We ourselves are fit to make a new republic

Tue, Sep 11, 2012, 01:00

Change could happen if the 66 citizens set for the constitutional convention did not fall in with the tame plan

THE MOST radical and effective thing ever done by Irish nationalists did not involve shooting anyone. Seventy-three people declined to get on a boat to England. They had been elected to the Westminster parliament in 1918 on a Sinn Féin manifesto that promised to withdraw “the Irish representation from the British parliament” and to establish instead a “constituent assembly comprising persons chosen by Irish constituencies”.

They did as they promised – and met in Dublin as the first Dáil. In doing so, they created a new democratic reality.

I suggest there is now both the need and the opportunity for a similar act of secession. Sixty-six citizens are about to get the chance to make a new democratic reality.

In the next few weeks, a polling company acting for the Government will choose 66 names from the electoral register. These people will be broadly representative of the electorate as a whole in terms of region, gender, social class and age. The Government’s idea is that they will be joined by 33 politicians to form a constitutional convention. Together, they will draw up reports on nine questions – the first two are the possible reduction of the presidential term to five years and the possible reduction of the voting age to 17.

The 66 citizens who are drawn out of the hat will have three options.

They can go along with the Government’s plans for a tame assembly. They can opt out of the whole thing. Or they can do something that would give some hope and energy to their fellow citizens: they can secede.

They can constitute themselves as a free, open, deliberative forum that engages in a calm but urgent way with the reality that is so clearly before our eyes: that the Irish Republic, insofar as it ever existed, has collapsed and that, before it can be rebuilt, it must be reimagined.

The best argument for not obediently going along with the Government’s plans is provided by Fine Gael and Labour in the manifestoes they put before the people last year. They told us the republican system of government had collapsed and that this was why we need the radical innovation of a people’s convention. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore promised a citizens’ assembly to “collectively design the kind of Republic that meets the needs and aspirations of the Irish people”.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny sounded an even more radical note: “Ireland today is a republic in name only” and thus “needs more than piecemeal reform. It needs radical root-and-branch change.”

The constitutional convention we are actually getting is emphatically not intended to design a new republic. It will discuss “piecemeal reform”, beginning with a few trivialities. Large constitutional changes, such as the planned abolition of the Seanad, will be outside its remit.

Fundamental questions such as the creation of local democracy (without which national democracy is impossible) are not even asked.

Crucially, the convention will have no power to put any of its suggestion to a referendum. It will merely make recommendations to the Government. The Government can simply reject those recommendations or, more probably, delay decisions until its term of office runs out. The convention, politically speaking, is entirely conventional.

It would not be unreasonable for the 66 citizens to refuse to take part in this game show. But they have a much more exciting option: secession. They can hold their own meeting, set their own agenda, decide for themselves what is and is not of urgent importance. They can start from scratch by asking basic and potent questions: what is a republic? Is Ireland one? And, if not, what does it need to do to become a republic?

There are just two apparent reasons for not seceding. One is that such a body would have no power. At one level, this is perfectly true – an independent assembly would have exactly the same power as an officially controlled one, which is none at all. But at another level, it would have immense power – the freedom to excite and engage and energise one’s fellow citizens by the simple act of standing up and saying “We can think for ourselves and talk for ourselves.”

The other objection is practical. The official convention will have money and expertise. But these can be easily got. The Government has allocated a measly €300,000 for the work of the convention – itself a sign of the seriousness of the enterprise.

There is no doubt whatever that an independent assembly could raise at least that amount of money online from citizens’ donations. The same goes for expertise: I have no doubt whatever that the best Irish and international thinkers would be enthused by the prospect of helping a free inquiry by citizens with the guts and dignity to act for themselves.

This could be a spark for peaceful, democratic change. What we need right now is not so much a new constitution as the courage and self-confidence to believe that we ourselves are fit to make a new republic.

Sixty-six lucky people will have the power to bestow that gift on their fellow citizens.

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