David Farrell: Constitutional Convention ‘brand’ is in jeopardy

‘The Convention produced nine reports. Four of these have yet to be debated in the Oireachtas’

Members voting at a meeting of the Convention on the Constitution in Malahide, Co Dublin in 2013. Photograph: Eric Luke

Members voting at a meeting of the Convention on the Constitution in Malahide, Co Dublin in 2013. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The Convention on the Constitution, which completed its work a year ago, exceeded most observers’s expectations – despite the best efforts of the Government both to minimise its role and to seek to ignore the bulk of its outcomes.

On its establishment, the convention was roundly criticised for its limited and quirky agenda of eight topics, a number of them seen as largely irrelevant; yet by the end it produced 38 recommendations on a wide range of areas, some of these very significant proposals for reform.

The convention was given a tiny budget and minimum resources but still managed to meet its deadlines and exceed expectations in terms of its impact, all largely thanks to its members and the various experts, all of whom gave up their time voluntarily.

The common criticism at the outset was that the politician members would dominate proceedings; that never transpired, on the contrary, this is now seen as one of its most successful features and the one that is attracting most international attention.

And rightly so, because in many respects the Convention on the Constitution was a world first: a random selection of ordinary citizens sitting cheek by jowl with elected politicians, deliberating for a year on a range of constitutional issues, producing a large number of recommendations, two of which (marriage equality and the age of presidential candidates) are to be voted on in a referendum on May 22nd. Nothing so ambitious had been tried before anywhere, not even the British Columbia citizens’ assembly of 2003 that it was in part modelled on.

There has been a lot of international interest in the convention, most notably in the United Kingdom, where, in the light of the recent Scottish independence referendum, the next government is likely to establish a UK convention modelled in large part on the Irish experience. This will be the focus of a conference on Citizens and Constitutions hosted by the UCD Institute for British-Irish Studies (IBIS) on March 27th.

But the hugely successful Convention on the Constitution brand is in jeopardy. The Government that established it as a core plank of its political reform agenda is now seeking to sideline it. In the Dáil resolution of July 2012 that saw the establishment of the convention, the Government committed to responding to the convention within four months of receipt of a report and to do so by way of Dáil debate.

In his statement to the Dáil in July 2012, Taoiseach Enda Kenny made clear how seriously he took the need for a timely response, stating: “The Government recognises that unless the reports ... are responded to quickly, the convention and, indeed, the very process on which we have embarked will be called into question.” He and his Government should be judged on that basis.

The convention produced nine reports. Four of these have yet to be debated in the Oireachtas – a year after the convention completed its work and long past the Government’s supposed ‘deadline’.

Of the five that were responded to in the Dáil, this was generally in the form of a ministerial statement (in the most recent instance made by a junior minister) crammed into the final hour or so of a Dáil session just before a recess, when many members had already left for their constituencies.

In one instance – on reducing the voting age – a Government commitment given to the Dáil that it would hold a referendum on the matter this year was rescinded later by the Taoiseach in a newspaper interview. In another – on voting rights in presidential elections for citizens outside the State – the convention’s recommendation was rejected, not in the Dáil but by way of a glossy brochure announcing the Government’s new diaspora policy.

So far, of the 38 recommendations of the convention, 18 of which would require a referendum, the Government has agreed to just four: the two referendums in May, a vague promise to hold one on blasphemy (unlikely this side of the election) and a commitment to establish an electoral commission some time in the lifetime of the next government. This is hardly a ringing endorsement.

The Government’s disinterest in the recommendations of the convention does a disservice to its members, endangers the brand and – not for the first time – shows up serious shortcomings in the commitment of this administration towards its supposed reform agenda.

David Farrell holds the Chair of Politics at UCD (@dfarrell_UCD). He was the research director of the Convention on the Constitution (working in a voluntary capacity). For more information on the UCD IBIS conference, contact IBIS@ucd.ie

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