Monday, February 27, 2012

Martina Devlin: We can restore public faith by revisiting the Constitution

It's unlike a conference to put a spring in my step. 

But the proposed convention to modify that rather noble and occasionally irritating document in a blue cover, stamped with a harp -- Bunreacht na hEireann -- is doing just that.

The official charter to the Irish Republic, drawn up 75 years ago under Dev, contains a number of progressive articles standing the test of time. 

Equally, some strike an anachronistic note. And then there are the gaps, where subjects of deep concern to today's citizens are not even referenced.

So the Constitution, which forms the basis of our self-government as a people, definitely needs an overhaul. 

Not some tinkering, but the level of in-depth, bonnet-to-boot servicing a vintage Rolls-Royce dating back to 1937 could expect.

The decision to use significant citizen input into this exercise is a welcome approach, and the Government deserves credit for reserving two-thirds of the 99 available seats for citizens.

It's these 66 citizens who interest me, rather than the political figures assigned to the remaining 33 places. 

The success of the constitutional convention, and the level of popular support it attracts, hinges on who is chosen to join the Class of 66. Handpicked individuals who can be relied on to play follow-the-leader or slip into someone else's version of the green jersey won't fit the bill. 

We need transparency in the selection process.

Will they be chosen at random from the electoral register? Or will they be appointed by the Government specifically to speak on behalf of lobby groups?

I'd argue for random. 

These citizens have an important, even historic, function. 

In their ordinariness, their non-party political status, their non-special interest alignment, they have the capacity to represent the bulk of the Irish population. 

Even from such a low numerical base.

They should be chosen by lottery, as happened in Ancient Athens for the Council of 500. 

But I'd like them to correspond to something approaching a demographic mix, unlike the Greek city-state, which restricted itself to adult male citizens after military service was completed. 

Use that model and the convention will fall flat on its face at the representative hurdle.

I stress the random element because we need to avoid any suggestion of elitism. 

If we want citizens to connect with this ambitious move to reform the Constitution, any appearance of exclusiveness or jobs for the boys will prove counter-productive.

Since ancient times, selection by lottery has been considered the fairest method because elections favour the well-known, the wealthy and gifted speakers. 

Obviously convention participants need to be thoughtful, however, and willing to reflect on ways to progress our democracy. 

Perhaps those prepared to make such an investment in time and effort could be invited to put forward their names, with a view to inclusion in a random selection process.

Naturally, the voices of those keen to see deficits in the Constitution addressed ought to be heard. 

To this end, provision should be made for special interest groups to make presentations to the convention, giving them the opportunity to argue their case.

This convention was promised in last year's Programme for Government and is now taking shape following cabinet approval, although details won't be finalised until after the opposition's input. 

To which I say: let a broader range of citizens beyond the designated 66 have a say, too. 

Now, at this formative stage. Give people the right to submit petitions for subjects to go on the agenda -- an agreed number of signatures would establish a petition's validity.

We already know some of the subjects to be discussed include same-sex marriage and reducing the voting age to 17. 

To these, I'd urge adding formal recognition for fathers' rights. Voting rights in presidential elections for Irish citizens abroad and in the North would also be worth consideration.

Among its remits, electoral reform is a must -- genuine reform, not dabbling. 

Useful ways of transforming the political landscape include fewer politicians, a money-saver which would also remove the parish pump from Irish politics, and a more transparent expenses regime.

For the 100th person on the panel, the chair, we need someone we trust. 

One possibility is the former president, Mary McAleese, who must be on familiar terms with the Constitution after 14 years in the Aras. But no doubt there are other excellent candidates.

The 1937 Constitution is a useful framework for democracy, but everything can be improved upon. 

On the plus side, it establishes a parliamentary system of government and enshrines freedom of speech, religion and peaceful assembly. 

Incidentally, the terms 'Taoiseach' and 'Tanaiste' make their first official appearance in it.

However, contributions came from Archbishop John Charles McQuaid during its drafting, and before it reached Dail Eireann it was presented to the Vatican for review. 

Under the circumstances, it is no surprise a number of explicit religious references are contained, even after the 1973 removal of the Catholic Church's "special position". 

Now, we have the opportunity to decide whether we'd like to revise specifically religious references, including in the declaration made by the President and in the Constitution's preamble which contains the phrase: "In the name of the Most Holy Trinity . . ."

Elsewhere, citizens have issues with an article interpreted as relegating women to the home. 

Equally it could be argued that the Constitution allows women to be homemakers and affords respect to the role. 

As with religious terminology, some have strong views for and against and a debate would be helpful.

A side-function of the convention could be to show public office-holders that their role involves what Aristotle called "ruling and being ruled in turn". 

Often, we see much of the former and too little of the latter, except at general election time.

If transparency is followed and recommendations are acted on promptly, then this initiative might help restore public faith in our Republic and its institutions, dented in numerous ways since the economic crisis.

Indeed, it might act as a reminder that the Constitution belongs to the people and is designed to serve our best interests. 

We might even take up browsing through it again.