Tuesday, 10 July 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
The motion before the House in my name and that of the Tánaiste fulfils the promise in the programme for Government to establish a constitutional convention. The setting up of the convention is an important and exciting step in a process to better equip our Constitution to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
From the outset, it has been the Government’s intention that the convention should be founded on a number of principles. It should be innovative, independent, and influential. The establishment of the convention represents an innovative approach to examining constitutional reform, one that has never been tried before in this country. It is true that there have previously been committees to examine constitutional reform, both generally and on specific matters, but this convention will be radically different. In addition to elected representatives, the constitutional convention will comprise ordinary citizens, who will be considerably in the majority. This important innovation will ensure that, for the first time in this State, both the legislators who bring forward proposals for constitutional reform and the citizens who decide on the merits or otherwise of those proposals will jointly and publicly consider whether constitutional reform is necessary or desirable.
The second principle underpinning the setting up of the convention is that it should be independent of Government. Resolutions of both Houses of the Oireachtas will approve its establishment and it will report back directly to the Houses.
The independence of the convention will be further demonstrated by the manner in which the citizen members will be selected. They will be randomly selected, using the electoral register, to be representative of society generally. A polling company will be engaged to select 66 people on the electoral register to be members of the convention on the basis that the persons selected are representative of the population generally in terms of gender, age, social class and region. I strongly urge anyone who is contacted to take the opportunity to participate in this exciting and historic initiative. As Deputies will be aware, legislation will be required to use the electoral register for this purpose and that legislation is being brought before the House by my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. The selection of the public members will be overseen by the chairperson of the convention.
In the spirit of inclusiveness, the 33 elected representatives to the convention will include a parliamentarian from each of the parties represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly which accept an invitation from the Government to participate in the convention’s work. The invitations will issue once the Dáil and Seanad have passed the convention resolutions.
The chairperson will also be independent and will be pivotal to the success of the convention. In view of this crucial role, an exceptional person will be needed, combining very high levels of public acceptability, known fair-mindedness, effective chairmanship skills and knowledge of the Constitution and law. The ability to arrive at workable solutions, while ensuring as far as possible that all participants get a fair hearing, will also be crucial. In view of the importance of this position, I invited representatives of the Opposition parties to put forward possible names when I consulted them on the arrangements for the convention. The Tánaiste and I expect to announce the chairperson shortly.
The third principle underpinning the setting up of the constitutional convention is that it must be influential. This can only be achieved if its recommendations are responded to in an appropriate and timely manner. One of the main criticisms of previous attempts to initiate constitutional reform was that after much excellent work by, for example, various Oireachtas committees and the constitutional review group, their reports were not acted upon and, to use the well-worn phrase, they were left to gather dust on the shelf. The Government recognises that unless the reports the convention produces are responded to quickly, the convention and, indeed, the very process on which we have embarked will be called into question.
I wish to give a formal commitment to the House that the Government will give a public response, through the Oireachtas, to each recommendation from the convention within four months. We will arrange for a debate in the Oireachtas on that response in each case and, in the event that the Government accepts a recommendation that the Constitution be amended, the Government’s public response will include a timeframe for the holding of the referendum. This goes considerably further than any previous Government has gone and, I think, fully demonstrates the extent of our commitment to this new and innovative approach to constitutional reform. Before making its response, the Government will, of course, fulfil the obligation that every Government has in considering proposals for constitutional reform — first, to consider the proposal itself carefully and, second, to ensure as far as possible that the aim of the proposal is achieved without this leading to unintended consequences.
The topics which the convention will consider are set out in the resolution. They include institutional matters, such as the review of the Dáil electoral system, as well as important social issues, such as the greater participation of women in public life, and same-sex marriage. There has been some criticism that the work programme for the convention does not go far enough and that it should encompass even more comprehensive reform. The Government remains of the view that the work programme outlined in the resolution is appropriate. The issues that will be before the convention are not light matters. In this context, it should also be borne in mind that the establishment of the convention will complement the Government’s overall programme of constitutional reform, some of which has already been put to the people in referendums. As Deputies will be aware, proposals for further referendums are being prepared on an important social issue, children’s rights, and on a key political and institutional change, the abolition of the Seanad.
I have no doubt that the full programme of constitutional reform which will be put to the people over the lifetime of this Government will be the most comprehensive in many years. However, to show that the Government is prepared to consider calls for an even more comprehensive work programme for the convention, we are prepared to consider whether other topics could be considered at a later date. We will review this in the light of experience and the Tánaiste and I will consult with Opposition representatives and the chairperson of the convention at the appropriate time.
The inclusion of additional topics could, of course, have implications for the timeframe within which the convention must complete its work. Indeed, concerns have already been expressed that the convention will have insufficient time to complete the work programme outlined in the resolution before the House. The Government is of the view that the timeframe proposed in the resolution is appropriate for the convention’s proposed work programme. However, we are prepared to review the timeframe in the light of experience and, indeed, any future changes to the convention’s work programme and we will undertake this review in consultation with representatives of the Opposition parties.
The Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement are fundamental to the changed relationships on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. It is wholly appropriate, therefore, that elected representatives of the different traditions in Northern Ireland should be enabled to participate in the work of the convention which will, as the resolution states, have appropriate regard to the principles enshrined in the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements.
The Government is conscious of the views expressed that interest groups or specific sections of society should be represented at the convention. Vulnerable, disadvantaged or marginalised groups, children, people from Northern Ireland, especially Northern Unionists, the diaspora and Ireland’s newest citizens are some of the groups mentioned. The Government is firmly of the view that the convention should be composed of ordinary citizens and elected representatives. It is simply not practical to accommodate in a fair and representative manner all of the groups or sections of society that have been proposed. However, it is anticipated that interest groups and non-governmental organisations will be able to interact with the convention, including by making submissions. Indeed, we would expect that the chairperson and other members of the convention will be anxious to hear from a representative spectrum of opinion in carrying out their work. The Government also hopes that there will be active engagement with the diaspora. The constitutional convention will be a transparent and an interactive forum. It is important that ordinary citizens can not only contribute to the work of the convention but can also see how their contribution fits into its overall deliberations.
The success of the convention will depend to a large extent on the level of engagement with the general public and I would like to take this opportunity to encourage citizens to contribute to the debate. I have no doubt the convention itself will be anxious to hear from all strands of opinion at home and abroad. To facilitate as wide an engagement as possible, it is expected that much of the convention’s work will be done via a new website which I understand will be launched shortly. It is also planned to put the convention’s working papers and various submissions on this website and it is intended that plenary meetings of the convention will be webcast live.
It will be important that the convention has an appropriate range of supports to assist it in its work. The Government has put arrangements in train to provide a secretariat from within existing resources. While the secretariat will be relatively small, the issue of whether young unemployed people could be given an opportunity to work on the convention, for example, through the JobBridge programme, will be considered.
The wide-ranging nature of the topics to be considered by the convention is likely to require a significant amount of work for the members. An expert advisory group will assist the convention in its endeavours and will provide specialist guidance on the variety of issues to be examined. This support from leading academics, political scientists and constitutional lawyers will be an important factor in the success of the convention and I very much look forward to their contribution.
The changes experienced and challenges encountered by Irish society over recent years require an appropriate response. The putting in place of this innovative and exciting process for considering constitutional reform, one which directly involves our citizens, is a key part of the Government’s response. On my behalf and that of the Tánaiste, I commend this resolution to the House.
Deputy Micheál Martin: One of the central messages conveyed by the people to every Member of this House last year was that they want a change in the way that politics is done in this country. They want us to focus on getting Ireland through to recovery, but they also demand that we implement wide-ranging and credible reform. This is a very clear challenge to us all and, in particular, to a Government which has an unprecedented majority. Success is easily defined, to identify and implement reforms which directly address the failings in our parliamentary, governmental and legal systems. The public were not asking for an abstract discussion, but a hard focus on measures to radically improve how public life works in Ireland.
Both Government parties were elected on clear platforms promising radical reform. They published extensive promises for specific reforms and a process of wider reform. They gave themselves no more than 12 months to refer the bulk of reforms to the public by means of referendums. Since then, the ambition has shrunk and the timetable has been formally abandoned.
The constitutional convention which will be adopted today is, in nearly all respects, the forum that emerged during negotiations between Fine Gael and the Labour Party to form the Government. It carries the title from the Labour Party manifesto, the membership from Fine Gael’s and a narrower agenda than either promised. Discussions were held with the Opposition but only very minor changes have been made to the proposal.
This motion was first promised as being imminent last March by the Taoiseach. He assured us of the urgency with which it was being considered. There has been no attempt whatsoever to start the process with a serious discussion of what the reform agenda should be focused on.
At this moment of continued economic crisis and with lost public faith in the role of politics, proposing to give priority to discussing the President’s term of office and the voting age is worse than ridiculous. If the convention sticks to the core agenda insisted on by Government, it will not be able to deliver on the promise of real political reform.
The Government is proposing to try to avoid any serious discussion of its role and powers. What it appears to want from the convention is to be able to claim to be considering fundamental reform rather than actually doing anything about it.
It is now the well defined character of the Government that it hypes everything and makes claims about reform which do not stand up to even basic scrutiny. In the last year and a half Ministers have delivered hours of speeches about how they have reformed the Dáil, praising their own dedication and commitment in the process. In reality, the Dáil has gone backwards, with committees directly overseeing Departments more in the control of Government than ever, the Taoiseach undermining Question Time and the Government less likely than ever to engage with Opposition amendments. There has been no real reform, and if the Government’s approach to this convention is continued there will be no reform.
Fianna Fáil supports the formation of a body such as this to discuss reform. We also proposed a citizens’ assembly in our manifesto. However, we also endorsed giving it the ability to set its own priorities and directly take up the functioning of both the Oireachtas and the Government. The citizens’ assembly is a good but not yet fully proven idea, so we also gave a clear commitment that the Oireachtas would be actively engaged in the discussion of reform on a cross-party basis. We support the establishment of the convention not because we agree with the Government’s priorities, but because, once established, we will seek to get the support of its members to radically broaden the agenda. We will push for real reform to be considered.
The fact that the Government has no intention of letting the convention set a new pace for reform is shown clearly in the proposal that the Oireachtas will only get the opportunity to vote on its recommendations if the Government agrees. As proposed today by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, there will be a radical new form of consultation with Irish society and then they will personally decide if the people will be allowed to vote on the proposals. How is this the way to show commitment to reform? The Government is, in effect, saying that it will be radical so long as it retains all of the powers and control it currently has.
The first thing we should do when establishing a body to review aspects of the Constitution is to acknowledge the strengths of Bunreacht na hÉireann, something that was absent from the Taoiseach’s address. It is profoundly wrong to attack it in terms of its failure to reflect today’s morality while ignoring when it was adopted. De Valera’s Constitution is a profoundly democratic and republican document. At a time when much of the world was falling to extreme ideologies, it strengthened democracy and human rights here. For example, no other nation in the world in the 1930s adopted by referendum explicit constitutional protections for the Jewish community. It gave us a strengthened Judiciary which has used its independence to be a check on the power of the Executive far beyond the situation in other common law countries. It has also been an evolving document in many areas, successfully being used as the basis for asserting many rights not considered in 1937. Many of its biggest failings are not the failings of its drafters, but of the generations who have come since and have failed to update it.
The proposal before the House today sets out a series of areas to be prioritised by the convention. Given the tight timeframe, the appointment of the chairperson by Government and the reliance of the convention on Government resources, it is clearly not the Government’s intention that its work will go far beyond these measures.
The proposals relating to the electoral system and the participation of women in public life are the only ones that address any broad scale issues of political reform. However, in both cases they address how the Oireachtas is formed, not what it actually does. This again emerges from the Government parties’ firm convictions that structural reforms are not required beyond the cosmetic.
At the convention and subsequently, we will be supporting a reform of the electoral system to one which allows for a mixture of local and national concerns to predominate. We will also be supporting changes in the Constitution which fully reflect the views of today rather than the 1930s on gender and public life.
The Presidency is the one institution of our State that has retained and even grown in its public standing. Each of our Heads of State has fulfilled the role of being a force for asserting shared values and rising above daily quarrels to understand what unites us. The Presidency is in no way broken so why we should prioritise a change to the term of office or aligning it with unrelated elections is not clear.
The extension of the franchise is a welcome idea which we also proposed last year. On reducing the voting age, this appears to be another example of taking up an idea while ignoring more important and urgent concerns. Surely the priority should be how we can get the third of people who have the franchise to use it before looking for ways to extend it? Eighteen is by far the dominant voting age in democracies. Austria recently reduced it. Does this issue need to be discussed at a convention? If the Oireachtas agreed on changing the age, it could be then put to the people. The voting age for local elections could, in fact, be changed by legislation. This matter does not need to be debated by the convention. I would have no objection to reducing the voting age to 17. Why not go ahead and put the issue to the people?
The constitutional provision relating to blasphemy is not something that would be on anyone’s list of the most urgent reform issues. Fianna Fáil has held three regional meetings on the constitutional convention. All party members were nonplussed by the proposal to remove the reference to blasphemy from the Constitution. They wondered why the Government does not just go ahead and hold a referendum on the issue. Other more weighty structural issues of political reform need to be dealt with. The current blasphemy provision has not had the effect of inhibiting freedom of speech. This is an area where the convention should not allow itself to be rushed by the Government’s deadline. Any change should be one which emerges from trying to build a consensus across our multi-denominational society.
The issue of same-sex marriage has been referred to the convention for the sole reason that Fine Gael and Labour were unable to agree a position. It is a disgraceful kick-to-touch, hoping to delay by years the moment when a decision should be taken. I have said many times that I support marriage equality. As a republican and as a believer in equality, I firmly believe that same-sex couples should be able to marry. Many people sincerely disagree with this. I respect that. They are entitled to their view and should be allowed to be heard. Whatever one’s personal position on this issue, one thing is clear: the people have a right to decide this issue and to do so sooner rather than later. Referring this issue to the convention implies that there is a possibility that there will be no referendum on same-sex marriage during the lifetime of the Government.
The Government has a long list of referendums, such as abolishing the Seanad, which it says must happen no matter what. Today, the Taoiseach told the House that we are now looking at the latter half of 2013 for the abolition of the Seanad. Refusing to give the same commitment on the issue of same-sex marriage is completely unacceptable.
Over the last year and a half the Taoiseach has repeatedly praised himself for being a tough man and a man of principle. The sad reality is that he would rather scramble over flower pots and hide from journalists than answer a simple question on where he stands on what is a basic social question, what the Tánaiste described as the civil rights issue of a generation. The idea that one cannot have an opinion if a matter is being discussed by the constitutional convention is nonsense. As things are, there is a growing belief that the Taoiseach will wait until a moment when the Government is embroiled in a crisis and will then try to distract everybody by finally agreeing to hold a referendum on marriage equality. I suggest that he cut out the delay, remove the issue from the convention and agree now to have the referendum on marriage equality which the people want.
If the convention sticks to Government’s agenda it will consider how people get elected but not what they should do afterwards and it will consider a series of social issues but will not touch on the Government’s powers. We will be seeking a more fundamental review which focuses in particular on how governments are formed and the relationship between Government and Oireachtas. If we are to build a system which can be strategic rather than short-termist, the Government will have to give up its complete dominance of the parliamentary agenda and government has to be opened up beyond a narrow range of people.
The Government will decide whether the Oireachtas gets to vote on what emerges from the convention. It is clearly the Government’s intention to treat the recommendations as little more than an advisory report. If the convention is to offer any hope of working appropriately, its members must operate in the knowledge that their recommendations will be voted on. It would be unacceptable for the Government to choose what is to be voted on and the form in which the vote will be taken. If this is to be more than window dressing on a fast fading commitment to radical reform and consultation, then give us a commitment that the wider agenda will be supported rather than merely tolerated and that every recommendation will be voted on in exactly the form that the convention proposes.
The Labour Party made similar promises. That was the basis on which people voted for this Government. They wanted fundamental change from the corrupt practices of the past. Tá athraithe substaintiúla de dhíth ón phobal, athraithe atá ar mhaithe an phobail agus ní ar mhaithe an chiorcail órga, athraithe a chuireann cearta na ndaoine chun cinn agus a bhféadfaí a gcur chun cinn i bpoblacht nua amach anseo san tir seo. Citizens were angry and resentful of a democratic process that had been subverted by the golden circles and a political class that promoted its narrow interests and those of the bankers, speculators and developers.
Fine Gael and the Labour Party promised a constitutional convention to safeguard rights and return the democratic process to the people. The Taoiseach undertook to consult with Opposition parties and agreed to include the extension of the franchise in Presidential elections for citizens in the North as part of the convention’s agenda. A year and a half after the election we now have the Government’s resolution on establishing the convention. Sinn Féin believes it falls far short of the commitments made by the two parties in the general election campaign and that without significant amendment the convention will be a lost opportunity. We hoped that the constitutional convention would see the emergence of a new constitutional arrangement to meet the needs of 21st century Ireland. The economic crisis in this State, the revelations of corruption in certain political parties and the tribunal findings against leaders of Fianna Fáil, alongside the success of the peace process in the North, means that Ireland is in transition. Citizens want change and this constitutional convention is an opportunity for the Government to build a truly national consensus for fundamental change and to transform the existing constitutional architecture to take account of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.
A new constitutional design could reimagine Ireland for this new century and put in place a constitution which puts all the citizens of this nation and this island at its heart. The new constitution should deliver on the promise of the 1916 Proclamation, which declares: “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible” and that the Republic, as a sovereign independent State, guarantees “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally”. That was the change for which people voted. They wanted new politics, genuine reform and, in the republican language of the Fine Gael manifesto, core republican values.
Instead, however, we have a proposal which limits the remit of the constitutional convention. It fails to deliver a comprehensive transparent process and unless its remit is changed it will deliver minimal change. Ba mhaith le Sinn Féin coinbhinsiún bunreachtúil atá i bhfad níos leithne, le próiseas atá oscailte agus trédhearcach agus le cumhacht ag an phobal a chuid moltaí a chur faoi bhráid an choinbhinsiúin. Sinn Féin proposes a convention which we believe would be closer to the concerns of the people and would reflect a process that is genuinely open and transparent. Our amendment proposes a convention that is fully inclusive in composition and uses a participatory process. It would actively involve the economically disadvantaged and socially marginalised; citizens from all provinces including the Northern province of Ulster; Unionists and their official representatives; citizens in the diaspora; ethnic minorities such as the Traveller community and our newest citizens; political parties; civil society representatives, including the voluntary and community sector; and individuals with academic and legal expertise. We would ensure that women are represented equally on the convention.
Sinn Féin believes that the convention’s process must be fully public, transparent and accountable, from the discussion of its terms of reference to appointments, and from the debates to the conclusion of its recommendations. The convention must also have a mandate to consider the broadest possible scope of matters, including in particular the need for express guarantees of economic and social rights, the extension of voting rights for Northern citizens and citizens in the diaspora and the architecture required to establish a more robustly inclusive, fully representative and accountable democracy with mechanisms for direct participation.
The Government has proposed that the convention must address a specified list of issues before moving on to other matters. It is silent on what happens to the convention at the end of its lifetime if it has not addressed all the issues assigned to it. The amendment of the Constitution on this issue-by-issue basis has the potential to make the process of making amendments and the work of the convention enormously difficult and confusing. It is possible that a series of separate referendums and even amendments to amendments will be required depending on the timing of recommendations and the Government’s considerations. Sinn Féin believes that the convention should have the freedom and time to produce a comprehensive proposal. It took the architects of Bunreacht na hÉireann two years to complete their work. It should not be beyond our ability to produce a comprehensive set of proposals that would be completed and passed by 2016. We could build a truly new constitution that is fit for purpose for the new Ireland of tomorrow. Such a constitution would embrace our Unionist neighbours, guarantee economic and social rights for all citizens and maximise human rights guarantees, including all of the modern equality and human rights protections that reflect the full spectrum of our international obligations and any others that are necessary to establish a rights based society.
The approach set out by the Government is minimalist, disjointed and piecemeal. It fails the mandate given to the Government, fails the process of constitutional change and fails the people. Tá seans anseo ag an Rialtas treo nua a ghlacadh, treo stairiúil a dhíríonn ar shaoránaigh an Stáit agus an oileáin seo. This is an opportunity to be bold, progressive and imaginative on behalf of all our citizens. If approached in the right way, the constitutional convention and its conclusions can inspire the people of this island, unite us in common purpose, build the nation, revive our hopes in the future and create greater national unity based on common interest, a common vision and common purpose.
The Government can either tinker around the edges of constitutional change or chart a new course for the citizens of this island. The omens are not good. The Taoiseach should pick up his manifesto and read it again. I read it this afternoon.
The last year has seen a continuation of what I used to hear the Taoiseach railing against when he was in opposition — the same old politics and old economic approach, austerity, lack of equality and the waste of much valuable time. In the good times maybe that could have been afforded, but not in these dire economic times. However, there is still an opportunity for fundamental change. It will be a challenge and I think the Taoiseach recognises this. I hope he meets that challenge and I urge him to adopt Sinn Féin’s proposals. larraim ar an Taoiseach glacadh le moltaí atá a chur ag Sinn Féin anseo inniu.
Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly: I welcome this process, which is refreshing. The topics selected are important, including getting the horrific gender bias out of our Constitution. I look forward to being able to debate it and vote on it in the Chamber. I particularly welcome the Taoiseach’s openness to this potentially being a first step. He is also open to some of the issues that have been raised by Deputy Adams, Deputy Martin and others, including those within his own party, concerning radical reform. There are things we could do to shake the system up to serve the people better.
I have heard three things about the process that I like. The inclusion of Northern Ireland delegates is important. Deputy Adams has made some good points about making it even more inclusive, but it is good that there is at least some recognition there. I also like the statistical process being used to ensure that different communities and different parts of the country are represented. I also like the openness and transparency in matters such as the proposed live webcast. The Taoiseach’s call to have more people involved will be important.
In the few minutes available I wish to address some issues with the process which I would like to see tackled and improved if not for this one, then certainly for the others. These are the make-up or membership of the convention, its funding and its powerlessness in real terms. The Taoiseach mentioned the principles of independence, innovation and influence. I appreciate that this is a genuine effort to do that but we could go further towards achieving those principles.
As regards the make-up of the convention, a mistake has been made in including politicians, although it might seem odd for a politician to say that. I appreciate that politicians are able to bring a view as to how the system works today that nobody else can bring, which is valuable. However, best international practice does not include elected representatives in constitutional conventions. Two of the best recognised speakers in the world on this matter are Archon Fung from the Harvard Kennedy School, under whom I had the privilege to study, and Ken Carty from the University of British Columbia in Canada. In their work in this field, they acknowledge that the presence of partisan influence can lead to distorted deliberations and outcomes. Professor Fung says that in deliberative democracy “powerful participants may seek to improperly and unreasonably exclude issues that threaten their interests from the scope of deliberation”. In other words, one could have a bunch of politicians there who see suggested change as threatening their incumbency, funding and jobs. They may move — the academics have seen this happen in other places — to have those topics sidelined.
As regards funding the convention, I appreciate as well as anyone in this House that we are in an extremely cash-poor environment. However, when the Netherlands did this it spent €6 million on it, while British Columbia spent $6 million. We are putting in €300,000 which is one twentieth of the Dutch figure. My concern is that there will not be sufficient funding or time for people within the convention to absorb the kind of expert knowledge they will need to tackle the constitutional issues.
The third issue is the powerlessness of the convention. I am concerned that the Government will only take these things as recommendations. If one compares the Dutch and Canadian experiences, in British Columbia the people got to vote and the convention decided what there was going to be a referendum on. The Netherlands, however, used a process quite similar to the one proposed here. In the Netherlands most of the issues raised and agreed by the convention never made it through the government or parliament. It was seen as a failure largely for this reason.
Many issues need to be addressed, including single-seat constituencies and moving from 166 to 100 Deputies. This is substantial stuff to radically change a system that the people of Ireland do not feel is working for them. I welcome this as a first step. There are major opportunities to make the convention more effective and better meet the principles which the Taoiseach has set out for it.
Deputy Catherine Murphy: I have submitted an amendment but I understand that Standing Orders only permit one. I wonder if there is any scope under Standing Orders to accept a second amendment, or is it yet another flaw in the Standing Orders of the Dáil that requires to be addressed?
Deputy Catherine Murphy: Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. I have been briefed on the process to date and the Technical Group made a submission in response to what we were presented with. One of my concerns is the limited nature of what is being proposed. It is a pity because there is an element of box-ticking about this. We will get one really good opportunity to do this so we must get both the process and content right.
I wish to touch on the point made by the previous speaker about the make-up of the convention, which is a point that I have made myself at the briefings. In a body that is not a self-selecting group of citizens, the number of politicians may well have an undue bearing on the deliberations. If it is not removed, it should be rowed back on. I have made that proposal in my amendment. The remit needs to be wider. If the group itself is to be genuine it needs to have some level of control over how it does its work. The balance should therefore be weighed much more in favour of citizens.
There should also be a dedicated avenue for civil society organisations and particularly those in the human rights area, which needs to be part of the considerations. We seem to be taking a silo approach to this — it is very compartmentalised — without looking at the totality of the Constitution. One piece interacts with the other and it is supposed to be seen as one document. It should have a broad vision. I am concerned that, for example, rights to housing and income are not included. These are some of the fundamental issues that should be examined, at least in the early deliberations.
I attended an event last week at which quotations from the 1940s were read, one of which was that revolutionary times require revolutionary changes or responses. From an economic point of view, we are in revolutionary times. This presents us with opportunities to think big, which is not evident in terms of this convention. What is provided for in terms of human rights is insufficient and political reform is only being addressed in a piecemeal way. There is an appetite and desire for radical reform and for giving power back to the people, which will not happen unless we change the institutions and how we do things. We have many strengths in this country. These are most evident at community level. Our political system from local government upwards is not being examined, which is a real missed opportunity. Most citizens in this country would welcome real, serious and radical reform which gives power back to the people, because they do feel disenfranchised. I would have liked to see this included.
Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: I am glad that I live in a democracy. I am always conscious when I go to vote of the many countries in the world wherein citizens do not have the right to vote or where voting is meaningless because of corruption of political institutions. Having a constitutional convention is part of the democratic process. Every citizen and civil society organisation will welcome it. It is a positive step forward.
Citizenship assemblies are seen in some countries as a pure form of democracy. There is no doubt but that voter turn-out in this country is low. This is particularly evident in certain constituencies. This low voter turn-out indicates a deficit in the democratic process. Conventions and citizens assemblies are a way forward in that they can provide the space, other than e-mail or phone call to a political representative, for voices to be heard . It is important to progress the public interest as opposed to the party or political institution interest and to give people space to voice their opinions rather than assume that the political representative or political institution has all the opinions or answers. We must do something about the disaffection with and disinterest in the political system and to address the lack of trust in public representation. Anything that addresses this is welcome.
I note that some political scientists believe these assemblies are not practical. However, I believe if set up properly and given specific guidelines they can work well. One of the statements in the programme for Government is that by the end of this Government’s term in office Ireland will be recognised as a modern, fair, socially inclusive and equal society. I do not think anybody would disagree with that as an objective to be realised.
I would like to raise two particular issues, the first of which is composition of the convention and the second being the issues it will discuss. As regards the chairman of the convention, it was originally proposed that such a person would be of exceptional ability and have a high degree of public acceptability, which was in my view vague and included anybody in the sporting, entertainment or cultural world. However, I note that the Taoiseach in his speech today broadened this out a little. It is important the chairman has a proven track record in chairing such an assembly. However, that decision will ultimately, I presume, rest with the Taoiseach and the Cabinet.
The convention is to comprise 66 members, which I believe is too narrow. I welcome that members will be randomly selected, which is fair. However, I presume efforts will be made to ensure a gender, age, socio-economic background, employed-unemployed, urban-rural balance and that cognisance will be taken of the Gaeltacht, island and new communities. Also, no space is provided for those under 18 years of age. As a former teacher and voluntary youth worker, I believe we are missing out on a body of people who are extremely articulate and principled and have a lot to contribute. It is hoped that space can be made for them. It is positive that the Irish abroad and in Northern Ireland are included.
While that the convention will comprise 66 members might be acceptable in itself, the fact that 33 members will be Members of the Oireachtas means parliamentarians will have an inordinate influence on the convention. The convention is, therefore, disproportionately weighted in favour of parliamentarians. I agree with the civil society groups who are critical of this. One comment in this regard is that the politician in the convention should not be allowed to exert a greater influence over the process than does an ordinary citizen. We the Citizens and Second Republic hold a similar view.
Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: Thank you. Obviously, there are issues around financial and resource commitments. I heard today that all eight meetings of the convention will be held in Dublin, which will not help in terms of encouraging people to attend the process. This issue will also need to be addressed.
On the rights issue, I share the concerns of Amnesty and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties that issues such as economic, social and cultural rights are not being directly addressed. We are a leading voice on human rights issues in the developing world. We are a supporter of the millennium development goals and a voice for rights in developing countries in respect of women, land, property, education and culture. We need to address that here. The Good Friday Agreement and so on are included for consideration. I presume the Weston Park Accord will also be included. However, prisoners with particular human rights issues in Northern Ireland are being ignored, which, too, must be addressed.
The review of the White Paper on Irish Aid was a prototype for the way forward in terms of its providing space for written submissions and the holding of open forum throughout the country, chaired by former Deputy Nora Owen, which allowed people to give their opinions and have their voices heard. It was a progressive process which could have been used in respect of the constitutional convention. The bottom line is to empower people. While I hope it does this, it is open to criticism.
An Ceann Comhairle: The next speaker is Deputy Patrick O’Donovan whom I understand is sharing time with Deputies Brendan Griffin and Jerry Buttimer. Deputies O’Donovan and Griffin have three minutes and Deputy Buttimer has four minutes.
Deputy Patrick O’Donovan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this matter. What is being proposed by Government is only an initial step. It should not be forgotten that Members of the Oireachtas are also citizens. I remind those Members who have bemoaned the fact that Members of the Dáil or Seanad are to be members of the constitutional convention that Members, too, are citizens and voters who have opinions which they would like to articulate. That those opinions are to be articulated in the constitutional convention by members of all parties is to be welcomed.
There is a temptation to microanalyse what is being proposed by Government in regard to the terms of reference of the constitutional convention. I believe we should start from the premise that this is a good thing, something which has not been tried before. It is important that the terms of reference are limited from the outset. There will inevitably be teething problems in terms of the mechanics and manageability of this process. I welcome that the Government has identified a number of issues on which it wants the convention to focus from the outset. This will provide the convention with an opportunity to bed in.
While comparing a possible Irish constitutional convention to other countries around the world is good for academic purposes, it serves no real purpose. We have a unique Constitution and a unique method of amending that Constitution, which is by way of referendum of the people following address of the issue by way of statute in the Dáil and Seanad. What we are doing here is commencing a process which will engage people and stimulate debate. I am not concerned about what issues are included at the outset. I welcome that we have started this process. The people have not been engaged in this type of forum before.
If there are teething problems as some Deputies have mentioned, let them be worked out now in advance of broadening the parameters of the constitutional convention. There is a temptation on the part of some people to suggest that no Deputy or other politician should be involved in this and that it should be handed over to a particular group of civic society, which I would totally oppose. Under the Constitution as set out at the moment, it is ultimately the Dáil and Seanad that will propose an amendment to the Constitution or substantial changes to it. Representatives of all political groupings in this Dáil must be involved from the outset to ensure that the views of all 166 of us are articulated.
Deputy Brendan Griffin: I very much welcome the efforts made to bring this important matter before the House this evening. Last year’s general election result was as much a call for reform as it was a change of political administration and personnel. I believe the constitutional convention will open the door to such reform. The constitutional convention will focus on many areas, including gay marriage, reducing the voting age to 17, reducing the presidential term and extending voting rights to citizens abroad. While I agree with all, I wish to state specifically that I fully support gay marriage and I find it strange that in a Republic that cherishes all of our children equally, this is still a topic for discussion. Having spoken to Deputies Paul Connaughton and Eoghan Murphy, I know they are two other Fine Gael Deputies who feel the same way in the matter.
Unfortunately, I have only three minutes to speak this evening, but I want to use that short time to speak on our electoral system and resultant political system. I hope that reform in this area will be prioritised by the convention. These systems are inefficient and do not serve the best interests of the State and its people. Our national Parliament could very effectively operate with as few as 101 elected Members, including the President. Such a huge decrease in parliamentary representation could only work if it takes place hand-in-hand with meaningful reform of local government. In essence a smaller Dáil would need to be met along the way with leaner but more empowered local authorities with fully salaried councillors, greater local revenue-raising capability and many of the facilities that currently exist for Deputies, such as dedicated social welfare and medical card inquiry lines. These functions could then be removed from the legislators in the new Dáil allowing them and their staff to spend more time on national issues.
In electing our Deputies, I propose keeping the PR-STV system but abolishing the multi-seat constituencies, replacing them with 100 single-seat constituencies of approximately 45,000 people each. Single-seat constituencies would reduce the time spent by Deputies on issues more appropriate for councillors or State agencies by eliminating clientele competition. They would reduce duplication on parliamentary questions, written correspondence, inquiry-line calls and meeting requests. They would also put an end to counterproductive internal party competition and allow the Deputy to spend more time on parliamentary business. Deputies who feel so passionately about the abolition of the Seanad must also be prepared to step back and take an objective look at our own House. Of course such a move would save a fortune financially, but should the real benefit not be that it would lead to a better political system? A smaller Dáil would also give the elected representatives a greater chance to have their voices heard. At present it can take weeks to get selected to speak on topical issues. Similarly oral questions to Ministers are answered on a lottery basis, meaning that it is pot luck to get a chance to question a Minister on the floor of the House.
These are just some of my observations following 16 months in this House. I do not profess to have all the answers to the questions to be asked at the conventional convention, but I certainly feel that our current system is failing and that we need action to remedy it.
Deputy Jerry Buttimer: I welcome the Government’s decision to bring a resolution before the House to establish the conventional convention. It is a convention of the people to decide nine items — it could be more. I wish to address the fifth item, which is the provision for same-sex marriage. Like Deputy Griffin, I support this important issue and believe it should be prioritised by the convention. This day next week we will have celebrated two years since the introduction of the civil partnership legislation. Some 738 couples have, in effect, committed in a union of same-sex couples. It is to be acknowledged and celebrated that the world has not ended and Irish society is the better for civil partnership. It is but a stepping-stone and through the medium of this convention and with the support of the membership — whether elected or non-elected — we should provide for same sex-marriage for all citizens who wish it. As one of five Oireachtas Members, I cannot celebrate the union of my relationship. Is it right that two men or two women cannot when a man and a woman can commit in the same loving union? That is what is before us as parliamentarians and citizens to treat all of our citizens equally under Bunreacht na hÉireann.
As we head towards 2016 we strive to see an Ireland of progression and we have made significant progress. The Taoiseach was correct last week in not succumbing to the pressure and tactics of some to say “Yea” or “Nay”. This is not a political football, but is about the lives of citizens who have made progress and have striven manfully and womanfully to make their lives better — to be treated fairly and equally by the State. The convention is important because it is about the lives of all our people. That is why I am proud of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste who in the programme for Government enshrined in this constitutional convention that we will have in the lifetime of this Government a plebiscite of the people which is as it should be.
It is incumbent on all of us as leaders in our society to change the mindsets and attitudes not just to marriage, but to all the LGBT inequality issues. Not long ago many people were afraid to go into gay pubs and celebrate their relationships. Thankfully last week in our capital city all our political parties had the courage and pride to walk in Dublin Pride. That is the Ireland for which we strive. We have seen the great progress we have made in the peace process and by this Government in the economy and the way we are seen across Europe. Together, without turning it into a political football, we must take the issue of same-sex marriage and normalise it. It is not a political football, but is about the union of two people. It is about the love we can celebrate and the tapestry of relationships — that is what Irish society is about today. That is why the conventional convention is a significant step forward. It is about a commitment to go to the people. It is about saying that the 1916 Rising was worthwhile and that the Stonewall riots were worthwhile. Is about saying that civil partnership is a progression to where we all want to be.
Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: The Fianna Fáil Party will support the resolution before the House, notwithstanding the reservations my leader has expressed and those I might also express in the next few minutes. Along with Senator Power, I attended the briefings the Taoiseach gave on a number of occasions. I acknowledge that he was generous in the time he gave us and that he took on board some, although not very many, of the recommendations that came from the Opposition side of the House.
The constitutional convention was promised in different formats by Labour and Fine Gael before last year’s general election. It was portrayed as being consultative, inclusive and was going to introduce great change to enable the Constitution to be fit for purpose for the 21st century. At the briefings with the Taoiseach I told him that I felt what was proposed was somewhat lacking in ambition. Those who might be more critical might describe it, and have, as something of a damp squib. It reminded me of a statement by Machiavelli when he wrote “It should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes in a state’s constitution”.
There were proclamations by both Government parties before the general election that Seanad Éireann would be abolished, yet ironically this issue is not being discussed at all by the convention. The Fianna Fáil Party believes that the Upper House should be reformed, maintained and strengthened. Abolishing the Seanad without substantial reform to the Dáil would be a major mistake. Not including discussion on the Seanad in the remit of the convention represents a missed opportunity. This convention is a missed opportunity — even reviewing how Oireachtas committees can inquire into matters is not being discussed despite the recent referendum result.
Given the strong commitment the Government demonstrated to that referendum and to the need for committees to be given powers of inquiry, it is peculiar the convention is not being progressed in this manner.
We consider the convention to be narrow in its scope and issues that are to be discussed do not necessarily need as much debate as is proposed. It must not, however, become a deeply cynical exercise in fooling people into believing that they will dramatically change Ireland’s Constitution. People are already becoming too detached from politics and if this convention does not work, it will make the gap even wider.
The challenges facing the State are far too profound to be debating whether the voting age should be reduced to 17 years of age and whether the presidential term of office should be reduced to five years from seven years. Why not leave the term at seven years but disallow a second term?
When Bunreacht na hÉireann was written in 1937, it was ahead of its time as few things have shaped and controlled Irish political and legal culture since then as decisively as it has. Critical and essential features of the State are mandated by the Constitution, including our systems of election, Presidency, judicial reviews of legislation and, most importantly of all, the fundamental rights provision. When we debated the Lisbon treaty a few years back there was a good deal of debate about the Charter of Fundamental Rights for all European citizens, yet in Ireland these are laid down since 1937. A legal expert, Colm O Cinneide, when comparing the Constitution with the European Convention of Human Rights, wrote:
It is most important that this House acknowledges the progressiveness and foresight that was shown in 1937 when de Valera was Taoiseach. It has become too easy and very popular to criticise the Constitution as having been allegedly over influenced by the Catholic Church. Anyone who is familiar with the history of how the Constitution was written would know this is far from the truth. Article 44o outlines: “Every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs, own, acquire and administer property... and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes.” It was so ahead of its time that when I read through it again recently, I was interested to note the foresight of it having an article that states “Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious dominations”, yet if one was to examine the Government’s policy on education funding in recent times, it seems to be determined to do the exact opposite. This was highlighted last week in the Seanad by the leader of the Orange Order, Mr. Drew Nelson, when he called on the Oireachtas to continue to support Protestant schools in Ireland, as communities in Border counties live in fear for their continued survival, in the face of cuts to the Church of Ireland and other Protestant schools.
This convention will not address any of these fears or policy decisions in education. Unfortunately, we seem only to debate issues from the Constitution at times of contentious debates such as those around Articles 2° and 3° as well as divorce and the abortion issue. We rarely debate Article 42° which outlines that “The State shall provide free primary education “. The most urgent issue in our country is the challenge of returning to growth and job creation. With the Government increasingly showing that it has little energy or initiative in this area, a credible Opposition is badly needed and that is what Fianna Fáil is providing. However, the proposed reforms in the convention do not go far enough. Real reform is essential in the process of building a lasting recovery — it is an essential part of the agenda, not an optional extra.
There is no doubt that the political system failed in recent years. No part of the system predicted what happened to our economy and most parts of the system actively pushed policies which caused the crisis. Government was not subject to enough scrutiny and did not draw on a diverse enough range of expertise. As for the Oireachtas, in the decade before the crisis it showed no interest in economic fundamentals and did not debate the financial system until it was close to collapse. There were no calls, for example, to increase financial regulation in this House.
The Government, when elected, despite promises of massive reform, made matters worse in terms of the reform of the committee system. A second set of proposals had to be brought forward to undo the wieldy system of committees that was initially set up and one has to wait to see whether the reformed committee system will be any more effective. The Taoiseach has halved the number of times he attends the Dáil for questions. In fairness, we have had for the first time Friday sittings, but we can only discuss Private Members’ Bills and broad-based debates do not take place.
It is mind-boggling that the Government is refusing to let a convention on the constitutional future of the country even discuss whether we should have a second Chamber in Parliament. What this reflects is that the Government wants to have a convention which cannot touch the fundamental issues of how the Oireachtas and the Government work. Of the issues being discussed, only one represents an area where radical political reform could be possible — the nature of our voting system. Our current system has one great strength, namely, it ensures that all Deputies remain in close contact with the people who elected them. However, the level of constituency work required makes a huge impact on the ability of some Deputies to carry out all their work as legislators. At the time of the last election Fianna Fáil proposed a mixed system of constituencies and a national or regional list system. This operates in many European countries and appears to have worked. I suggest that it at least deserves to be addressed in the convention.
The constitutional article against blasphemy is to be discussed. Ireland has a long-earned reputation as a country which respects the freedom of expression. However, this has and should have limits. The question is where to draw the line.
It is also proposed to discuss the relevant article concerning women in the home. This was originally proposed as a progressive measure setting out an objective of not forcing women out to work. It now reads as a very outdated provision which has not had any real legal impact. Many constitutions around the world retain anachronistic language without anybody being too bothered about it, but if we are to discuss the Constitution and this particular issue, we should examine the spirit in which it was drafted to see if there is some way to retain it. Article 41o states: “The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” One would obviously like to see that particular article broadened and changed. De Valera, when discussing this article, referred to it as protecting women and said that women should not be obliged or prevented from working outside the home. He wanted to mention this so that women’s role would be recognised and that our social system would value the role of women whether in the home or elsewhere.
Deputy Paschal Donohoe: I want to make four points regarding the conduct of the new assembly. I wish it the best of luck and hope it has a successful first meeting and first term. My first point relates to the participation of elected politicians in the assembly. I take a different view from that of some colleagues who said that they believed it is important that elected Members participate in this assembly. I would like to see the number of elected politicians in the assembly decline over time. Our role and the work that we do is amply protected by our place in the Constitution and by the public’s understanding of our work. A mechanism such as this one that is set up to allow deliberation based on the participation of people who do not form part of the political system should be allowed to do that and over time I would like to see the number of elected politicians participating in it decline to zero. I hope we will see that happen as the body gets up and running and begins to conduct its work.
My second point relates to how it will conduct its work and organise itself. One of my concerns about the initial expectations of this new body is that it might be asked to do too much. I refer to the number of topics it must consider. It will need to allow for different views on those themes to be debated and it will also be required to produce agreed proposals which will have broad support. It is quite a significant piece of work. I would not like this new body to fail in what it needs to do as a result of looking to embrace too many big themes early in its lifetime as opposed to a focused and in-depth approach on a number of particular themes.
Members of the assembly will need support. Members of the Oireachtas have a support system and a similar model must be in place for members of the new body in order for them to ground their opinions and contributions within a broader expertise so that the themes may be considered properly. One of the big tests to be faced by this body will be what will happen to the agreements it will produce and this will involve the Oireachtas.
Deputy Colm Keaveney: The constitutional convention was one of the key pledges in the Labour Party manifesto prior to the general election. It is somewhat satisfying to see it being progressed. Many of the items for consideration by the convention are to be welcomed and, in particular, the call by our party leader, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, for the inclusion of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples was most welcome. However, it must be recognised that the proposed agenda for the convention is just a starting point. It is hoped that in the future we can be more ambitious with the kind of constitutional reform that could be considered by the State.
Last week, along with several other Deputies, I met representatives of the Lagan Brick workers who are caught up in Ireland’s longest-running industrial dispute. They are struggling to find an industrial resolution to their dispute partially because our current laws do not compel employers to engage directly in talks. It is my understanding that there are constitutional difficulties about forcing employers to engage directly with employees. The Constitution prevents the Labour Court making determinations that are binding on employers. These difficulties and others largely relate to overly strong protection given to property rights in the Constitution. I am not calling for the abolition of private property but the convention could provide the opportunity to explore property rights for many social and economic goods. We should regard this as an opportunity to rebalance property rights in line with the needs of the economy and, in particular, with regard to social and economic justice. The above issues do not appear to be on the agenda for the constitutional convention. Other issues such as the equal marriage rights for same-sex couples will encounter a certain amount of opposition, some of which will be strong and perhaps even unpleasant. However, if one wants to see the powerful opposition which is driven by vested interests, then one need only look at the issue of property rights and how their rebalancing would be addressed.
I call on the Government and the House to more ambitious in setting the agenda for the constitutional convention. I suggest an open and transparent debate and certain issues should not be smothered by silence.
Deputy Alex White: I welcome this motion tabled by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. The Taoiseach said in his contribution that the convention would be innovative, independent and influential. On the basis of what has been set out and on what he has said, it will be each of those things. Certainly, the proposed composition for the convention is innovative. It involves for the first time, uniquely, a direct citizen involvement in a democratic deliberative process on the Constitution, the most important foundation document of our country and our system. This process will be visible to the public and this is innovative.
The agenda for the convention is not as broad as some would have hoped for or advocated. However, the Taoiseach stated there is an openness on his part, and there should be on all our parts, to extending the list of topics to be considered by the convention. The Taoiseach made this very clear and he was also prepared to say that if this meant an extension of the timeframe, this would be considered and this is to be welcomed.
It would be a mistake to make little — as I thought some of the earlier speakers did to some extent, including Deputy Martin — of the topics that have been set down for discussion by this convention. These topics are not at all without importance or significance. I refer to the first two topics which some people have been dismissive of. The length of the term of office of President is an important issue. I heard many people for months on end at the time of the election and the previous election for the Presidency saying that the term of office was too long so I ask why should it not be considered and deliberated upon. The French changed the term of office of the French President from seven years to five years.
The lowering of the voting age to 17 years is the second topic. I suggest this should be considered and debated. It would provide the opportunity to include young people in the debate, people who would benefit from such a change. To suggest that a change in the Dáil electoral system is not of absolutely fundamental importance in our system is bizarre. I cannot think of anything more important. I believe in radical reform of the Dáil electoral system but to be dismissive of it and to say it is not at the heart of the kind of change needed is strange. Equally, I refer to the proposal to allow citizens living outside the State to vote in presidential elections. The most controversial clauses in the Constitution over the past 30 years, in my memory, have been the clauses dealing with women and women in the home and this is also on the list for consideration. The question of same-sex marriage is also on the list as is the question of blasphemy. Deputy Martin stated that he has attended Fianna Fáil meetings around the country and the issue of blasphemy does not float any boats. I remind Deputy Martin that his former colleague, Dermot Ahern, only two years ago, was prepared to introduce an absurd piece of legislation rather than address this issue which is a constitutional question. All of these issues are important and I welcome the motion.
Deputy Anne Ferris: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. The constitutional convention represents an important opportunity to discuss changes to a fundamental document. The Constitution guarantees various freedoms, including our freedom of expression, subject to certain restraints. However, it is not without its flaws and these have been highlighted by lawyers who are expert in constitutional law and by those directly affected by them, such as, for instance, same-sex couples.
I was heartened when the Labour Party mooted the idea of a constitutional convention to examine this 1937 construct. I am glad this idea has been realised today. I know that a series of issues are to be discussed, including the provision of same-sex marriage, the amendment of the clause relating to women in the home and the increasing of the participation of women in politics. However, the scope of the convention should be extended to incorporate broader issues of significance. I note the provision in this motion to allow for such extension and I will work to ensure that this happens. A further concern of mine is that the convention may become a talking shop and that action on the recommendations may be delayed.
Leadership will be required. The Tánaiste was proactive in his statement on the issue of same-sex marriage. He said that he did not believe it should ever be the role of the State to pass judgment on whom a person falls in love with or with whom he or she wants to spend their life. I agree with the Tánaiste and I agree with those other Ministers who made supportive statements. This kind of leadership will be needed if any of the recommendations are to be implemented; otherwise, the fear is that like the multitude of reports on Seanad reform, the recommendations will sit like an empty flowerpot on a shelf gathering dust.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: When the Labour Party first mooted this notion of a constitutional convention, what was envisaged was more expansive than the proposal before the House tonight. Sinn Féin has constructively engaged in the convention process over the past number of months. We have met with the Taoiseach and we submitted detailed proposals of our own. It might interest Deputy Keaveney to know that collective bargaining rights were one of the proposals we put forward as an issue for discussion by the convention.
The remit of the convention as set out in the motion is too narrow. For it to be genuinely a reforming or even a transformative tool, it should have the broadest possible scope. Sinn Féin welcomes the inclusion of political representation from the Six Counties but we are disappointed that the Government has decided against ensuring a full representation of Irish society within the citizen block. Those under 18 years of age will be excluded, despite the fact that we will debate the possible lowering of the voting age, as will the diaspora and citizens from the Six Counties. Indeed, there is no guarantee that Ireland’s newest citizens or citizens with disabilities will be represented. We may well have a bizarre situation where same-sex marriage or marriage equality will be debated by a convention potentially made up entirely of heterosexuals. That is a design flaw in the proposed approach.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: When one proposes reforms and specifies those reforms, one should include those who have the highest stake and are most affected by the proposed change. That appears to be reasonable.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: We have said to the Government that the methodology employed for identifying the citizen block certainly deals with geography, age and gender, but we proposed a much more sophisticated tool that could capture a much broader range of people. We went through that in some detail with the Government.
It is worth noting that the programme for Government sets a specific context for reform. The Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party promised to establish a process to ensure that our Constitution meets the challenges of the 21st century. Instead of rising to that challenge, they have half-heartedly engaged in their own process for constitutional reform. The proposal before us lacks ambition and, sadly, like so many of the Government’s promises of reform, the Labour and Fine Gael parties have chosen instead to tinker around the edges. This has not gone unnoticed by citizens and feeds into a narrative that not only are all politicians the same, but also all governments are the same. I am disappointed that there is so little ambition or heart in the Government’s proposals.
This convention could and should be a significant platform for constitutional reform. There should be a myriad of issues to be debated, including long awaited and fundamental political reform. Instead the convention is in real danger of becoming, as one commentator put it over the weekend, “a purgatory into which a selection of constitutional issues will be parked before being further delayed or diverted when they return to the parliamentary process”. Bizarrely, Seanad reform has been excluded from the convention. This is astonishing. We are told the Government intends to hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad, yet it is now refusing a full, open and public debate through the vehicle of the convention. It appears to have rushed to judgment on the issue and is making a unilateral decision that the people are either offered abolition or the status quo, when neither of those options is what is needed.
The convention should be tasked with considering whether a one-chamber or two-chamber parliament would best serve the country. Such a debate would enable convention delegates to debate the Seanad’s potential, if any, if it were to be fundamentally reformed. Instead of facilitating this debate, the Government has rushed to what it sees as a populist position, instead of addressing a real reform agenda. We all know the Seanad is not working; it is an open secret. It has not worked for some time. Sinn Féin has advocated root and branch reform of the Seanad for over a decade. The Seanad in its current form is undemocratic. Its members are elected by an elite group with little or no regard to real representation of wider societal interests. That is a problem. A reformed Seanad could serve our democracy well and act as an important counter-balance to the political party-dominated Dáil. Ultimately, not only is this a matter for the people to decide, but the people should have an appropriate forum to debate that matter. The constitutional convention should be tasked with instigating and leading this debate.
There is a place for a democratic second chamber in Irish politics but only if its representatives are elected by all citizens, including those in the Six Counties and in the Irish diaspora. It is astonishing for a Government that so regularly looks to the Irish diaspora to assist it in energising and rebuilding the domestic economy to deny that diaspora even the most basic input into the political and democratic life of the State. Progress has been made on enhanced co-operation between the political institutions on the island, but people north of the Border feel there is still no real method by which they can play their part in national politics and democracy.
Senators should represent a wide range of diverse views and the role of community consultation should be increased as legislation is developed. These would be ambitious reforms but they are also achievable. Our democratic structures would be fundamentally enhanced by such ambition. The Seanad should be an elected forum for civic society, particularly for those sectors not adequately represented in the Dáil and, critically, for the more marginalised. The community and voluntary sector should have a direct input into the development of legislation not on the sufferance of Members elected to this Chamber, but as a matter of democratic process. One of the primary functions of a reformed Seanad should be scrutiny. It should scrutinise draft domestic legislation and furnish reports to the Dáil, including specific recommendations for amendment, withdrawal, further consultation, impact assessment and fast-track progress.
We have proposed significant changes to the current legislative process. Prior to consideration by the Dáil, all proposed legislation would first pass scrutiny by the Seanad. This would be known as the Seanad stage and this new stage would include a community consultation process. This is the type of real reform the convention could and should be debating. It is bizarre that the matter of the Seanad’s existence or its reform is excluded from the convention. A commitment has been given by the Taoiseach in respect of civic society’s engagement with the proposed convention. The Government must be sure to get that right. While citizens who will be drawn to participate and those who are elected to the Dáil and the Seanad will have views and expertise, there is a wealth of experience that must be tapped into to enrich the debate. Civic society could have been given a more pivotal role in this process, and it is a great pity that this is not the case.
As Deputy White mentioned, the Taoiseach has promised that this forum will be innovative, independent and influential. Certainly, under the motion that has been presented I do not believe it is automatic that any of that will be true. It will be a challenge for the Government to ensure, during the process and in dealing with the outcomes from the convention, that such innovation, independence and influence are writ large.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: Deputy McDonald was referring to the campaign of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and other groups to participate in the convention. I agree with some of the points made by the groups, which call themselves Hear Our Voices, but I do not agree that they should be members of the convention. To include civic society groups in the membership would distort the convention in terms of it being representative. Civic society groups are not necessarily representative. They do not have a democratic mandate and there is also the issue of what groups one should and should not include. I agree that their input and expertise should be used by the convention. I agree with the points they have made, particularly with the point that the time for debating before setting up this convention is too short, especially in the Dáil.
There is much in our Constitution that we should protect and preserve. It is not necessarily a regressive thing to be a conservative when it comes to conserving progressive things that have been achieved in the past. There is much that is good in our Constitution. People fought for the rights enshrined therein and we should not mess with them. We should be very careful about what rights we would take away in the name of so-called political reform.
I do not have a problem with the convention examining our electoral system but it should be noted that our system is the most democratic. I will fight until my dying day to protect PR-STV, which I hope will not be changed by the convention.
I fully agree that it is very wrong that the convention’s agenda does not include the issue of the Seanad. Our Constitution is based on a bicameral system involving the Dáil and Seanad, and also the President and Legislature. It is similar to the American constitution. At least a couple of constitutions are modelled on the Irish one, including the Indian one. One cannot consider the Dáil in isolation from the Seanad, nor can one consider the presidency in isolation from the Seanad. The problem is that this Government will never consider Seanad reform, only the all-or-nothing question of whether to abolish it. That is a mistake.
Deputy Ciara Conway: Mr. Éamon de Valera, the author of Bunreacht na hÉireann, famously said he had only to look into his heart to know what he was doing was right for the country. I, for one, am glad to be part of a Government that will look beyond this Chamber to the community and have confidence in citizens’ ability to make the right decisions on the issues put before them.
There are two warmly welcome criticisms in regard to the constitutional convention. These concern both the process and content. With regard to the process, if people are worried that 33 Members of the Oireachtas will be involved in the convention and that they will be somehow restricted as a result, they should listen to what is being said tonight. Politicians, by their nature, tend not to agree on very much. The Tánaiste will know this more than most because this trend is evident even within his party. To believe there will be groupthink because 33 Members of the Oireachtas will be involved is a fallacy. Politicians, as with others, are citizens of this great country, and we should remember that. I will be very confident that the 66 members of the convention, irrespective of where they come from, will be able to make the correct decisions. We will respect the decisions they make on the questions put to them.
I have heard many state the approach is not radical. What could be more radical than amending the clause that somehow restricts women to life at home? What could be more radical than addressing the circumstances of a young woman who fears an interview board will not give her a job because it suspects she will go on maternity leave? If we could introduce paternity leave and give back to the couple the choice as to who will look after the child, what could be more radical? What could be more radical than allowing 17 year olds to make decisions and have an influence? We would have a very different Chamber if more 17 year olds were allowed to vote. I have every confidence that they, too, would be sitting alongside us at the age of 20 or 21. These are radical steps that could change society for the better. I commend the motion to the House.
Deputy Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan: We could definitely do things better in this country. While we can criticise what the Government is trying to do in this area, we should realise nobody has ever tried to do anything before. I congratulate the Government on its efforts. I hope something emerges from the convention. I will die of scepticism if nothing does. It is very rare that anything emerges from a report in Ireland other than a bigger carbon footprint and many frustrated people.
Despite Ireland’s geographic size, population, weather conditions and plentiful supply of water, it has great potential. Over the past century, we have been generally well-educated, but somehow it all seems to get messed up. This may not be as attributable to the people we elect as much as I once believed; perhaps it is attributable to how we go about our business. I am not a politician hater and believe there are too many such people — they are dangerous. It is great that politicians will be involved in the convention if only because they, for their sins, have great insight into how sick the system is. That is not to say the people in the system are sick. The system is like a bad car which, despite one’s putting in good petrol and oil, will not move. This is a major problem. I said on my first day here that 19 out of 20 in my family and that of my wife had to leave this fertile country. It always has potential but it never fulfils it. If the convention can go some way towards fulfilling this potential, I will cheer for it.
In fewer than three minutes, Deputy Brendan Griffin got to the nub of the problem. For this, I give him credit. There would probably be too many Members if we were to do only the job we were meant to be doing, which is crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s of legislation. Deputy Griffin referred to freeing up Members to legislate and having a better system at county council level. In my county, there are too many county councillors. We could get rid of some of them where there are smaller populations but set in train a system in which those who want to make change and care about doing so will not get sick of the system owing to their not being able to make the changes they desire. One needs a system that listens to the elected people. Those who are elected comprise the boss because they have been elected by the people. I hope that, in the convention process, somebody will speak so strongly about the way local government works that there will actually be change. When I became a county councillor I was full of energy, but I am no longer full of energy having gone through the system. The system took no account of who was elected but took account of an unelected county manager. That system ought to be changed.
Consider the talk about getting rid of town councils. If it is a matter of cost, one should realise people are willing to do the job for nothing. There should be a local town council system instead of the current system in which locals who set up a committee to apply for a few quid from one of the agencies, which are soaking it up through handing out funding, get sick of doing so after nine or ten years. Instead of operating under the current system, such people could be running for election to local town councils and making real decisions about how money is spent locally. They would never make stupid decisions such as pulling up a footpath that was built the preceding year. The money would be spent properly. This philosophy needs to filter up from town council level to county council level, or even regional level. There is an argument for governance at regional level. The current system is a complete disaster. The people who are now in government tried for so long to get there — I probably cheered them when they started many years ago — that they will not listen to anyone else because getting in was so difficult and no one listened to them when they were in opposition. That they might believe this is scary. A Fine Gael Deputy expressed the opinion to me that, although reform of local government was all very well, it would not leave Deputies with much power. It is not about Deputies — it is about running the country the right way.
If people who have become sick and tired of a system in which they telephone local councils, there is no accountability and nothing that is necessary gets done because it is all a mess found their way onto the convention, it would be one hell of an achievement. However, the process will not work if people do not listen to its members simply because, having waited so long for their own say, they are afraid they will lose it again. I can understand the temptation. I might be the same. Who knows? I will probably never get to find out. We need to change how we run this country. We have great potential.
Regarding women’s rights, I grew up in a house in which letters to my mother were addressed “Mrs. Luke Flanagan”, although not by my father’s choice. I am delighted that those days are gone. The further away they go, the better. One of the best suggestions for solving the problem of not enough female participation came from the Opposition and will also make men more equal, that is, paternity leave. I want to participate in my children’s lives as much as my wife does. Under the law, however, I am not treated equally. Saying this is not fashionable or popular, as it suggests that one wants to remove some rights from women. Everyone’s rights are diminished when one removes men’s or women’s rights. If the constitutional convention can equalise the situation, wonderful. I do not know whether 60 people will be enough, but perhaps it will. What is representative and what number does one pick?
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Eamon Gilmore): It is a privilege for every Deputy elected to this Dáil Éireann to represent our fellow Irishmen and women. We do so knowing we are entrusted with getting our country through a difficult economic time and bringing about recovery. We are also entrusted with laying the foundations for the country’s future and forging a modern, fair, compassionate and democratic society, a country that reflects the best of ourselves and a legacy of which we can be proud.
Those of us who have been elected to the Thirty-first Dáil find ourselves seeing out the closing years of Ireland’s first century of independence. They have been difficult years of late, but this is also a moment in our history for renewal. It is an opportunity to ask ourselves not just what went wrong, but what we can do better, what we want our next century of independence to look like and what values will underpin our laws and the institutions that will shape our politics. When my party first proposed the holding of a constitutional convention in April 2010, it was in this spirit of renewal.
There is much in the 1937 Constitution that has served us well, but we must also acknowledge that there are many whom it has served less well, particularly the nation’s children. Our Constitution is a document of the 1930s for the 1930s. It was a time when one church was considered to hold a special position and women were considered to be second class citizens. In many ways, Irish society today would be unrecognisable to the original drafters of the 1937 Constitution. Ireland has been transformed by the liberalisation of our laws, almost universal acknowledgement of a person’s right to a private life, equal rights for women, the fact that 17% of our population was born outside the State and the more personal role of religion in people’s lives. The pace of change in social attitudes has consistently outpaced the laws governing them.
The constitutional convention is an opportunity to examine how we as a people want to respond to these societal changes in a measured, fair and compassionate way. It is also an historic opportunity to take an independent look at our electoral system and to ask how well it serves our democracy. These are no small tasks, but it is right that the Constitution, which belongs to the people, should be open to deliberative and thoughtful consideration by the people.
The process that we are proposing is radical. This mechanism for the consideration of the Constitution has never been done before. It invites that two thirds of the membership of the constitutional convention will be drawn at random from our citizens, people who are on the electoral register. It has never been the case before that our Parliament exercised such a vote of confidence and trust in citizens that we invited them to take part in a constitutional convention to consider the Constitution’s future form. We need to reflect on this fact. When we engage in oppositional politics in the House, Members are sometimes blinded to radical change, such as the change we are effecting this evening. We are establishing a constitutional convention in which individual citizens will form the majority.
Members have suggested that we should be more ambitious in terms of what the convention will consider. People who have been Deputies for a long time have had experience of the various all-party committees on the Constitution, the reports of which line bookshelves. They are worthy considerations of constitutional issues. We have decided to give the convention a mandate to examine specific issues in the Constitution and report on them within 12 months. The Government is required to respond to that report within four months. The convention is not confined to the issues listed in this motion. Rather, it will be enabled to recommend additional matters for consideration.
As Deputy White stated, these are no small matters. For example, reducing the voting age from 18 years to 17 years is a radical measure. I remember campaigning for the right to vote at 18 years and being denied that right when the then Government chose to hold the election before those who were entitled to vote as a result of a constitutional change were included on the electoral register. Same-sex marriage, which has been discussed repeatedly, is no small issue. The position of women in our society has long been debated and is no small matter. Many Deputies have been preoccupied with the question of how to increase women’s participation in politics constitutionally and how to make the Parliament genuinely representative of the population in gender terms. The participation in presidential elections of citizens who are resident outside the State is no small issue. All of these are very substantial issues. Deputy Alex White mentioned the removal of blasphemy from our Constitution. When such issues are addressed by the constitutional convention and if and when they are addressed by way of a referendum, we will all discover that in the minds of the people who will vote on these matters they are not small or minor issues.
The process of change must be done step-by-step. Sometimes when an issue like our Constitution is raised, we may look to consider it in its entirety, and sometimes, when we attempt to change everything, we change nothing. This is a proposal where the Government committed to having a constitutional convention and it is to be established as we indicated it would, with the two thirds participation of individual citizens. It is being given a mandate to go through these issues, examine them and make recommendations.
Civil society, interest groups and representative bodies will be included in the process. It is clear from the terms of the motion and the way the constitutional convention is being set up that civil society will have a role in this process. It will involve dialogue and discussion. The Constitution belongs to the citizens and the people and that is why the membership of the constitutional convention is composed of individual citizens and those who are elected by citizens. The convention will take submissions and hear ideas, and I have no doubt there will be very active engagement between the representative bodies in civil society and the convention.
We have committed in the terms for the constitutional convention to a timeframe in which it will do its work. With the issues set down for consideration by the convention, there should be a report within 12 months, and that is challenging when dealing with complex issues. It is also important that we set down a timeframe within which the Government will respond to the recommendations of the constitutional convention, with the period in question set at four months.
It has been suggested that this is less than radical but we are seeing a process of change being progressed on a scale that we have not seen before. There are issues on which we have decided to have separate constitutional referenda, including children’s rights. A referendum will be held on that in the autumn so that there is an opportunity to put into the Constitution particular rights for children. The Seanad issue must also be decided by the people. First, it must be decided by the people whether our country of approximately 4.5 million people should have one or two parliamentary Chambers. That is why there will be a separate referendum on the issue.
The constitutional convention is an opportunity for a wide and inclusive mode of addressing our democracy. It is a way not just of engaging the citizens who will participate but of having a wider national conversation about the kind of country we want to live in and the principles by which we want to live. It is an exciting innovation in Irish public life. I have no doubt it will challenge each of us individually as citizens and collectively as part of the political system. Ultimately, our democracy will always depend on the willingness of individuals to perform the duties of citizenship, and the Constitution will once more call on us to play our part. I commend the motion to the House.
|Barry, Tom.||Breen, Pat.|
|Broughan, Thomas P.||Browne, John.|
|Bruton, Richard.||Burton, Joan.|
|Butler, Ray.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Byrne, Catherine.||Byrne, Eric.|
|Cannon, Ciarán.||Carey, Joe.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Collins, Niall.|
|Conaghan, Michael.||Conlan, Seán.|
|Connaughton, Paul J.||Conway, Ciara.|
|Coonan, Noel.||Coveney, Simon.|
|Cowen, Barry.||Deenihan, Jimmy.|
|Deering, Pat.||Doherty, Regina.|
|Donnelly, Stephen S.||Donohoe, Paschal.|
|Dooley, Timmy.||Doyle, Andrew.|
|Durkan, Bernard J.||English, Damien.|
|Farrell, Alan.||Feighan, Frank.|
|Ferris, Anne.||Gilmore, Eamon.|
|Griffin, Brendan.||Harris, Simon.|
|Hayes, Brian.||Hayes, Tom.|
|Heydon, Martin.||Howlin, Brendan.|
|Humphreys, Heather.||Humphreys, Kevin.|
|Keating, Derek.||Keaveney, Colm.|
|Kehoe, Paul.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Kelly, Alan.||Kenny, Enda.|
|Kenny, Seán.||Kyne, Seán.|
|Lawlor, Anthony.||Lynch, Ciarán.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||Lyons, John.|
|McConalogue, Charlie.||McGinley, Dinny.|
|McGrath, Michael.||McGuinness, John.|
|McHugh, Joe.||McLoughlin, Tony.|
|McNamara, Michael.||Maloney, Eamon.|
|Mathews, Peter.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|Mitchell O’Connor, Mary.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Murphy, Eoghan.||Nash, Gerald.|
|Neville, Dan.||Ó Cuív, Éamon.|
|Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.||Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.|
|O’Dea, Willie.||O’Donnell, Kieran.|
|O’Donovan, Patrick.||O’Dowd, Fergus.|
|O’Mahony, John.||O’Sullivan, Jan.|
|O’Sullivan, Maureen.||Phelan, Ann.|
|Ring, Michael.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Shatter, Alan.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Smith, Brendan.||Spring, Arthur.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Troy, Robert.||Tuffy, Joanna.|
|Wall, Jack.||Walsh, Brian.|
|Adams, Gerry.||Boyd Barrett, Richard.|
|Collins, Joan.||Colreavy, Michael.|
|Crowe, Seán.||Doherty, Pearse.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Flanagan, Luke ‘Ming’.|
|Halligan, John.||Healy, Seamus.|
|Healy-Rae, Michael.||Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.|
|McDonald, Mary Lou.||McGrath, Mattie.|
|McLellan, Sandra.||Murphy, Catherine.|
|Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.||Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.|
|O’Brien, Jonathan.||Pringle, Thomas.|
|Stanley, Brian.||Tóibín, Peadar.|
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