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Column: Ireland has moved on, and we need a new Constitution

When Ireland reframes its founding document it must be for everyone, not just politicians – writes Labour TD Dominic Hannigan.

Dominic Hannigan TD for Meath East

WHEN THE LABOUR Party contested the general election in February of last year, we did so on the platform of generating jobs, sorting out the economic crisis at the same time as reforming Irish society.

Whilst of course the Government’s top priorities are to get the country back to work and to address the deficit, the Labour Party’s commitment to reforming our political system is also of crucial importance. As Labour in government works to ensure that we regain our economic sovereignty, it is essential that we act on the other problems that hold us back as a country. Whilst people are seeing austerity, they also want us to deliver on real reform. We must act on this now.

We must be ambitious in our approach to constitutional reform – and the proposed Constitutional Convention is a greatly welcomed approach to addressing this. When we look to address an outdated constitution, it is not enough to look at this in the context of 2012. We should be looking ahead. What will Ireland look like in thirty years time?

This is why the make-up of the Convention is crucial to how we approach this question. The Labour Party manifesto stated: “Thirty of its members would be drawn from the Oireachtas, thirty would be members of civil society organisations and other people with relevant legal or academic expertise, and thirty would be ordinary citizens, chosen by lot.”

If politicians in Ireland, and indeed across Europe, have learnt anything from recent referenda ‘No’ votes, it is that change and reform must come from the bottom up, not the top town. The best way to ensure that constitutional changes reflect the wishes of the Irish people is therefore to ensure that the proposals come from the people, and not largely from any elitist group or section of society.

‘The Convention must be more than people with a political background’

So we need to ensure the broadest possible perspective of Irish society is represented at the Constitutional Convention. For example, it is unacceptable that the bulk of the Convention’s membership be made up of people from a political background. It must be much more than that.

The 1975 Constitutional Convention in the North was established to give citizens direct input into what direction they wanted society to take. We should consider taking a similar approach: involving the people directly, through direct election. Why not use the European Parliament constituencies to allow all citizens the opportunity to take part in the convention?

It won’t be enough to limit the franchise to citizens of the south. This new constitution is likely be around in twenty or thirty years time, when the demographic and political make-up of the north of our country will be quite different, changed from today. It would be sensible and proper to ensure that people living in the northern counties have an input into our new constitution, by offering them the opportunity to select representatives to the Convention, if they so desire.

If the five Irish European Parliament constituencies (north and south of the border) elected six members to the convention, we would have thirty citizens directly mandated to participate in this discussion.

These thirty would join with thirty Oireachtas members and thirty people from civil society to develop the new constitution, which would then be put to the people for their approval.

Our current constitution has served our needs for most of the last 70 years. Ireland has moved on and we are now ready as a nation to reframe the constitution for a modern society’s needs. It is vital that we make the most out of this opportunity. With representation from across Ireland, North and South; political and non-political, we can ensure that the Convention initiates a fresh and genuinely representative discussion in order to see real change for our country.

Dominic Hannigan is a Labour Party TD for Meath East.

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Dominic Hannigan  / TD for Meath East

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