Speed over citizens' convention key to reform process


AS THE dust settles on the fiscal treaty referendum, we can only hope that the Government is now finally going to bite the reform bullet after many months of prevarication. Elected on a wave of change in February 2011, both Government parties nailed their colours to the political reform mast, promising root-and-branch changes to our political institutions.

This was very much in the mood of the time. Uniquely for an Irish election, all the political parties – without exception – produced detailed and ambitious proposals for political reform. Change was in the air. Expectations were high. The mantra was one of “not wanting to waste a good crisis”.

In its first-year review published in March, the Government was quick to point to its achievements on the reform agenda. It can’t be denied that there have been a few, such as gender quotas or the new rules on party funding.

Some are more meaningful than others: arguably there’s been a bit too much “key jangling” – a tendency to hide behind populist, relatively piecemeal changes (ministerial pay and cars; a slight reduction in the number of TDs) as a means of distracting attention from the bigger picture.

The one measure that could once and for all demonstrate this Government’s seriousness of intent to grasp the political reform nettle would be the establishment of the long overdue constitutional convention. This was supposed to have been launched on the heels of the election victory. But as is so often the case in politics, events took their turn, and the convention languished on the back burner until earlier this year when the Government published details of how it would be constituted, and its agenda.

Party leaders were consulted, a budget line was agreed and all systems seemed to be go when once again events intervened – this time in the shape of the fiscal treaty referendum.

Now, there can be no more excuses for prevarication. A clear and unambiguous promise has been made to establish the convention involving a random selection of 66 ordinary citizens, working in conjunction with 33 elected politicians to consider eight specific themes:

* The Dáil electoral system;

* Reducing the presidential term to five years;

* Giving citizens the right to vote at Irish Embassies in presidential elections;

* Provision 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;

* Removing the concept of blasphemy from the Constitution;

* Reducing the voting age to 17.

There is also the rather enticing statement that the convention will be free to consider “other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by it”, though this only after it has completed its work on the eight specified items.

The list bears all the hallmarks of compromise between the Government parties, marrying the emphasis of the Fine Gael manifesto on institutional reform with the social policy interests of Labour. And, while there may be questions over the decision to include some issues that are not terribly earth-shattering in their import (such as the length of the presidential term) or that strictly speaking are not relevant to the Constitution (eg steps to increase the participation of women in politics), there can be no dispute that the list includes matters of significance and controversy – the issue of blasphemy, the clause on the role of women, the electoral system.

Another thing greatly to be welcomed is the proposal to randomly select citizens as members: they will not be elected, nor will they be there to represent sectoral interests. This is consistent with the best international practice in deliberative democracy. Ordinary citizens are to be given a real voice. They will be allowed time and space to become informed about the issues and trade-offs involved, to discuss and debate them and then arrive at informed decisions.

Of course, there are aspects of the constitutional convention that are less than ideal. A wide agenda of items will be hard to manage, particularly in the tight one-year time frame envisaged. The mixing of ordinary citizens and elected politicians may cause problems. It would have been much better for all of this to have been done a year ago, when the Government was in the flush of electoral success and still enjoying its honeymoon.

Certainly, in an ideal world, this could have been managed better. But this shouldn’t take from the fact the constitutional convention will represent the most ambitious reform process undertaken since 1937, and the first ever to include the active involvement, from the bottom up, of ordinary citizens.

The Fine Gael/Labour Coalition has been presented with a historic opportunity. A year and a half ago it showed plenty of signs that it was ready to seize it. It needs to do it now.

David Farrell holds the chair of politics at University College Dublin

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