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. The mark of success is easily defined – to identify and implement reforms which directly address the failing 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 which emerged during negotiations between Fine Gael and Labour to form this government. It carries the title from Labour’s 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 this 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 this Convention is to be able to claim to be considering fundamental reform rather than actually to do anything about it.
It is now the well-defined character of this government that it hypes everything and makes claims about reform which don’t 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 actually gone backwards, with committees directly overseeing departments more in 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 to directly take up the functioning of both the Oireachtas and the Government.
The citizen’s 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 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 your commitment to reform? You are in effect saying that you will be radical so long as you retain all of the powers and control you currently have.
Bunreacht na h-Éireann
The first thing we should do when establishing a body to review aspects of the Constitution is to acknowledge the strengths of Bunreacht na h-Éireann. 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 failing are not the failings of its drafters but of the generations who have come since and have failed to update it.
The Government’s Priorities
The proposal before the House today sets out a series of areas to be prioritised y 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 in relation to gender and public life.
The Presidency is the one institution of our state which 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.
In relation to reducing the voting age, this appears to be another example of taking up an idea while ignoring more important and urgent concerns. Surely they 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? 18 is by far the dominant voting age in democracies. Austria has recently reduced it. By 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 constitutional provision relating to blasphemy is not something which would be on anyone’s list of the most urgent reform issues. The current provision has not had the effect of being a major inhibitor of 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, I support marriage equality .As a republican and as a believer in equality, I firmly belief that same sex couples should be able to marry.
Many people sincerely disagree with this. They are entitled to their view and should be allowed to be heard.
Whatever your 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 this government.
The government has a long list of referendums such as abolishing the Seanad which it says must happen no matter what. Refusing to give the same commitment on this issue is completely unacceptable.
Over the last year and half Taoiseach you have repeatedly praised yourself for being a tough man and a man of principle. The sad reality is that you would rather scramble over flower pots and hide from journalists than answer a simple question on where you stand on what is a basic social question. The idea that you can’t have an opinion if a matter is being discussed by the Constitutional Convention is nonsense.
As things are, there is a growing belief that you will wait until a moment where the government is embroiled in a crisis and you will then try and distract everybody by finally agreeing to hold a referendum on marriage equality.
Cut out the delay, remove the issue from the convention and agree now to have the referendum on marriage equality which the people want.
An Agenda for Real Reform
If the Convention sticks to the government’s agenda it will consider how people get elected but not what they do when they have been elected. It will consider a series of social issues but not touch upon government’s powers.
We will be seeking a more fundamental review in particular focusing on how governments are formed and the relationship between the government and the Oireachtas.
If we are to build a system which can be strategic rather than short-termist then government simply has to give up its complete dominance of the parliamentary agenda and government has to be opened up beyond a narrow range of people.
It is the government’s proposal that it will decide whether or not the Oireachtas gets to vote on what emerges from the Convention.
Clearly it is the government’s intention to treat the recommendations as being little more than an advisory report. If the Convention is to have any hope of working appropriately then its members must operate in the knowledge that their recommendations will be voted.
It will be completely unacceptable if the government chooses what is voted on and the form in which it is voted on.
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 a wider agenda will be supported not just tolerated and that every recommendation will be voted on here in exactly the form the Convention proposes.