The Irish Times view on further constitutional reform: handle with care

Voters guard the Constitution diligently and need to be convinced by valid argument before approving change

Tinkering with the Constitution for political advantage or to court popularity would be very damaging. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Tinkering with the Constitution for political advantage or to court popularity would be very damaging. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

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The Government has committed to holding two more constitutional referendums on the same day as the European and local elections next May. One will seek to ease the constitutional restrictions on divorce and the other will extend the right to vote in presidential elections to Irish citizens living overseas.

There is an indisputable case for continuing the process of modernising the Constitution which includes elements reflecting the concerns and mindset of the 1930s rather than those of modern Ireland. But great care needs to be taken in prioritising what should be amended. Tinkering with the Constitution for political advantage or to court popularity would be very damaging.

The wrangling over the past year about the proposal to remove Article 41.2, concerning the role of woman in the home, illustrates the pitfalls of hasty decisions. The Government initially intended to ask the people to abolish the provision in tandem with the October referendum removing the provision on blasphemy. However, it was forced to put the plan on hold when a number of TDs and Senators objected to the simple removal of the clause and advocated its replacement with a gender neutral wording. Others wanted the article changed to recognise the role of carers.

The matter was referred to the Oireachtas justice committee which is due to issue its findings today. It appears that the committee failed to agree on how to proceed and will recommend two options. One is to amend the Constitution to make the clause gender neutral and the other is to send the issue back to the Citizens’ Assembly for further consideration. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan is sticking by his view that the best way to proceed is simple abolition of the clause.

The Constitution is the fundamental law of the State and its amendment demands appropriate consideration. It is imperative the major political parties and the public are kept informed and fully involved. The rejection in recent yearsof proposed amendments to give Oireachtas committees more powers and to abolish the Seanad showed that voters guard the Constitution diligently and need to be convinced by valid argument before they will approve change. And rightly so.

The Government needs to do more to explain why giving Irish citizens abroad a vote in Presidential elections is a priority and how such a system would work in detail. There are valid arguments for liberalising the divorce regime but given the solemn commitments made at the time of the divorce referendum in 1995, care should be taken to explain the nature of the changes and why they are needed. The continuing debate over the terms of the Abortion Bill, which were spelled out in advance of the recent referendum decision, highlights the need for clarity about the implications of any referendum proposal.

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