The way politics is done


‘ONE OF the central messages conveyed by the people to every member of this House last year,” Micheál Martin argued in the Dáil on Tuesday, “was that they want a change in the way that politics is done in this country. They want us to focus on getting Ireland through to recovery, but they also demand that we implement wide-ranging and credible reform.” The Fianna Fáil leader is correct. And correct too that the proposed constitutional convention and its agenda do not go near responding to that aspiration.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s contention that the “setting up of the convention is an important and exciting step in a process to better equip our Constitution to meet the challenges of the 21st century” is baffling. Important and exciting? “A terrific opportunity,” he wrote in The Irish Times, “for members of the public to become involved in this important innovation in public life.” Really? We are talking here about discussions of lowering the voting age to 17, of shortening presidential terms. Initially. Then later, perhaps, talk of giving emigrants a vote in presidential elections, of legislating for same-sex marriage, of women’s role in politics, of blasphemy. . . . All worthy, but scarcely measures that could be said to “change the way politics is done”. Or even ones that require the elaborate mechanism of a new convention to reach a consensus on.

And, as Mr Martin argues, there is every reason to believe reference to the convention of same-sex marriage is simply a convenient way of putting off having to do something about it before the end of this parliamentary term.

The Government is engaged in a political sleight of hand. Dazzling voters with the novelty of its new convention and its 66 randomly-selected citizen representatives, all untainted by grubby politics, it hopes we will not notice how little the conjuror’s glamorous assistant (a chairman yet to be named) will bring to the table for their delectation. The convention is all form and little substance, although, just in case, God forbid, it gets out of hand, Mr Kenny makes clear its conclusions will only be voted on if the Government approves of them.

If the convention does behave, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore reassures us, they are “prepared to consider whether other topics could be considered at a later date”. Surely, however, at the very least, it should start its work by debating what is wrong with the body politic?

That is not apparently envisaged. The “exciting” dimension of the new body, it appears, will be the speculation, parallel to its deliberations, about if, and by how much, its eventual remit will be extended.

Nor should we be unduly awed by the supposedly “representative” nature of the “Lottery 66”. “Representative”, perhaps, in a strictly statistical sense, but when we talk of our “representative democracy” we mean the word in a different sense: it implies an accountability, a special relationship between voter and representative, an implicit contract that says “you can speak for me”.

The 66 picked at random will have no more democratic authority than those polled in opinion surveys. Not least because they can only answer questions put to them by others. No way to run a country, or write a constitution.

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