Constitutional convention will have its remit severely pruned


Government is planning an assembly with an advisory role only and an insignificant agenda

IN WHAT was a busy week for the Government, it is interesting that they found time to sprinkle speculation about their so-called “constitutional convention”.

The Government parties are well behind their own promised timetable on this one. The Labour manifesto promised a convention comprising 30 members of the Oireachtas, 30 members from “civil society organisations and other people with relevant legal or academic expertise” and 30 “ordinary citizens chosen by lot”.

Labour’s manifesto promised these 90 people would “review the Constitution and draft a reformed one within one year”, thereby suggesting an entirely new constitution would be written. Fine Gael in its manifesto promised to hold a “Constitution Day within 12 months of assuming office at which the people will be asked to approve the abolition of the Seanad and other changes to the articles of the Constitution covering the institutions of the State – principally the executive, the Dáil, the presidency and the judiciary.”

When their respective proposals were scrambled into the programme for government, the two parties promised to “establish a constitutional convention to consider comprehensive constitutional reform, with a brief to consider, as a whole or in sub-groups, and report within 12 months on” a list of specific issues as well as “other relevant constitutional amendments” that the convention itself may identify.

The programme for government did not define what it meant by a constitutional convention, did not detail its likely composition and was silent on what would happen to any recommendations.

Although almost a year in office the Government is only now taking proposals for the convention to the Opposition parties for consultation. Media reports this week suggest the Government is proposing a 100- member assembly, comprising 70 selected citizens and 30 serving politicians. It is not yet clear how either group will be selected.

What does seem clear however is that the only proposals on which the constitutional assembly will report before the end of this year are the presidential term of office and the voting age. What the Government is actually proposing, far from being a constitutional convention in the true meaning of the phrase, is a hybrid assembly. It is suggesting something that is one part Oireachtas committee and two parts focus group, with an advisory role only and which will, at least initially, deal with what are essentially insignificant constitutional provisions.

There were moments during the absurdity of last Novembers presidential election campaign when one would have been forgiven for wishing that our presidents could be elected for life. On balance, however, most people believe the current seven- year term is too long. Whether it is five years or seven years doesn’t really matter, however, and feeding it as a morsel to a citizens’ constitutional assembly is frankly an insult. In any case reducing the presidential term from seven years to five is already Fine Gael policy; it was supposed to have been one of the five proposals included in their big “Constitution Day” referendums, which, if they had followed through on their election promise, should have been held six months ago.

The voting age is also not a significant issue. Introducing people to voting at 16 or 17, when they are likely to be still living at home and geographically settled leads to increased patterns of electoral participation in later life. The arguments in favour of reducing the voting age are compelling. Again, however, even if adopted, a younger voting age hardly amounts to substantial constitutional change.

After it has had a trial run at these two constitutional non-issues, it is suggested that the assembly will consider a small number of other specifically selected issues. One of these is the electoral system itself. I’ll wager that the assembly will end up favouring the retention of our current PRSTV system. Even if they agree to abandon PRSTV, there is little prospect of them coming to a consensus on any alternative. The likelihood of the Government accepting such a change, if recommended, is even more remote. Precedent suggests that given the likely timescale left for deliberation following receipt of the assembly’s report, the politicians will say there is insufficient time to change the system before the next general election and therefore any proposal for electoral reform would simply wither.

The suggestion that the constitutional assembly should consider the question of same-sex marriage is more interesting. It is also superficially attractive. The arguments for gay marriage are, to this writer at least, also compelling, but the surrounding considerations are complex and sensitive for most voters.

Supporters of same-sex marriage might be tempted to welcome the fact that it is being put to the constitutional assembly because this move puts it on the public agenda generally. But there are few precedents for citizens’ assemblies delivering actual constitutional change and there are none for this class of mechanism delivering on social issues, let alone a social issue as controversial as gay marriage remains in this country.

The proposal that a constitutional assembly would examine the question of same-sex marriage emerged for the first time in the programme for government itself. This suggests that, unable to reach agreement on the issues themselves, the two parties kicked it into the distance by promising to send it to the constitutional assembly. Looked at more closely, handing this issue over to the constitutional assembly could be viewed as a deeply cynical exercise. It seeks to garner approval for the Labour Party from the more liberal and/or younger sectors of society without any real prospect of the type of change that might upset the Fine Gael heartland.