De Valera's Constitution continues to serve us well

 

RENEWING THE REPUBLIC:We don’t need a new constitution. We just need to get more people to read the one we have, writes FIONA DE LONDRAS

RECENT CONTRIBUTIONS in these pages and elsewhere on the renewal of our Republic have focused to a great extent on our Constitution. In the main, they have focused on the text of the Constitution, claiming that changing the document itself will be sufficient to cure all ills. Rewriting the Constitution will not solve everything. In fact, it might not solve anything at all. If we want true change in how our country operates and the values it places on limiting governmental power, respecting individual rights and securing economic stability for all, then we must look to ourselves and our own conceptions of what the State and our elected representatives do for us.

We must question what we know about the Constitution and where we get that information from. We must become informed and participative members of our constitutional democracy and challenge political assertions about what the Constitution does and does not require the State to do.

In theory, we have a close relationship to the Constitution: “We, the people of Éire,” as it says in the preamble, enacted it through plebiscite and we vote in referendums.

However, the process of enactment was replete with difficulties, a huge proportion of people voted against it (more than 43 per cent) and as a people we are constrained in our referendum voting by what the government decides to propose and how they decide to word it.

We do not have as close a relationship to our Constitution as we might like to think, but in my view this is not because of the Constitution itself but because a localised and clientist political culture has developed in which effective and informed constitutional debate is hampered by an elitist failure to properly disseminate constitutional knowledge.

Challenging this requires a shift in mindset on our part and a cynical appreciation of the politicisation of constitutional discourse in this country. Firstly, we must move from seeing politicians as our employees and us as their clients. Of course, politicians work for us; but they work for us in our collective identity as a State, not for us as individuals.

As long as their energies are devoted to filling potholes and making passport applications only the exceptional politician will be able to think about the big picture in an effective and coherent manner.

It is not disinterest in bigger questions of statehood and strategy that focuses politicians on these questions; it is the reality that, in general, we direct our votes based on party affiliation and responses to personal requests for assistance.

The Constitution does not hold responsibility for this: we do.

If we are to demand a more responsive, effective and egalitarian State we must be prepared to engage in a radical shift in thinking towards a more civic mindset where we all recognise our role and potential as political participants in the State.

An important step in all of this is to empower ourselves by becoming more familiar with the Constitution itself. People often speak about what the Constitution does and does not say, but how many of us have actually held a copy in our hand, or even gone online and read it for free on the website of the Taoiseach?

Our Constitution is not an overly complex document, although some of the language may seem complicated or outmoded on the first reading.

However, we should all read it; in fact, the State should send a copy to every household together with a booklet explaining every article in accessible language. Unless we are all familiar with the Constitution, how can we have effective debates about the State and, indeed, about the content of the Constitution and the desirability of change?

We must also demand real public education about the Constitution, political theory and the way in which our State works. Every Junior Certificate student undertakes a subject called Civic, Social and Political Education, which (according to the syllabus) “aims to prepare students for active participatory citizenship”. How can it be, then, that one can go through our educational system without ever having read the Constitution or being told what it says and stands for?

We must challenge the State’s failure to take effective action in order to bring us, the people, closer to our constitutional heritage and to stymie the tendency to see the Constitution as a way of laying down lines of inclusion and exclusion in our society.

As an electorate, we must be alive to the reality of a political class that is all too ready to point, often disingenuously, to the Constitution as the reason for action or inaction on certain issues. These same politicians also tell us that progressive social change on family, reproductive rights, and even blasphemy is impossible because of the Constitution and fail to acknowledge that it is they who decide whether to hold a referendum or not.

How can it be that we can have multiple referendums to secure our position in the EU but none on the definition of marriage? These are political choices disguised as constitutional imperatives and unless we are constitutionally informed we cannot effectively challenge them.

An electorate that is dazzled by constitutional mythology and political jargon serves the interests of the State and disempowers us from full political participation. Taking on the responsibility for informing ourselves, reflecting on our own role as political actors, demanding appropriate political responses to our needs, and participating as members of the State as a whole rather than as unitary actors with purely individualistic interests is no easy task.

It is certainly more difficult than pointing to the deep blue covers of the Constitution and demanding change. It also requires us to demand that the State would democratise constitutional and political knowledge, and that academics and other experts would engage in the public debate on the Constitution outside of the traditional pages of peer-reviewed journals (us lecturers are, after all, public servants too).

We all, then, face a heavy task. It is, however, one worth undertaking. A renewed Republic, if that is what is needed, will be more effectively created through ethical, civic-minded reconceptualisation of our relationship to the State and its relationship to us than it would be by spending inestimable amounts of time, energy and (dare I say it) money) on drafting a new Constitution.


Dr Fiona de Londras lectures in the school of law at University College Dublin and blogs at www.humanrights.ie

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