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Opinion Irish Water protests show exactly why we need direct democracy

This week the Government will respond to a recommendation to hold a referendum about placing a citizens’ initiative provision in the Constitution.

PARALLELS BETWEEN THE bank guarantee and the Irish Water debacle are few, aside from how little we were consulted before our money was promised to both. But yet again we find ourselves in a situation where thousands of people are galvanised in opposition to an ill-conceived and rushed act of the Oireachtas. And again members of the Oireachtas are having to admit, in hindsight, that the people were right and the Oireachtas was wrong.

This is not necessarily the fault of individual members of the Oireachtas. As an institution, the Oireachtas is far more deeply dysfunctional than its members are capable of being on their own. But the logical conclusion of the painful lessons we have learned over the past half decade is that the people must have a formalised role to intervene directly in the running of the State.

Predictably, demands like this draws pained and defensive responses from the Irish political establishment. Far from the notion of this republic being a forum where all citizens are engaged and equal, the role of the people in the affairs of our State is perceived as being that of “the electorate” — or sometimes, at least somewhat more honestly, as “the tax payers”.

As “citizens” we ought to expect to be empowered and equal members of a polity: entitled to think, to act and to intervene when the Oireachtas acts in a manner that is not in our interests or that is against our wishes. As “electors” our job is to put people into office – after which, no matter how many of us come together, we have no further formal role in the running of the State until the next time around.

To use the wearied analogy of Ireland Inc, as shareholders we could expect that (if enough of us came together) we could call an EGM and vote to direct the board to do one thing or another. What Irish Water and the bank guarantee have shown us is that, in this Ireland Inc, we are expected to plough ever more money into the company and calmly stand by while the board do as they wish and we are powerless to stop them until it is too late.

There is, however, a very slim chance that this might soon change.

Citizen initiatives

On Wednesday, after a delay of 12 months, the Government will respond to the fourth report of the Constitutional Convention. This report includes the recommendation to hold a referendum on adding a provision for citizens’ initiatives to the Constitution.

A citizens’ initiative (also known as ‘direct democracy’) is a process whereby, if enough citizens come together and formally call for something, then the Oireachtas must either act on it or put it to a referendum.

A sensible example of a provision like this would be that the number of signatories needed for an initiative would be set at 1% of the Total Valid Poll in the previous general election (so 22,000 signatures based on the 2011 general election). And for the Dáil to have the right to make a counter-proposal, if it didn’t accept the initiative, which would be put to the People at the same time.

A provision for citizens’ initiatives would open the doors to citizens intervening directly on matters like Irish Water. For example, by backing the current petition calling for a referendum to permanently block the privatisation of water in Ireland.

A similar process was introduced at European level with the Lisbon Treaty, needing 1 million signatures from across the EU. Perhaps not coincidentally, the first citizens’ initiative at European level also dealt with water. It was “to exclude water supply and management of water resources from internal market rules and liberalisation”. This initiative was accepted by the European Commission in March of this year.

For those who fear citizens’ initiatives might lead to a tyranny of the minority, consider that our current political system vests vast power in a very small elite. In practise, government in this country is controlled by a handful of cabinet politicians supported by (or bamboozled by) a clutch of civil servants, lobbyists and party wonks.

The recommendation from the Constitutional Convention is for enabling citizens’ initiatives with “adequate safeguards to ensure that no measures could be adopted that would have the effect of undermining citizens’ fundamental rights”.

Adding such a provision to the Constitution would go a great way towards mending the anger and frustration that citizens have been feeling since the bank guarantee and that we see now again with Irish Water.

A “Democratic Revolution”

When Fine Gael and Labour formed a government in 2011, they described that vote as a “democratic revolution”. Perhaps they were naïve in understanding exactly what that means; but now, this week, the Oireachtas has the opportunity to turn those words into fact.

Interestingly, citizens’ initiatives were a part of the original Irish Free State constitution. On that occasion, the Oireachtas failed to implement the provision into law. When Fianna Fáil collected 96,000 signatures instructing it to do so, the Oireachtas responded by unilaterally removing the provision for citizens’ initiatives from the Irish Free State constitution in 1929. No referendum was held.

It would be shameful if, this Wednesday, the Oireachtas again missed the opportunity to put the question to the people.

If we do get that chance, this recommendation of the Constitutional Convention might finally put form on the momentum for a new kind of politics and a newly-empowered sense of citizenship that the marches against Irish Water are again pulsating with.

Oliver Moran is a 36-year-old software engineer from Cork. He is a founder of Second Republic, a non-aligned campaign group for political reform set up in 2010. Second Republic lobbied for the establishment of the Constitutional Convention as a means for citizen-driven reform.

Referendum on Irish Water could happen but needs “an awful lot more work” — White

Column: Politicians can’t fix Ireland – ordinary people must take the lead

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