As the Constitutional Convention continues to rumble closer and closer, there are many who are beginning to ponder the point of the exercise.
Heralded by those on the government benches as a “landmark” event in Irish constitutional history, the Convention will, in theory allow the Irish people to discuss and resolve several issues to bring the Constituion into the 21st century: a Constitution 2.0 if you will.
Of the mooted issues, there are all shapes and sizes. Voting age, the term of office for the President, women in politics…stifle your yawns if you will. Admittedly, there’s a pretty juicy debate in the idea of same-sex marriage, but in reality it seems that this Convention is steering clear of any real controversy. Which is probably the whole idea in the first place.
By shunting off these debates into the hands of 33 Oireachtas representatives and 66 “citizens” (Joe Soaps), it seems the Government is intent on a strategy of quarantine, or of delay at any rate. With the Convention not expected to report back until well into 2013, and the subsequent four months allowed for the government to “respond”, it could be a long time before any resolutions or (God forbid) decisions see the light of day.
On Tuesday however, news emerged of a government plan to radically change the court system in Ireland, with a constitutional amendment to be facilitated by referendum sooner rather than later. This shake-up included an over-haul of the Family Courts, and also the introduction of a civil appeal court, where appeals would be heard from civil case in the High Court.
Perhaps an even more significant development is a parallel plan to amend the constitution on the issue of bill constitutionality. At the moment, if a new bill is referred to the Supreme Court by the President and is deemed to be acceptable, then that bill cannot be challenged again. The government’s proposed amendment would change that.
These two new proposals leave some people, including myself, scratching our heads. It’s a simple non-sequitur in logic to insist that some issues are of such sacred importance that they warrant a circus like the Constitutional Convention, but ditch that piety when it comes to amendments on other issues.
With these two amendments on the courts coming from government at such a determined speed, it’s easy to see how same-sex marriage and women-in-politics now look like the fat girls at the disco.
Another hot potato managing to skirt away from the reach of the Convention is the idea of Seanad reform. “Reform” here being the polite word for ditching it, or at least we hope so. Instead, reports emerged last month that a referendum would most likely be held next year. Again, one can’t help but feeling that this is an argument for the big boy’s table, with no ordinary “citizen” getting anywhere near to a decent say in the matter.
And if they did, what then? What power does this meeting-of-the-minds actually possess? The answer is disappointingly, yet somewhat predictably, absolutely none. Once a resolution is decided upon by the Convention, the government will simply acknowledge receipt of it, and then respond within four months. The attitude is that of a father letting his four-year-old drive the car: “There, I let you change the gears for me, but there’s no way you’re going near the steering wheel.”
Having said all that, it has to be admitted that the idea was a good one, and still is. In practice, however, it’ll take a lot of convincing to show the real consequence of this Convention. There’s potential for a lot of good work here, but this initiative must be allowed to breathe by government, and new proposals accepted. Then there’s a chance for real change.