Taoiseach stresses role of citizens in new body

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LEGISLATION WILL be required to select 66 members of the public to be part of the constitutional convention, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has told the Dáil. The convention will consider a number of issues for reform of the Constitution and will report to the Government.

Opening a two-hour debate on its establishment, Mr Kenny said it would be “radically different” from previous efforts at constitutional reform. He stressed the importance of “ordinary citizens” as well as elected representatives being involved and said a polling company would select 66 people on the electoral register to be members, on the basis that they were representative of the population in terms of gender, age, social class and region.

The Taoiseach said “legislation will be required to use the electoral register for this purpose”, to be introduced by the Minister for the Environment. The 33 elected representatives will include a parliamentarian from each of the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, who accepted an invitation to participate.

Mr Kenny said he and the Tánaiste expected shortly to announce the independent chair of the convention. “An exceptional person will be needed, combining very high levels of public acceptability, known fair-mindedness, effective chairmanship skills and knowledge of the Constitution and law.”

He believed the topics to be considered were appropriate but was “prepared to consider whether other topics could be considered at a later date”. However he insisted it was “simply not practical” to accommodate fairly all interest groups or specific sections of society that had been proposed. They would, however, be able to make submissions.

Opposition parties have criticised the operation of the convention. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said it had a narrower agenda than either of the Government parties promised. Despite discussions with the Opposition, only minor changes had been made to the proposal, he said. If it stuck to the Government’s core agenda, the convention “will not be able to deliver on the promise of real political reform”.

“There has been no attempt whatsoever to start the process with a serious discussion of what the reform agenda should focus on,” Mr Martin added.

He rejected Mr Kenny’s claims the convention would be radical. “You are in effect saying that you will be radical so long as you retain all of the powers and control you currently have.”

Mr Martin also criticised the referral of same-sex marriage to the convention, saying it “implies there is a possibility there will be no referendum on same-sex marriage during the lifetime of this Government”.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said the convention proposal “limits the remit of the constitutional convention. It fails to deliver a comprehensive transparent process and unless its remit is changed, it will deliver minimal change.”

Introducing an amendment, which was rejected by 92 votes to 23, Mr Adams called for the convention to include a range of citizen groups including those economically disadvantaged and socially marginalised, citizens from the North, members of the diaspora and ethnic minorities.

“We would ensure that women are represented equally on the convention,” he said.

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly believed it was a mistake to include politicians.

They were “able to bring a view as to how the system works today that nobody else can bring, which is valuable. However, best international practice does not include elected representatives in constitutional conventions.”

Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer said priority should be given to the issue of same-sex marriage but the Taoiseach was correct “in not succumbing to the pressure and tactics of some to say ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay’.”

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