so, the convention will also review the Dáil electoral system; giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections at Irish embassies or otherwise; making provision in the Constitution for same-sex marriage; amending the clause on the role of women in the home and encouraging greater participation of women in public life; increasing the participation of women in politics; and removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution.

Following completion of reports on these matters, the convention will have the opportunity to make such other recommendations for constitutional reform as it sees fit.

The convention will be made up of 100 members and the independent chairperson will be nominated shortly. In addition, there will be 66 members of the public and 33 elected representatives – drawn from the Houses of the Oireachtas and a parliamentarian from each of the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly that accepts an invitation from the Government to participate in the work of the convention.

The members of the public will be selected randomly, using the electoral register, and will be broadly representative of society in terms of gender, age, regional balance, etc.

This is a terrific opportunity for members of the public to become involved in this important innovation in public life and we would encourage anybody who is approached to participate in the convention to take the opportunity to contribute to this exciting development.

Training will be provided for all members for the first meeting, and as required during the course of the year, to ensure that everyone can play a full part in the proceedings.

It is intended that the convention will complete its work within one year of its first public meeting, which is expected to take place in September.

A very important aspect of the convention is that the Government has publicly committed to responding to each recommendation from the convention within four months. We will arrange for a debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas in each case. Where the Government accepts the recommendation, we will indicate the timeframe we envisage for the holding of the referendum.

This approach, we believe, addresses one of the main criticisms of previous attempts to initiate constitutional reform. In the past, after much excellent work – for example, by various Oireachtas committees and the Constitutional Review Group – the ensuing reports were often left to gather dust on the shelf.

The approach we are adopting demonstrates the extent of our commitment to this new and innovative strategy for constitutional reform.

Before making our response to each recommendation, the Government will of course fulfil the obligation that every government has in relation to proposals for constitutional change: first, to consider the proposal carefully and, second, to ensure as far as possible that the aim of the proposal is achieved without this leading to any unintended consequences.

The wide-ranging nature of the topics to be considered by the convention is likely to require a significant amount of work for the members.

An expert advisory group will be established to assist the convention in its endeavours and will provide specialist guidance on the variety of issues to be examined.

This support from leading academics, political scientists and constitutional lawyers will be a critical factor in the success of the convention and we very much look forward to their contribution over the next year.

The convention will also welcome submissions from the diverse range of groups and organisations who have already expressed an interest in its work programme.

It is expected that many of these groups will have the opportunity to present their views directly to the convention and we are sure that the members can look forward to many robust debates as they consider the full spectrum of representative opinion.

Much of the convention’s work will be done via a new website, which will be launched shortly. It is expected that the convention’s working papers and various submissions will be available to the public, in line with the commitment to a transparent and interactive forum.

Meetings of the convention will also be webcast live.

The convention will be anxious to hear from all strands of society at home and abroad, so people will have the opportunity to make a submission or contribute to the general debate on a number of different platforms during the course of the next year.

The success of the convention will depend to a large extent on the level of engagement with the general public, so we urge any citizen with an opinion to get in touch with it.

The Government wishes the convention well as it undertakes an important mission on behalf of the Irish people.

We look forward to an all-inclusive debate on issues of profound importance to our State and society.

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