So, the constitutional convention is upon us, meeting for the first time tomorrow, with the first “working” meeting coming in January.
The words “constitutional convention” invoke images of political grandeur, of widescale reform and complicated meetings. I suppose you can thank the United States for that. But it is important to bring a deal of realism to the fore when we discuss our own convention, which is looks likely to be little more than a sop to the idea of genuine constitutional reform.
There are so many problems with the convention as it is going ahead. The issues that it will discuss, with the exception of Dail electoral reform and same-sex marriage, are nearly all relatively minor in terms of political importance, with many of them, like removing the “women in the household” and blasphemy portions nothing more than a discussion on constitutional housekeeping with an inevitable result. You should not need a convention of 100 people meeting irregularly to decide such matters. There are better things that such a convention could be discussing – electoral reform of course but also abortion laws, the status of the Seanad, the rights of the disapora etc.
Its very make-up has some flaws. Random members of the public, not completely sold on that, but fine. Members of the Oireachtas, ok. A few from the north for some reason (doubt there would be reciprocity if roles were reversed).
But, no constitutional experts? No stated legal experts? One of the key problems with our government as it is set up is that elected representatives are the only option for high level ministerial positions. We should be taking any opportunity to use recognised experts in their fields when they are needed.
Moreover, I am disappointed at the decision to make the 66 “public” members anonymous. While this convention is a neutered affair, I do not think you should be given a possible say in potential referendums and constitutional reform, and then have your identity – your interests, your potential biases, and your possible politics – censored. As far as I am concerned, this convention is now lacking a degree of accountability because of this. And why, because they didn’t want to be “lobbied”? I doubt many people are going to be lobbying this little charade, and such lobbying can be ignored. Let’s not kid ourselves. There is no way these people are going to be hounded day and night if their identities were released. This is not a criminal trial and they should not be entitled to secrecy on such matters of potential national importance. No one is forcing them to undertake this endeavour.
But the biggest problem is the impotence. The government is under no obligation to do anything about the “recommendations” of this glorified reform panel. Such recommendations will take a while in coming. They will have to go through a rigmarole of Oireachtas and court review. Time will slip by.
No government will focus time and money on potentially risky referendums from such a source when a general election is not far off, and that will be the time period the conventions recommendations will find themselves in. And after an election, possibly with a new government? As the last few weeks of spotlight on the X judgement can tell you, there is no political system that can defer constitutional decision like the Irish political system.
Worse still, we have just come off a surprisingly difficult referendum campaign that was, in terms of public perception, practically a loss for the government. This is on top of one botched referendum with the Oireachtas committees and an incredibly divisive “victory” with the Fiscal Compact.
As such, the appetite for further referendums, ones that the government are not mandated to put to the people, is not likely to be strong.
If they wanted to do this right, it would have been a much more comprehensive effort, with the remit to make proposals on all parts of the constitution. It would meet more regularly; it would include experts in constitutional law and politics. It would be able to make referendum proposals that would have to be put to the people at some point, if not a completely new constitution. Nobody said such a process had to be easy, but it would be more worthwhile than what we actually have.
For what it is worth, NFB will offer its own commentary on the issues that the convention discusses as it comes up. The first two, sometime in January, will be proposals to lower the voting age to 17 and limit Presidential terms to five instead of seven years. Riveting. I’ll see you then.
Post script: After a cavalcade of criticism over the anonymity of members, it would appear that plans are now afoot to end this damaging notion. It remains to be seen how many of those 66 will take the opportunity to make this process more transparent and how many will be happy to add to the conventions flaws.