A Response to “Renewing the Republic”

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, last Sunday, expanded on his ideas for constitutional reform the other week in an editorial letter to the Irish Times.

I’ve never had a great amount of time for Gilmore, any more than any other Labour politician, but constitutional reform is an important, if under-debated, topic nowadays. Since Gilmore will almost certainly be Tanaiste within two years, his views and ideas are critical.

Gilmore’s missive is entitled “Renewing the Republic” and it is certainly big in its aims and scope. Fine Gael’s previous idea of a “super-referendum”, a one day vote on five key constitution areas, seemed a large step: Gilmore appears to have seen that as a challenge and is advocating a complete re-write of the constitution from scratch.

Before I get into my analysis of Gilmore actual plans, right off the bat, one thing struck me in particular:

“We don’t need constitutional reform – we need a whole new constitution, written substantially by the people and ratified as the nation marks the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising”

Associating our current constitution and possible reform with the Easter Rising is a mistake. I could go on and on, debunking the myths of the 1916 rebellion, but the men and women who fought in the GPO were following a very different idea then any party, even Sinn Fein, is doing today. The fact that the Easter Rising was carried out without any kind of mandate or popular support from the people should immediately make it incompatible with the ideas that Gilmore is proposing. The centenary commemorations of the Rising are one thing. It’s an historical event, worthy of remembrance and study. But it has next to nothing to do with modern Ireland and its political system. Gilmore’s attempt to tie his ideas for Ireland’s future into its past is sloppy and unnecessary. He should leave that kind of historical pandering to Sinn Fein.

“In a speech to the MacGill summer school last July, I put forward the idea that we should see this crisis as a moment similar to 1958, when, as a country, we open up a new phase in our development – what I called a New Republic. It is clear that we urgently need a change of government. It is also clear that we need to take a long hard look at our institutions, at how we are governed, and at how we can do better in the future.”

Gilmore appears to be drawing parallels between the current economic climate and the situation in Ireland in 1958 but I don’t feel the comparison is justified. We’re looking at two very different situations here: one was a result of an inward looking, religiously fixed society, that was solved by mass immigration. Today, the financial crisis is largely the result of powers completely outside our control on foreign stock exchanges.

“We need to ensure that this crisis never happens again, but we also need a forward looking examination of the rules and norms by which we govern ourselves.”

I’ve said it before: A Fine Gael/Labour coalition would have done very little different if they had been in power in the past number of years. How reforming our constitution will avoid a similar financial crisis in the future, one bound up in the banks and stocks of nearly every major nation in the world, is completely unknowable to me. This is a common line from Gilmore and Labour and one that grates. He has an overinflated sense of Ireland’s importance on the grand stage.

Gilmore raises two main points:

“The first is that the crafting of a constitution should emerge out of as broad a debate as it is possible to organise. And, notwithstanding the many fine contributions on these pages, it is clear that we have yet to achieve a consensus on what the underlying deficiencies are, nor what the solutions should be.”

I agree that a “broad debate” is needed, but how best to create that debate is another question entirely. I am certainly not satisfied with Gilmore’s suggestion, which I will cover a bit later.

“The second is that even the most perfect constitution cannot remain frozen in time.”

True enough, though as Gilmore himself states, we have had 18 proposed changes in the last 20 years alone. Our constitution is far from “frozen in time.”

“Bunreacht na hÉireann was first adopted in 1937 but much of its wording is taken from the 1922 Free State constitution. A clear priority for those who drafted both documents was the need to give expression to our national independence. Elements of our constitution are, therefore, more concerned with defining who we are not, as opposed to affirming who we are.”

I disagree. You find no mention of Europe or England in our constitution, and it’s mostly concerned, either correctly or incorrectly, in defining the country as sovereign, Catholic and Independent. Our constitution is about us, defining our name, our rights, our religion (more in a second), our territory, our laws, our politics.

“Our Constitution does not adequately defend the rights of children. Neither does its approach to the rights of women fit with society at the beginning of the 21st century.”

Agreed, and Gilmore has been vocal about the need for a referendum on Children’s Rights, the sort of guaranteed-not-to-fail vote that all parties can get behind. However, including these issues in FGs “Referendum Day” is a far better idea, since they can’t possibly be defeated. No need to re-write the document from scratch for this.

“How might we balance the right to private property with a system for regulating the price of building land? Should we extend the right to education to include second level, and what other social rights, such as a right to shelter, should we and can we practically include in the fundamental law of the State?”

You don’t. Yes, of course, since you practically guarantee Third Level by now. No, because the state cannot possibly enforce such a provision at the present time.

“There has been justifiable criticism of the political system, which many people feel has let them down. I share that frustration, particularly since Labour has been arguing for reform of the Oireachtas for years. But again, we need a clearer analysis of cause and effect in relation to the electoral system, before we rush to change it.”

It’s easy for Labour to call for Oireachtas reform, it’s not their heads on the block (yet). I expect Gilmore will be less enthusiastic when he’s able to name more Labour Senators. In fact, as that last line shows, he’s already turning from “change now” to “talk for a while, and then we’ll think about change later”. This paragraph convinces me that Gilmore will not support any abolition of the Seanad.

“Moreover, some of the reform proposals being made, such as changing the length of the President’s term of office, have no connection whatever to the crisis.”

But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored entirely. The current financial crisis is not the only thing we should be thinking of if creating a new constitution.

“And reform cannot be confined to the political system, which is why Labour has constantly been arguing for a set of reforms to the private sector as well.”

 A sector that the government has a dubious right to interfere in at all.

“The key point, however, is that the demand for constitutional reform will not be addressed by a package of measures presented to the electorate by any one political party, and certainly not where it relates to reform of the political system. That must come directly from a process where the people themselves are consulted and involved intimately.”

I think Enda Kenny might have something to say about that. Gilmore’s already taken a few swipes at FG here, but this is the biggest. Self-evident cracks in FG/Lab appear to be growing.

“One thing that has been very evident is that the people of this country retain a sense of ownership over the Constitution. They have never had any hesitation in rejecting amendments that they consider inappropriate. It is essential, therefore, that the public be involved in any process of reviewing the Constitution. “

Yes, it is essential. If only their was some sort of elected body, a parliament if you will, that includes representatives from every part of the country, with jurisdiction over political matters that we could turn too. Of course, in 18 months or so, Gilmore will be one of the head honchos and we’ll see how much he wants to include the people then.

“Drawing all these strands together, we are no longer talking about simply amending our Constitution, nor even of considering a multitude of amendments in different referendums on a single day. We need a more audacious and a more comprehensive approach.”

Gilmore has failed to provide enough evidence or support for what’s coming:

“Labour’s proposal is that we should convene a 30-member constitutional convention with an open mandate. Ten of its members would be drawn from the Oireachtas, 10 from non-governmental associations and organisations, and 10 ordinary citizens selected rather as we select jurors today. Its mandate would be to review the Constitution and draft a new one within a year.”

Oh, dear lord.

Ten members of the Oireachtas. Which ones? How will they be picked? 2 per major party perhaps? Hardly, knowing our political machine. Proportionally? Difficult to do fairly with just ten (I’d guess 4 FG, 3 Lab, 2 FF and 1 “other”) You want to include Senators, political figures with an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to major Oireachtas reform?

Ten from NGOs. Again, who and how will they be picked? Hard to get a sweeping representation with just Ten. Whose getting the bump? Charities? Trade Unions?, Builders? Financial institutions?

Ten ordinary citizens. Gilmore wants the people to have the biggest say in creating a new constitution, but “we” will make up just a third of the write-up committee. And it is literally, Ten people picked at random. Anyone. People with no political or legal experience, perhaps with no third or second level education, with no real idea on how to handle matters like foreign affairs, local government in relation to national government, courts. I want the right people handling these things, not just anyone.

 You can give us the final say. You damn well better give us the final say. But there is a reason we have elections, and there is a reason we have TDs. People we pick, people we like, people we weigh up and consider to be our voice. It’s so the right-wing Catholic priest, the racist truck driver, the isolated farmer, the clueless 18-year-old don’t get to make radical decisions for us.

Gilmore talks a lot about our rights, and our important impact in writing a new constitution. If this plan goes ahead, with inclusion of Seanad representatives, over 66% of the convention will be unelected. You will not have had the slightest impact or choice in determining over half the people writing up a new constitution.

“Much of its work would be in working groups and much of that would be carried out online. The convention’s proceedings would be accessible online with the possibility for citizens to comment and make suggestions.”

Anyone with experience with internet forums knows this is a stupid idea. You’re leaving the door open for underage, trolls and non-citizens to have an impact even if it’s on a small scale.

“The convention would submit its proposed constitution for adoption by the Oireachtas”

A FG/Lab Oireachtas or course, though the chances of Kenny and co., going along with this are extremely low.

“…and once approved, it would then be submitted to the people in a referendum. The aim would be a referendum which would take place in conjunction with the centenary of the 1916 Rising.”

Leaving aside another stupid 1916 namedrop, this is an important point. It can be argued that we might as well go along with this, since we can always just say no at the polls.

It should never get that far. A referendum on a completely new constitution would be a clusterfuck of epic proportions. Our current constitution is well over 75 pages long. You cannot seriously expect our electorate to sit down, analyze and read such a document. It won’t happen. Be realistic here. (That’s also an environmental disaster in waiting since you must have a copy for each member of the electorate to read at the polling station in English and Irish.)

You’re looking at a political fight that will turn ugly fast. It will be very easy for opposition TDs to turn constituents against such a radical step in our constitutional development. People fear change. If they don’t like just one thing about this document they will vote it down since you’re voting on the entire text, not individual articles. The result would be a failure and the waste of a year’s valuable resources and time.

“A new constitution, collectively prepared, offers us the foundation on which to build a better country and a better world for ourselves and our children, to provide rights, institutions and systems to serve rather than constrain us. It also provides a means by which we can reaffirm our unity of purpose as a nation – that we are, ultimately, one Ireland.”

All of which can be achieved through the continued adoption of constitutional amendments, as we have been doing for years.

Our constitution is far from perfect. We need to undertake serious reform of the Upper House, of the religious clauses, of local government. But a complete rewrite is unnecessary. We need to consider each issue individually, not have them all thrown at us at once. And if Gilmore is serious about including “we, the people”, we should make up all 30 of those convention members. That’s an idea I’d love to see Labour propose.

Gilmore wants to be seen as the radical, the reformer, the new sheriff in town. When it comes right down to it, he won’t be able to implement this plan anyway. FG will block it in favour of their idea, and Gilmore will have to either act like the junior partner in government and back down, or withdraw from government. We all knew which is more likely.

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3 Responses to A Response to “Renewing the Republic”

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