Change we can believe in? The government’s proposed Constitutional Convention

Matthew Wall

The government’s recently unveiled proposals on the forthcoming constitutional convention make for disappointing reading for those who, like this author, had hoped that such a body could facilitate profound political reform in Ireland.

The proposed convention, to be comprised of a chair, 66 members of the public and 33 elected politicians, is hobbled by a narrow and disjointed pre-set agenda, and limited to a strictly advisory role.

Reading through the text of the government’s proposal, it is difficult to disagree with Noel Whelan’s commentary that the convention will be ‘something that is one part Oireachtas Committee and two parts focus group’.

Civil society group Second Republic, who have been campaigning for the introduction of an empowered Citizens’ Assembly for over a year, described the proposed agenda as ‘clearly too narrow’, and the Independent technical group report on the proposal states the projected remit is ‘hugely disappointing’. Some of the issues included in the pre-set menu of topics are of genuine political significance, such as reform of the legislative electoral system and the introduction of a provision for same sex marriage. However key aspects of the political system such as legislative-executive relations, the powers of local government, open government provisions and reform of the public service are kept firmly off the table.

The Seanad, which, for all its weaknesses, is an important part of our institutional architecture, is also off-limits – government is determined that citizens will be faced with a ludicrous all-or-nothing choice on whether to abolish an institution that is so clearly ripe for reform.

The extent to which the Convention will be adequately resourced is also open to debate – Second Republic’s response draws attention to the danger that without considerable support, the 66 members of the public may find themselves significantly disadvantaged relative to the 33 professional politicians.

To my mind, the proposal’s most significant flaw is the refusal of the government to commit to any action whatsoever following on from the findings of the proposed convention. The proposal concludes that:

‘It is for the Government to decide whether or not to bring forward legislation proposing Constitutional change, and for the Oireachtas to decide on whether the matter should be put to the people in a Referendum.

It is proposed, therefore, that the relevant Ministers will consider recommendations from the Convention and report to Government as appropriate.’

Whenever I talk to friends and family in Ireland about politics there is a profound sense of cynicism and near despair. We talk about sterling deposits and dig outs; promissory notes; property charges; unemployment; emigration; and government-by-troika. It seems that we are fated to live in these interesting times; where many of the old ways of doing things have been exposed as inadequate, and there is no obvious, tried-and-tested way forward.

Ireland is not alone in facing such challenges, and it is not impossible to believe that we could be a world leader in adapting our democracy to the current threats and difficulties that it faces. However, it appears that, as envisioned, Ireland’s constitutional convention will not be equipped to make much of an impression on the status quo.

(Thanks to John Hughes for providing useful links and information as well as his insights on this topic).

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35 thoughts on “Change we can believe in? The government’s proposed Constitutional Convention

  1. So basically the convention is just another ball of smoke. Change will only come when they hear the howling of voices and the breaking of glass. Sad but true.

  2. I also note the following:
    “Expert Advisory Group: The Government proposes that, rather than appoint experts as members of the Convention, an Expert Advisory Group will be established to provide the Convention with information and advice. This Group would be made up of political scientists, constitutional lawyers and academics. The Convention would be able to call on different experts from this panel according as different topics are examined. Persons on the panel will be expected to give their services ‘pro bono’.”

    This, for me, provides the litmus test. Those “political scientists, constitutional lawyers and academics” who might have a reasonable expectation of being invited to be members of this group – including the ‘grown-ups’ here (who should be in pole position) – have a perfect opportunity, collectively (insofar as they might be able to arrange this), to ask the Government, please, to think again about the role, composition and tasks of this Constitutional Convention, because they could not, in all conscience and as dedicated professionals, participate in this exercise as currently envisaged. The Convention would not be able to function without this expert advice because the randomly selected 66 citizens would be totally disadvantaged viz-a-viz the professional politicians.

    It would not be telling the Government what to do; that would be unjustifiably presumptious. It would simply involve advising the Government to reflect more deeply in the context of the serious, and well documented, failures in the system of democratic governance before it advances binding proposals.

    If a public response of this nature does not emerge in the next short period before the Government makes it final decision we, and all citizens with an interest in these matters, will know where we stand. And if a selection of “political scientists, constitutional lawyers and academics” participate without asking the Government to think again we will have final definitive confirmation.

  3. Second Republic has circulated all TDs and Senators with the following response to the Government’s plan for the Constitutional Convention.

    “Second Republic believes that the Government are taking the first step towards deliberative democracy, with the proposed Constitutional Convention, but the proposal is flawed, with not enough resources allocated to make it viable.
    The terms of reference of the Constitutional Convention recently issued to the Opposition are in need of refinement on several points. Despite promises in the Programme for Government of “a real shift in power from the State to the citizen” the Convention’s final amendment proposals will not be binding on Cabinet and could be shelved for reasons of political expediency. Without a commitment by Cabinet to put proposals of the Convention directly to the people in a referendum it will lack credibility.
    There is nothing in the Convention’s terms of reference to ensure the introduction of checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by those in power – be they public or private, elected or appointed. This is essential to prevent another national disaster.
    “We in Second Republic believe that it is the people of Ireland who should develop and decide political reform,” said Bronagh Geraghty, chairperson of Second Republic. “It is time to end the child/parent relationship of the citizen with our patronising political system and to take back the true meaning of democracy by involving people in decision-making.”
    The Convention’s agenda of eight unconnected yet individually important issues, is clearly too narrow. The electoral system is the only substantial item of political reform on its agenda. Changes to the electoral system on its own will not result in any fundamental reforms to a dysfunctional political system.
    The Taoiseach has ruled out any deliberation by the Convention on retention or abolition of the Seanad. Given that the Seanad is a fundamental pillar of the Constitution, this limitation of the Convention’s agenda is not logical. Until a referendum on the Seanad takes place any review of the Irish Constitution is severely impeded.
    There is a danger that the 33 politicians on the Convention, with their specific agendas and vastly more experience and supports, will have undue influence on the 66 randomly appointed ordinary citizens. The issue of support for these 66 members with varying educational backgrounds, knowledge of politics and levels of IT experience is not adequately stressed in the Cabinet’s proposal.
    “Transparency and prior consultation with the general public, civic society groups etc. regarding the membership, agenda and structure of the Convention will be essential to gaining the trust of the people in the work of the Convention,” continued Geraghty.
    There are some excellent points in the proposal and Second Republic welcomes the invitation to all Northern Irish political parties to nominate members onto the Convention. The planned provision of online IT facilities to encourage involvement by Irish people at home and abroad is another significant initiative. Second Republic urges the government to do the right thing and rid Irish citizens of the shackles of bad governance once and for all.
    For further information contact Bronagh Geraghty, Chairperson, Second Republic, email info@2nd-republic.ie

    Second Republic sees the need for a major review of the Irish Political system and we have sent our detailed proposal for a Citizens Assembly for Political Reform to all TDs and Senators. http://www.2nd-republic.ie/files/citizens_assembly.pdf

    • @John Hughes,

      Well done. But I fear it is ‘saothar in aisce’. So far as the Government is concerned 2nd Republic is just another ‘interest group’ and you’ll only be permitted to shout from the sidelines.

      You may not have seen the ‘litmus test’ I set out in my comment at 8:03am above. This proposal by the Government is just the latest expression of the contempt in which it holds ordinary citizens – from whom, under the Constitution, all political authority flows. The Government, quite simply, must be encouraged to think again. Those ‘political scientists, constitutional lawyers and academics” who might be invited to participate in this ‘Expert Advisory Group’ have the power, and indeed, the responsibility, to encourage the Government to think again. There is no other mechanism available. And all of them know, because many have researched and published on it, the extent of dysfuntion in democratic governance in Ireland – a dysfunction that the proposed scope of the Convention makes every effort to avoid and ignore.

      I am pretty sure that those who will be invited will accept without demur and will bask in the attendant status and prestige. It would be wonderful if a number were to publicly voices their concerns, but it is extremely unlikley because those in the ranks of Official Ireland know very well on which side their bread is buttered – and this proposal shows the extent to which the ranks have closed against any possibility of meaningful political reform. Those within the ranks who might find themselves out of step will have to shape up pretty rapidly. It’ll just be interesting to see how those who will be selected to participate in this Expert Advisory Group will justify their participation in this charade – if, of course, they are asked, of feel compelled, to do so.

    • There are more than 100 TDs on the Government benches. Even if there are FF or SF submissions in addition to the TG submission, what difference would they make?

  4. There has been practically no media coverage about the Convention which given the lackadaisical way it has been handled by Cabinet is not surprising but not justifiable.
    The Technical group’s response is very technical an reads like an internal discussion document.
    ICCL seems to be the only group capable of generating media coverage regarding their view of the Convention.
    Gerry Admas in his “republican” commentary on the Convention is still droning on about a United Ireland cure-all which I fail to see as being really relevant to any Constitutional Convention given the mess we made of things in this septic statelet?
    Apart form Michael Martin declaring int the Dáil that the exclusive power of the Caninet needs to be examined by the Convention FF seem to be keeping mum – perhaps they don’t have anything to say?
    @Matt,
    Great analysis.
    Noel Whelan’s understandably world-weary commentary really only scrapes the surface in describing how the opportunity for reform has been thrown away by the Cabinet in the weak tokenistic Constitutional Convention it seems bent on pushing through the Dáil. It is a pity that broader anaysis like yours does not get the media coverage it deserves.
    @John 2nd Republic
    Unfortunately I have to agree with Paul – while your response is clear and balanced and shows original insight the politicians and their lackeys in the media can simply choose to ignore you.
    But don’t give up your efforts as at some point the general population will inevitably explode with suppressed anger at Irish politicians and be looking for groups like yours to lead the way.

  5. While there is a mix of anger, depair and sullen resignation there is no need for Robert Browne’s “howling of voices and the breaking of glass” or for the people to “explode with suppressed anger at Irish politicians” (Rodge Arbuckle). Even if it comes to it it is likely to convulse only a small minority and the majority will be frightened, disgusted and repelled by it – and will consent to having it repressed. There is an established history in this state of a preference for repression without any meaningful consideration of reform. It will leave a sour taste in the body politic – and some bitter memories – and make governance that little bit less easy.

    But, again, there is no need for this. All we need is for a few of those with some competence, public standing and influence to take a stand. But those within the ranks of Official Ireland who could do this have gone with the flow for so long that they wouldn’t recognise the need to take a stand on something if it were to jump up and bite them in the arse.

  6. @Paul
    Your litmus test is not accurate. Even if the academics and experts prevail on the government to broaden the agenda vis a vis political reform Article 46 gives the Cabinet a final choice of and veto on which of the Convention’s proposals can be put the people.
    I presume you were tongue in cheek when you mentioned experts “in all conscience” not being able to go along with this charade.

    • @Manus Magee,

      Thank you. I take your point, but surely the key point is to ensure that, since this Convention is going to be established, there is the fullest possible consideration of the institutions and procedures of democratic governance (most of which have demonstrated undeniable evidence of strains and failures) – rather than this ‘narrow and disjointed pre-set agenda’ (as Matthew has put it well) – most of which would be dealt with by the legislature in any mature democracy.

      If a significant majority of the randomly selected citizens (informed by suitably competent and disinterested external expertise) and abetted by non-government politicians (for their own reasons) were to get their teeth into something and conclude that a significant change was required, it would be very difficult for the Government to face it down. This is precisely what the Government wants to avoid at all costs.

      And I wasn’t being deliberately ‘tongue in cheek’. In my usual clumsy and uncouth manner I was hoping to prick a few consciences. I have no great hopes, but it hasn;t stopped me in the past; and it won’t stop me now. Those who might have reasonable expectations of being invited to form this Expert Advisory Group comprise the last and only hope of exerting some pressure on the Government to think again and to desist from pursuing this charade – which will only make people even more cynical about and disaffected with the politcial system (if that were possible).

      • Regarding media and their contribution the folowing is an interesting observation – I suggest we are experiencing the same here !
        ” With few exceptions the news that will shape public discourse is subject to a de facto censorial process of powerful government and corporate elites beyond accountability to the public. It is here that Sigmund Freud’s notion of repression is especially helpful for assessing the decrepit state of media and public discourse in the United States. In Freud’s view, one’s collective life experiences are registered in the subconscious, with those particularly disturbing or socially impermissible experiences being involuntarily suppressed, only later to emerge as neuroses. Whereas suppression is conscious and voluntary, repression takes place apart from individual volition.

  7. While I’m at it – and just to be clear – this ‘litmus test’ should be applied to those who might be invited by the Government to participate in this Expert Advisory Group. In the first instance, have they the guts and gumption to publicly express concerns about this ‘narrow and disjointed pre-set agenda’ and call on the Government to think again? In the second instance, if invited, will they say “Yes, please; it is an honour to be invited” or will they say “It is an honour to be invited – and we wish to be of service – but in this instance we are unwilling to participate because we fear the process is deficient and we would urge you to think again”?

    As is always the way with these things, I expect ‘soundings’ are being taken by the Government behind the scenes. It is likely that only those who are preceived, in some way, as being ‘sound’ are being ‘sounded out’. We have no idea how many members this Expert Advisory Group will have. It is also likely that there will be a mix of Irish and international experts. Having some international experts is a real bonus for the Government. It can put a wonderful gloss on things – lipstick on a pig – and most international ‘experts’ are delighted to be used as ‘useful idiots’ by governments. It will also reduce the demand for Irish expertise and this means that they can focus on those who are ‘sound’ and will do their bidding.

    So it’ll be interesting to see, initially, if any public concerns will be raised about this charade and, then, who among Irish and international “political scientists, constitutional lawyers and academics” will sign up to it.

  8. @Manus
    Given Article 46 “gives the Cabinet a final choice of and veto on which of the Convention’s proposals can be put the people.” then what is the point of dragging in 66 citizens in off the street when their only role is to present a report for the pre-eminent appraisal of Cabinet?
    @Paul
    There are plenty of acadmeics who can easily justify their particiaption by saying “It’s not perfect but sure it’s better to be in than carping from the margins etc. etc.

    • @Rodge Arbuckle,

      I’m sure we’ll hear plenty of the “It’s not perfect but sure it’s better to be in than carping from the margins” and “It’ll establish the effectiveness of a CA type arrangement of this nature and could lead to futher developments”. And I’m sure we’ll hear that “half a loaf is better than no bread”. But you’d have to access the political science equivalent of CERN’s messing with sub-atomic particles and quantum physics to find what this is – “negative bread”. “Three quarks for Muster Mark” doesn’t come near it.

      In the same was as I suspect the Government is ‘taking soundings’ among the “political scientists, constitutional lawayers and academics” who might be disposed to participate in this charade I also suspect that those who are being approached – or might be approached – are making some vague, coded mutterings of unease ‘sotto voce’.

      This highlights another aspect of the real nature of the dysfunction that needs to be addressed – in the same way that the Government’s approach to railroading this charade through highlights the fundamental flaw in the current system of democratic governance.

      Transparency is a ‘two-way street’. Everyone is agreed that government transparency is a ‘good thing’ – at least, in principle. But those who might reasonably expect to be involved in the implementation of something government has, reasonably transparently, set out and who have concerns about it should be free to voice these concerns publicly and to seek to influence public opinion to encourage government to address these concerns in a meaningful manner. We should not rely – nor be expected to rely – on the ability of those with some competence, standing and influence to make vague, coded mutterings of unease ‘sotto voce’ and behind the scenes. Nor should they be required to discharge this responsibility in this manner.

      There is no alternative location of power – the huge gap where a functioning parliament would reside – where they could voice their concerns publicly and which would provide them with effective protection from the possible wrath of government if their interventions were to cause upset to government’s well-laid plans.

      Governments – and the entire government-machine – are very effective at ‘manufacturing a false consensus’, at managing faux ‘debate’ and at suppressing and smothering robust adversarial disputation and any hint of conflict. I fully understand how easy it is just to ‘go with the flow’ and how difficult and discomforting it might be to take a stand, but, at the very least, one would expect some broad collective support for the restoration of a functioning parliament that would provide some protection and reduce the difficulty and discomfort of taking a stand against some palpable nonsense being perpetrated by government.

      It is this, perhaps, most of all, that annoys and frustrates me. It is nothing less than ‘la trahison des clercs’.

  9. @Paul
    Unless experts with status go on the radio, do a piece for the papers and generally start to become vocal this charade is due to be passed unchanged and without a whimper in the Dáil within the month.
    Any expert or politician who criticises the Convention structure and remit after it has been established will simply be a Tadhg-dá-thaobh talking out of the two sides of their mouth.
    @John- Second Republic
    I presume Second Republic ‘s statement above went to the media as well as to the politicians?
    If so, I have seen no reference to it.

    • @Manus,

      I agree. It looks almost certain that this charade will be passed, as you put it, unchanged and without a whimper. That’s why I keep chivvying our ‘public intellectuals’ to take a stand. But they seem to be a shy, retiring, think-skinned lot. I’ve been, let’s say, gently discouraged from commenting on one prominent Irish blog because it’s considered that I’ve been insulting the integrity of some of these ‘public intellectuals’ and that this has led, apparently, to some ceasing to participate and to others being discouraged from participating. I’m pretty sure I’m viewed in a similar light by the ‘grown-ups’ here.

      I try not to be too hard, because the reason for their reticence is blindingly obvious, but has become so much part of custom and practice that very few actually see it. When there is just one predominant location of public power and resources – government and its expansive, but integrated, apparatus – all those seeking advancement or redress will gravitate – and will be pulled – towards it – and, inevitably, if they are reliant on the public purse (as most ‘public intellectuals’ are), will be in thrall to it. And the converse is that any alternative locations of power – such as the Oireachtas or local government – whose functionality has been whittled down to almost nothingness will find that their remaining limited functions will be totally corrupted (cf Mahon Tribunal Report).

      I just find it amazing that our ‘public intellectuals’ are not collectively, actively and persistently making the case for the re-empowerment and resourcing of these alternative locations of power becasue it would actually be in their interests. It would lead to an enormous increase in the demand for public policy expertise – and supplying it would be genuinely in the public interest. But no. They seem determined to ‘hold tight of nurse…’.

      In any event it probably doesn’t matter. In the next month or two an opportunity will arise to shatter an optical illusion in a corner of the little empire being maintained by Official Ireland. If that opportunity is seized, as I very much hope it will, the landscape could be changed quite dramatically.

      And as for this charade, if, as is almost certain, it goes ahead in the current form, we probably need to start thinking about how best to discourage these good, honest citizens who’ll be selected to participate in this charade from participating. As a democrat I always rely on the fundamental common sense of the vast majority of citizens. I’m pretty sure if the nature of this charade were more widely appreciated most citizens would run a mile from it.

  10. @Paul
    It is unlikely that the good honest citizens who should be “discouraged” from participating in the Convention as you rightly say will be aware of any issues given that those experts who have doubts have generally failed to secure media coverage.
    Apart from Martina Devlin waxing lyrical about the Convention in the Irish Independent, Noel Whelan’s limited criticism in the Irish Times and the ICCL press coverage I can find nothing else in the print media. In terms of analysis TV and radio don’t seem to know the Convention exists.
    RTE Frontline should have had a debate on the Constitutional Convention by now. Perhaps since the Gallagher case they have had their knuckles rapped by management and their journalistic teeth extracted.

    At least the Tecnical group have made their response available on the internet. http://www.stephendonnelly.ie/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Constitutional-Convention-Technical-Group-Submission-6th-March-2012.pdf
    On first reading I thought their response was too inhouse and I missed their concluding two page list of Proposals which are very incisive and clear.
    Combine their concluding proposals with 2nd Republic’s statement above along with this post (Matthew Wall’s) and one arrives at an analysis of the Convention which shows were being sold a pup.
    What to do?
    There lies the rub..

    • @Rodge,

      “What to do?”

      Public ridicule and satire is the only response. Our ‘public intellectuals’ are a waste of space. However, they’re to be pitied more than blamed, because these overmighty politicians are beyond – and have put themselves beyond, being reasoned with. But the one thing they detest is public ridicule. And it is one sure way to generate some public interest and some awareness among the broader public of this latest in a long line of pups they have been sold.

      Let’s go through the topics this proposed august body will deliberate upon with the Government’s real intent in parenthesis after each:
      Review of the Dáil electoral system;
      (We know ye love ye’re multi-seat PR-STV and ye twice rejected FF’s attempts to take it away and we also know that the bould Jimmy’s Tullymander blew up in our faces in 1977, but we think FF are knackered and we’d love to have another go at changing the system to keep us in power for as long as possible. Some of use had to wait 14 years to get our backsides in to these ministerial seats and we’re going to hold on them for as long as possible.)

      Reducing the Presidential term to five years and aligning it with the local and European elections;
      (We probably can’t do anything about inconvenient by-elections – though the last shower played fast and loose with the timing – but if ye’re going to give us some grief at the polling booths between general elections we’d rather get it over with in one go.)

      Giving citizens the right to vote at Irish embassies in Presidential elections;
      (We’re not too sure where this one came from. We had to do a bit of scratching around to come up issues that looked important, but that wouldn’t change anything of importance to us. It was probably from one of those special advisers trying to justify the small fortune ye’re paying them.)

      Provision for same-sex marriage;
      (We never thought Enda’s whack at the Church over the abuse issue would play so well, so this will probably wind them up and we can have an equally politcially rewarding re-match.)

      Amending the clause on the role of women in the home and encouraging greater participation of women in public life;
      Increasing the participation of women in politics;
      (Ah, Mna na hEireann, God bless them. Where would we be without them?)

      Removing blasphemy from our Constitution;
      (This could have the same political effect as the same-sex-marriage racket and we could do a lot of poncing around about how multicultural Ireland is.)
      Reducing the voting age to 17.
      (Sure we’re trying to look after the women, so now for the childers. Don’t they grow up fast these days and sure we need to get down with the kids. Ain’t we cool?)

      It’s only a first stab, but I’m sure there are many others out there far more competent than me.

  11. @Paul
    Ní “saothar in aisce” ar fad! We in Second Republic are not naive enough to think that a relatively new group will affect immediate change. We met a few politicians on our deputation to Leinster House who had read our proposal document online and agreed with our analysis of the difficulties inherent in initiating political reform in the Oireachtas. The Technical group clearly indicated they would be were interested in seeing our statement responding to the Constitutional Convention proposal.
    Your point about experts acquiescing through their silence is salient. One would have expected by now to see a letter to the newspapers signed by many political scientists and commentators alerting the public to the weaknesses in the Cabinet’s Constitutional Convention proposal.
    @Manus
    Yes we sent the statement above regarding the Constitutional Convention to the newspapers and there was no coverage. The topic is either too dry or too challenging. However in the past we have had a few letters and articles printed about us in the national and regional newspapers.
    @ Rodge
    You ask “What to do?” Catherine Murphy TD emphasised to our deputation in Leinster House that without thousands of people actively calling for reform there is little hope for change. Hopefully some group or coalition of groups is going to achieve the traction needed to lead a committed long term concerted national campaign.

    • @John Hughes,

      No intent to ‘diss’ the excellent efforts you and your colleagues are putting in. Just hoping to insert a note of caution and realism. The silence of our ‘public intellectuals’ is not surprising. Those who have invested so much effort in the concept of a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ can’t really come out against this half-arsed effort. In any event, the membership of this Expert Advisory Group has yet to be decided. And it appears that those who see little chance of getting on this bandwagon are hoping to use this ‘shadow’ exercise to provide some faint and muffled criticism of the Government’s charade by outlining what it should address

      At this stage, given the apparent determination of the Government and the cowardice of our ‘public intellectuals’, I’m falling back on the good sense of the majoirty of Irish citizens and the hope that those among them who are selected to participate in this charade will have the good sense to tell the Government where to stick this nonsense.

      Just in passing, I’m not sure if you picked up on my extended rant which Maurice Earls, editor of the Dublic Review of Books, was kindly prepared to edit to make some way readable and to publish:

      http://www.drb.ie/more_details/12-03-12/In_Whose_Interest.aspx

      Philip Lane kindly posted it on Irish Economy and Nat O’Connor, even more kindly, reviewed it on Progressive-Economy. In fact it should have more relevance here than on those blogs, but c’est la vie.

      • Paul, Im sure we would have been happy to post it but I actually did not come across it until you posted it here. I am sure that is true of the other editors too, When was it posted elsewhere?

  12. @ John 2nd Republic
    The subject is of national importance – and your efforts are to be commended. However fringe groups generally don’t get publicity in the newspapers until they do something eyecatching such as Occupy. Regrettably it is not altogether surprising your statement was not used by the media.
    Keep on trying for that elusive traction you mentioned.
    The subdued lack of response from the academic community regarding this lame duck Constitutional Convention – Matthew Wall excluded – is extraordinary. So much could be achieved by a real Constitutional Review Convention to drag us out of the present corrupt and dysfunctional ant-democratic mire but the political will is not there.

  13. While I do not think the Government’s proposals for a constitutional convention are ideal I do believe that they are a starting point. Some of those who are the most vehement critics are those who do not believe that any form of participatory democracy is needed in our society. This I believe is wrong headed and that and any and all steps taken down this route are to be welcomed. At the end of the day the Convention is a new political institution that allows the people to have their say more often than at periodic elections. That is to be welcomed.
    Nonetheless, there are a number of problems, some more important than others. It is a pity in my view that the compromise between governing parties has resulted in group of 66 members of the public and 33 elected politicians, but this is better than one third lawyers and other experts, one third politicians and one third members of the public which appeared in Labour’s. manifesto. Now the expert group are to be in advisory role, presumably to be called on if and when need to give evidence. This is also to be welcomed.
    A further problem is that it appears that it is to be the civil service which will run the Convention. In BC and other areas where various versions operated, the agenda and so on were shared with an independent group.
    The agenda is also in some ways disappointing. But I can also see that any government would want to be sure that a forum like this would work before handing on bigger tasks. Thus it may make sense for it first to tackle relatively unimportant areas first in order to iron out any potential problems.
    Of course, one of the biggest problems in Irish politics is executive dominance. But I don’t think the Constitutional Convention was ever realistically going to be the answer to this, rather TDs need to start demanding a bigger say. There are a few small tentative signs that they are beginning to take their role more seriously. However, as the fiasco over the Finance committee’s invitation to Central Bank governor showed the reach of the executive is still overly long.
    It would also be great if the Convention could look at other key institutions such as the powers of local government, open government provisions and reform of the public service and Seanad abolition. But again I think it is hardly surprising that instead the provision that will be examined are those that appeared in the Fine Gael manifesto.
    Importantly, it is crucial that it is adequately resourced as Matt and 2nd Republic have pointed out the 66 members of the public must not find themselves significantly disadvantaged relative to the 33 professional politicians. There should also be other measures taken to ensure that the one third do not dominate proceedings and media outcomes.

    • @Jane Suitor,

      In reponse to your query:

      http://www.irisheconomy.ie/index.php/2012/03/14/in-whose-interest/

      and

      http://www.progressive-economy.ie/2012/03/oireachtas-dysfunction-on-economic.html

      Nothing particularly new in it. It draws on – and benefitted from – engagement here and elsewhere, but, obviously, the usual disclaimer applies. Just banging the same old drum – the need for a restoration of the institutions of parliamentary democracy, public administration and local government and a recasting of their procedures appropriate to the modern era.

      With regard to your response to the noise a few of us have being making here about this constitutional charade the Government seems determined to mount, I fear it is a perfect example of the well-crafted tosh that frequently emanates from the academic quarter of Official Ireland and which allows governments to carry on their merry ways unhindered and, in many cases is employed by governments, whether intended by the authors or not, as providing some legitimation of what ever course they intend to pursue.

      There are so many convenient fictions being propagated by government and its apologists that it is difficult to decide where to begin. So probably it’s best to start at the undisputed – and should be difficult to dispute – current reality of governance in Ireland.

      Ireland experienced the most serious economic and financial blow-out of any advanced economy since the last war. That’s why it is in an official support programme – to prevent it doing further damage to itself and to others and to provide a path back in to the mainstream community of advanced countries. (Portugal and Greece are also in support programmes, but, in addition to less severe economic and financial blow-outs, that also reflects a failure, over less than 40 years, to establish effective democratic governance in polities that were – and remain – deeply polarised and fractured.)

      Ireland and its people have not confronted the underlying dysfunction across the entire realm of democratic governance that made this economic and financial blow-out almost inevitable. The official response has been a plethora of largely optical illusion ‘reforms’ – some reform of bank supervision and financial regulation (while studiously ignoring equivalent equally damaging dysfunction in all other sectors), some rejigging of the parliamentary budgetary process and the establishment of the totally toothless Irish Fiscal Advisory Commission, a totally ineffectual Cttee on petitions, etc. and, the most eye-catching, this Constitutional charade.

      The Constitution is the people’s document which sets out their aspirations for, and the limits on, democratic governance. The way the Government is playing – and plans to play – politics with this – the most important document in the land – should disgust and rouse the anger of the vast majority of citizens. I expect and hope that it will. I always have, and always will, put my trust in the sound good sense of the vast majority of Irish citizens. They may not yet realise fully what the Government is proposing to do to their document in their name, but when they will….

  14. Pingback: Claiming Our Future | Pearltrees

  15. @Jane Suiter
    A starting point towards what?

    There is as much likelihood for regression as for progression contained in the Convention’s structure presented to the opposition. Cabinet can pick and choose a few of the Convention’s proposals or it could even ignore all its proposals. Consequently there is a great chance that the Convention will be attacked as another useless talking shop not only by those who oppose deliberative democracy as you point out but also by voters who recognise tokenism.
    The total lack of communication by Cabinet with the general public about plans for changing our Constitution is extraordinary. Even the lightweight Forum for Europe touring debate had better publicity.
    The way the drafting and publication of the Convention’s structure and agenda has been handled is in keeping with the anti-democratic elitist manner of Irish political practice. Behind the scenes token consultation with the opposition does not bode well for the transparency of the Convention. The Bill soon to be presented to the Dáil establishing the Convention will be a Cabinet document and will have no real cross-party cooperation to lend it strength.

  16. @Rodge Arbuckle,

    I think we’ve just seen the result of the ‘litmus test’ I described further back on this thread in Jane Suitor’s response. I realise everyone speaks for him or herself here, but I think we can take this as representative of the position of many of our ‘public intellectuals’ with knowledge and competence in this area – and who have a reasonable expectation of participating in an advisory capacity.

    It also looks pretty clear that we will not have any effective opposition mounted to what the Government is proposing – or any concerted calls on it to think again and to use this exercise to address at least some of the underlying dysfunction in the process of governance – in advance of draft legislation being presented . Once this happens, the game, effectively, is up. Beyond that point all the government will accept – indeed all any government will accept – is the most innocuous of amendments.

    It will then be down to the people to protect the Constitution from this narrow, self-serving, self-aggrandising playing of politics that the Government is indulging in to avoid consideration of fundamental dysfunction in the institutions and process of governance. If sufficient public clamour is raised those 66 citizens who will be selected to participate in this charade may find good reason to decline. And to make it harder, we can’t rely on the media to behave as a proper Fourth Estate. The extent to which anyone in a position of influence or responsibility has been bought or silenced – or feels compelled to go with the flow – is frightening.

    It is so wrong on so many levels for the Government to propose selecting 66 good citizens of this state to participate in this charade. It’ll be interesting to see what process the Government will employ to fill these slots if some or all of those initially selected refuse. We also need to watch out that some compulsion – either hidden or overt – is not employed to make participating in this farce equivalent to, say, being called to do jury service.

    The Government’s arrogance and complacency allowed it to ride in to a fall on the Oireachtas inquiries amendment referendum. It is being equally arrogant and complacent in these very difficult circumstances. It behoves every citizen to seek to clip its wings again.

  17. I just realised that I will probably be deviously and conveniently labelled and dismissed as one of thsse “vehement critics ….who do not believe that any form of participatory democracy is needed in our society.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe the primary responsibility is on the political classes to seek to clean up the mess they and their predecessors have made. When they find they have done as much as they can that is in their power (but with the consent of the people) or find, because of their weakness, greed, stupidity or lust for power, that they can’t agree on the next steps, then a proper Citizens’ Assembly should be established to complete the job.

    That in my view is what a Citizens’ Assembly should be for. What we are going to get is a total perversion of this. And that is why every genuine democrat should oppose it in every way that is legally possible.

  18. The willingness and ability to develop and project optical illusions and to promote convenient fictions is common to all polities. There is a requirement everywhere for a certain amount of cant, hypocrisy and bullshit (CHB) to lubricate the machinery of governance at all levels. The difficult task is to ensure the CHB is kept within manageable limits.

    The Irish ability to project and sustain optical illusions and to attempt to suspend disbelief almost indefinitely is remarkable when compared to its peers in the EU. The entire system of political governance is almost completely defined by CHB within a carapace comprised of the trappings of a system of democratic goverance with a veneer of high-sounding statements and pronouncements.

    To the extent that large numbers of citizens are involved in the implementation of public policy and the delivery of public service at the ‘front-line’, as it were, the system works – and it is their efforts (often beyond the call of duty) that provide the ‘glue’ that helps to hold society and the economy together (coupled with huge community and voluntary input). But above this level CHB rules.

    The tragedy is that our ‘public intellectuals’ (whom I accept are decent, honourable and public-spirited) are trapped in the web of deceit generated by this excessive application of CHB. We can generally forget about the media. They have swallowed so much CHB that they regurgitate it almost instinctively. The politcial classes are the producers of CHB par excellence. So we really need out ‘public intellectuals’ to take a stand. There is a pressing need to articulate what most ordinary citizens know very well, but find it difficult, individually or collectively, to express.

    But instead we have leading economists performing all sorts of contortions to justify the Troika-imposed and Government implemented salami-slicing of public expenditure and incremental tax increases that are grinding down the domestic economy in the absence of serious efforts to tackle monopoly profit-gouging, glorious inefficiency and rent-seeking in all of the sheltered sectors. But they are prevented – or believe they are prevented – from highlighting the nature of the reforms required.

    And we have leading political scientists acknowledging that executive dominance is one of the biggest problems in Irish politics, but sigh wearily and declare that hardly anything can be done about this. So let’s focus instead on participatory democracy.

    Piaras Mac Einri, in today’s IT:

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0405/1224314388265.html

    provides an excellent example of this selective blindness and desire for displacement activity. In the midst of some sensible observations about the property charge fiasco we get this:
    “The Government, if it is to avoid a running disaster on this issue, now needs to promote an open and honest public debate about local reform, including local taxation, in Ireland. It needs to give people some sense of ownership in this debate – perhaps through the type of public forum used successfully on previous occasions – and needs to separate it from the broader issue of Ireland’s ongoing economic crisis.”

    We have a forum. It’s called the Oireachtas – comprising the Dail, the Seanad and the Presidency. Just because its been misused, abused and progressively emasculated doesn’t mean the delegated utlimate authority of the people does not reside there. Surely it’s long past time for our ‘public intellectuals’ to break free of the web of deceit and explain this – and its implications – to the general public.

  19. It’s heartening to see there is a body of thought, reflected in this forum, which rejects Ireland’s continuation down the same path it followed before our crises. For us to really learn from the total collapses in property, much of banking, several political parties, trust in the Catholic church, the legal system’s ability to uphold standards in public life and loss of confidence reflected by mass emigration, I doubt a convention is ever really going to be of any more benefit now than settling some scores among the establishment and providing a fig leaf for those of it’s members who are as yet unscathed. What’s really needed is a debate. A very public one and not about scapegoats in the form of troikas or one or two political figures. Ireland has failed because of a breakdown in financial governance. In democratic countries this governance is tasked to it’s democratic system and the media is it’s watchdog. If we can start by debating and fixing the Irish media, identifying why it is so lacking in diversity, ideas, critical faculties and real connection with Ireland’s citizens, then we will have the conventions and real, tested ideas that will deliver real change and make Ireland a learning nation.

    • @Shane O’Seasnáin,

      You may have detected a ‘body of thought’, but we are few in number. Indeed this blog no longer deserves the title “Political Reform”. It probably should be labeled “Participatory Democracy”, because that’s the road the editors appear resolved to travel down. In any event, it seems to be dying a death. There hasn’t been a post since the end of last month.

      And I agree with your point about the media. We had a perfect example yesterday of their fixation on sensation combined with total igniorance of the underlying reality. The headline in both major press organs was about the Taoiseach being equivocal about people’s water supplies being cut off if they didn’t pay the new water charges. They could have all the sensation they desired if they were to use “Water bills could vary from €500 to €1,500 a year” and actually raise the more important issue.

      The Government, its departments, agencies and regulatory bodies continuously have so-called ‘public consultation’ on policy and regulatory matters that impact on some or all citizens. Submissions are invited from ‘stakeholders’, ‘interested parties’ and the public. Most of these just pass the public by. This suits the government-machine perfectly. Even if submissions are made, any of those that are critical of what is proposed are simply ignored or dismissed and the department or body just carries on its merry way, decisions are made behind closed doors and then announced as a fait accompli.

      (In the case of this water industry consultation there was an opportunity to make submission uip to 24 Feb. However, that’s the last we heard of this consultation process. The Government announced its decision after the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday as if there had been no public consultation. All the grubby deals were done behind closed doors.)

      The media should be required to print notices of all public consultations coming up and where necessary and useful provide some background and an outline of the issues being consulted on. This would be a very small smart. What one would hope is that this would encourage ordinary citizens to inundate our excessively centralised, dominant, expansive, arrogant and complacent government with submissions. And the media, if they could take their heads out of the places where the sun doesn’t shine, might take a bit of an interest as well and try to inform citizens.

      • @Paul (and the few who read this :-))

        A number of years ago I remember being greatly impressed by Noam Chomsky’s analysis of U.S. media. Whether readers agree or disagree with Chomsky’s politics is not the point, it his technique of measuring and comparing awkward facts indicating media bias towards an establishment that seemed very powerful. There is a saying that “what gets measured gets managed.” Perhaps by highlighting this one area we can start to make progress towards that learning nation. I saw recently that Vincent Browne has taken this issue up again, including RTE’s sad role. Our national media conjures up an image of a lazy schoolboy who rather than doing their work finds it easier to copy from others (i.e. Irish and English establishments)

  20. @Shane,

    Thank you. I agree about Chomsky. He has this blind spot about the US as being the most evil empire that ever existed. But it is only an empire and, like all empires, it waxes and wanes. And it is very much on the wane now. Unfortunately this obscures the powerful intellectual insights he has provided to humankind.

    As for the media, my suggestion that they should be required to publish details as they emerge of all public consultations iniated by government and its agencies is just one of many. This is just one example of the ‘participatory democracy’ so beloved of our editors here. The amount of material that the government and its agencies put in the public domain is simply enormous. It genuinely is an information overload and the effect is that most things are actually ‘hidden in broad daylight’. But the media never gives any attention to what government and its agencies propose to do. They simply wait until the decision is made behind closed doors – subject to the influence of whatever vested interests are most affected – collect the public announcement of the decision issued as a fait accompli and regurgitate this in a garbled manner that provides neither insight, interpretation nor analysis.

    The time to inform people and to get them involved is when government or its agencies announce what they intend or propose to do. But that would be too much like hard work. And in fairness editorial budgets have been pared down to the quick to provide resource for the sensationalisation and trivialisation that they believe people want.

    There is, however, a sea change taking place in Britain with the defenestration of the Murdoch UK empire. As is often the case it may have a ‘demonstration effect’ in Ireland. One can only hope.

    The reality is that the vast majority of citizens in Ireland are all ‘growed up’ now. They may not know all the details – they are unlikely to have the time or interest to dig them out, but they know very well what has gone on and what is going on. They can very easily manage and would welcome a bit of honesty from the political classes, from the media and from their ‘public intellectuals’.

    It’ll come. It’ll be hard-won. But the abiding faith of the Irish people in democratic governance – which burgeoned in the early years of the 19th century with O’Connell and, I would assert, pre-dated and influenced increased democratisation in England – will triumph eventually.

  21. @Shane
    Your point about the media is well founded. The following statements issued don’t seem to have received any publicity in the media apart from short articles by D Deglan De Breadun in the Irish Times which barely scrape the surface.

    Amnesty statement re Convention

    http://www.amnesty.ie/sites/default/files/file/Constitution%20Convention/Amnesty%20International%20Ireland%20response%20to%20Government%20proposals%20on%20Constitutional%20Convention%20for%20NGO%20Convening%2026_03_12.pdf

    ICCL statement re Convention

    http://pelorous.totallyplc.com/media_manager/public/138/ICCL%20Response%20to%20Government%20Proposals%20on%20the%20Constitutional%20Convention_def%20(2).doc

    @Paul
    I don’t see much return on my taxes from Representative Democracy at the moment !!
    Maybe Participatory Democracy Ireland might be no harm as a name for a site! Many of us see no hope for reform of the system from within.
    Your insistence that we have already have a Citizens Assembly called the Dail ignores the tyranny of Cabinet and its stranglehold. Your thesis ignores the muzzle put on all TDs by the whips.

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