THE GOVERNMENT FINALLY found someone to hold the ceremonial gavel at the Constitutional Convention this week in Tom Arnold, the CEO of Concern Worldwide. The Convention, which was due to kick off this month, has had to be delayed because it seems very few credible individuals were available to waste a year of their professional life on this nearly pointless exercise.
Our Constitution is 75 years old and in clear need of a refresh to bring it up to date and to help fix some of the very clearly broken aspects of our Irish state. Trust in politics is low, government performance has been woeful and the citizens of this country have been feeling unable to do anything about it.
The idea of a constitutional convention, floated by Labour in opposition, is sound: Give the people the power to reshape the state through a document that is owned by no politician or office holder, but by all the people of this country combined. Naturally when they got to government, Labour and Fine Gael toned down their aspirational talk of people power to the more prosaic form of a narrowly focused, non-binding talking shop.
They threw in a decent issue into the mix in the form of same-sex marriage, mainly so that they could deflect any flak from core religious voters and blame inevitable change on someone else. The other weighty issues that the convention will consider as it sits in NAMA repossessed hotels around the country include reducing the Presidential term to 5 years from 7; giving citizens outside the state a vote in the Presidential election; reducing the voting age to 17; and removing some of the sillier words that we ignore in every day life, such as those about a woman’s role in the home or about blasphemy.
On their own merits these are fine issues to consider, but that they make up the remit of this non-binding, 100 person committee is a laugh. The Chairman of this Commission will basically enjoy a year of drinking tea with every group in civil society that has an hour to spare, nodding their heads in agreement at how terrible this is or how important that is; and producing very little friction for actual change.
At best, the Convention will produce some recommendations that even the brain trust in government could figure out by themselves; and at worst anything controversial will go onto a shelf in that bunker under Leinster House where they keep these things to collect dust.
The idea that politicians would dangle the prospect of a proper constitutional convention to seek reform of Bunreacht na hÉireann and then come up with this sort of a weak and watered-down proposition is insulting. It’s our constitution and it’s our country, and the bureaucrats and politicos of Dublin 2 would rather we didn’t have a meaningful say in the formation and running of either.
What we ought to have is a proper constitutional convention that goes back to scratch and that includes all of the people of this nation. Lets go round the country and invite everyone forward to participate in citizens assembles to discuss and put forward proposals for change. Collate the proposals, use smaller groups – like our polling company chosen Constitutional Convention today – to distill them and draft proper articles for amending or creating a new constitution.
Most importantly of all, this should not be a process of producing non-binding suggestions for the government and apparatchik controlled Oireachtas to put forward or shelve. This should be a process by the people, for the people. After all, if we really want change to our opaque state, to force governments to open up to our scrutiny and to lock up the corrupt elements that emerge from time to time we shouldn’t allow politicians a veto on proposals.
Flung from office
Along the way we can have at the suppressed debates around the role of religion in the state; civil liberties; social issues of quite some controversy and discuss what shape we really want our government to take. For fun, and I daresay a key reason why politicians are so afraid to give us the power, we’d probably near universally insert a few paragraphs about how we’d like corrupt officials jailed and incompetent ones flung from office.
The constitution is 75 years old, so a process of consultation followed by voting over several years would not be inappropriate for figuring out how we’d like to be governed. It would be a grand exercise in delivering democracy into the hands of the people.
Those who prefer laws and governing structures managed by faceless bureaucrats behind closed doors will tell you that it’s too large, too unwieldy a process to manage. Citizens assembles put together in other democracies, and trialled in talking shop format for We the Citizens here at home, prove that it can work.
The planned Constitutional Assembly was born of opposition political parties recognising the anger, feeling of helplessness and desire for change among the people. Now they’re in government and have drunk the Kool Aid we’re getting a hollow piece of lip service. After everything that the Irish people have had to bear in the past five years to atone for the sins of a poorly managed state, I think we deserve better.
Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna.