Reforming the Constitution

 

THIS GOVERNMENT came to power offering fundamental reform, declaring that “failures of the political system were key contributors to the financial crisis”. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore spoke of radical, root-and-branch change that would meet the needs and aspirations of the Irish people and a constitutional convention to deliver in that regard. Now, one-third of the way through its term of office, the convention has yet to be established and its agenda is a poor shadow of what was originally indicated.

Last week, Mr Kenny said he hoped to make an announcement about the convention “shortly”. He did so at the launch of a book on Eamon de Valera’s 1937 Constitution that identified the German, French and Polish constitutions that helped to shape it; the political astuteness that directed it and the skilled draughtsmanship that gave it flexibility and endurance. The Taoiseach made no reference to urgent transformation. Instead, he thought it “timely” to look at the 75-year-old document and ask if it met the needs of a modern nation.

The constitutional convention has, however, been denied such terms of reference. Its initial task will be to consider whether the presidential term should be reduced from seven to five years and the voting age from 18 to 17 years. Hardly transforming stuff! After that, the role of women in society, blasphemy and same-sex marriages will be discussed, along with the electoral system.

Recommendations on the latter issue have the capacity to convulse Irish politics. But because one-third of convention members will be TDs, that may not happen. In any event, the Government is not bound to accept any of the recommendations made.

In identifying “failures of the political system” as key contributors to the financial crisis, both Fine Gael and the Labour Party acknowledged that an absence of accountability and the dominance of parish pump politics had damaged the common good. Sweeping success in multi-seat constituencies in the general election appears to have dampened the ardour of both parties for change, even as Fianna Fáil’s electoral collapse brought support for single-seat constituencies along with a list system involving proportional representation.

Down the years, politicians have acknowledged the faults of a system that rewards constituency work at the expense of the national interest. But party considerations blocked reform. Support from Fine Gael and Labour Party TDs at the convention will be needed for change to gain a foothold on this occasion.

Even then, a referendum may not be held because of Government apathy or public opposition. Notwithstanding those considerations, this is the only issue before the convention that offers an opportunity for fundamental restructuring. A referendum to abolish the Seanad is being prepared separately by Government while Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan continues to vacillate over local government reform. So much for a radical approach to participatory democracy and constitutional change!

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