I will also vote Yes to lower the age of eligibility for the office of president. At 21, adult citizens are eligible to stand in a general election and from there to sit in government. I cannot see any reason why these adult citizens should be excluded from the onerous nomination and election process, for a further fourteen years. While we might not be able to imagine who such a candidate might be, who could represent the nation at such a young age, why should we be happy to make the statement that no person under 35 could have that capacity? Why exclude the possibility and limit the choice of the people absolutely in this respect?
There have been the rare examples across history of those who led movements of change at a young age, who inspired their community and their country, including from the time of the foundation of our own state. Rare as they may be, let’s not deny such a candidate the chance to put their name before the people.
Many have complained that it’s too small a reform. There are amendments I’d rather be voting on. But it made sense to hold one with the marriage referendum that wouldn’t distract from that important debate. And if even small, unobjectionable measures of political reform don’t get public support, what makes anyone think a government will be eager to make the case for a more substantial measure of political constitutional reform?
Just over two years ago, I supported the Liberal Democrats going into the 2010 Westminster election and I looked forward to the coalition agreement. I’d broadly have been supportive of the government in our neighbouring country, a test of policy in a country with similar culture yet in many aspects of politics quite different to our own. I’d even have supported most of the ideas in George Osborne’s recent controversial budget, be it the pasty, granny or caravan taxes, as I’d have a strong instinct against tax exemptions or expenditures, so was disappointed with the u-turns.
I’d have supported the AV referendum, and would generally support the need for political reform and renewal of institutions. It’s interesting to watch the debate on the House of Lords given the current debate in Ireland on the future of our Seanad. What was particularly interesting watching the debate last Monday was the small number of MPs from both Labour and Conservative sides who argued for complete abolition of the House of Lords, something I would sympathise with, but would be a major departure in the case of Britain given its traditions of parliament.
The problem of designing an upper house both in Britain and for those in Ireland who think the Seanad should be reformed is balancing democratic legitimacy of legislators with avoiding gridlock between two houses claiming democratic legitimacy.
The proposal in the House of Lords bill was for 80% of Lords to be elected for 15-year non-renewable terms using proportional representation by the list system in regional constituencies, as Britain currently elects its MEPs. The problem with this proposal is that it grants democratic legitimacy of an election, without accountability, as this set of legislators would not face the legislature after their decisions. While the current Lords have never faced the electorate, this very fact means that at least since 1945, they have deferred to the primacy of the House of Commons. The more I listened to speeches from Labour and Conservative MPs against the proposal, the more I felt it was a bad bill that deserved to be defeated.
It’s a very unfortunate measure for the Liberal Democrats to find themselves tripping up over. As a party, they have a reputation for being particularly wonkish, more interested in issues like political reform than the other parties. It seems to me indicative of why they are losing support in the polls and finding it difficult to gain ground. While reform of the House of Lords will gain them credit with their members, and is an important constitutional issue, they should not have allowed this to the one to cause such a backbench rebellion rather than any other proposal. They have lost political capital against their Conservative colleagues, particularly at the backbench level. They put too much faith in the government whips to deliver on this bill. I found myself agreeing very much with Conservative MP Louise Mensch on Twitter last week, finding common terms for reform but identifying the flaws in this proposal, and that beyond this issue, a real priority for the Liberal Democrats should be to work for equal marriage.
The Liberal Democrats can come back from this, but last week showed that while the coalition was working relatively smoothly at the cabinet level, there are clear tensions and resentments below.
See Constitution.ie for the Constitution of Ireland and articles referenced. Tho for some reason, the downloadable version is missing Amendments passed since 2004.
I unfortunately have to agree with most of what Conor O’Mahony wrote in The Irish Times (‘This so-called constitutional convention is a charade’) and with Matthew Wall in agreement with him on PoliticalReform.ie (‘Confessions of a demoralised political scientist’). The proposed constitutional convention is a far cry from the Philadelphia convention in 1787 O’Mahony references. At this convention, delegates from the thirteen states rewrote the Articles of Confederation into an entirely new constitution, which though subject to 27 Amendments since its adoption in 1787, in the elements of the divisions and roles of the branches of government, has remained the broadly the same since then.
The Programme for Government agreed in March 2011 specified a number of issues for the convention:
- Review of our Dáil electoral system.
- Reducing the presidential term to 5 years and aligning it with the local and European elections
- Provision for same-sex marriage.
- Amending the clause on women in the home and encourage greater participation of women in public life.
- Removing blasphemy from the Constitution
- Possible reduction of the voting age.
- Other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by the Convention.
Of course, the last item leaves the convention wide open, but there has been little to suggest that this will be a wide-ranging overview of the Constitution. This seems clear from the two items first on the agenda: whether to reduce the voting age from 18 to 17; and whether to reduce the presidential term from 7 years to 5 years. Satire could hardly devise two less pressing amendments.
I would vote against a reduction in the presidential term, unless it was in the context of a redefinition of the role. Reading Tom Reddy’s The Race for the Áras, I was reminded of the whole drawn-out distraction of last year. There are reasonable proposals for amendment on the president, making it one term only, or changing the nomination process, but having more frequent elections is not one.
I have an open mind on the voting age, though I think it would make sense to lower the voting age for local elections first, which does not require a referendum.
I would obviously welcome a referendum on same-sex marriage, and if it’s to have an airing in the constitutional convention first, so be it. But ultimately, it will be a fairly simple amendment, adding a subsection, “No two people may be excluded from marriage by reason of their sex”, to Article 41.3.
Section Article 41.2, “… her life within the home …”, should be deleted. Let’s not try to devise a statement on family life and the roles of parents that could in turn seem out-dated in a few decades’ time. This is really not the sort of thing for a constitution in any case. And delete the word “blasphemous” in Article 40.6.1° i.
So what should it discuss?
So of all the enumerated issues, that leaves the electoral system. This is the only one of these proposals that to my mind merits discussion by a convention, rather than a simple yes/no proposal that could be people to be debated like any other referendum.
Our system of election to the Dáil of proportional representation by single transferable vote is often blamed for clientelism and localism in Irish politics, leading to a subordination of national concerns to local issues. Would the Convention will reach a conclusion other than that of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution two years ago, to keep the current system? Perhaps, as the membership of that committee inevitably had a status quo bias, having been elected under the current system.
What I don’t understand is why the abolition of the Seanad is not on the agenda. This is the sort of issue that would actually benefit from being discussed in a convention. There are references to the Seanad throughout the Constitution. Of the 141 Fine Gael and Labour Oireachtas members, I’m sure there is a considerable number, even if a minority, who would have doubts about the merits of this proposal. I would be in two minds on whether we need a second chamber. Finland, with a comparable population to Ireland’s, has a unicameral chamber; Sweden and Portugal with twice our population also survive with just one chamber. Yet surely there is a benefit to legislation being heard in more than one chamber. There are problems with the current Seanad and I have problem with the democratic legitimacy of the current membership.
I would certainly be against any abolition of the Seanad without a corresponding reform of the role of the Dáil and its committees. The idea behind last year’s failed amendment to allow the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries was not without merit at some level. But it made no sense to rush it within it in the first few months of the government when this constitutional convention was due to happen. The Convention should also consider ways in which the balance of power between the executive and the legislature might be rebalanced.
I understand that Enda Kenny has a personal attachment and commitment to putting the abolition of the Seanad to the people, but we would surely benefit from considering this proposal in the context of the other institutions of government.
The Constitutional Constitution is a good idea, but let’s have one that matters, where none of the fundamental institutional issues which are being discussed in amendments to the constitution are left out of its consideration.
A blog from a friend of mine today excoriates Enda Kenny’s announcement that he would hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. This criticism was on the basis that any discussion of such a fundamental reform of the political process should not be justified on purely budgetary grounds, as Mr Kenny has done, characterizing this as “a populist headline-grabbing stunt”.
As a matter of disclosure, I should mention that I am a member of Fine Gael, and therefore hope that Enda Kenny will be in a position to push for such a referendum after the next election. So my defence may be seen in simple partisan terms, but I do think people are often too quick to denounce an attempt to fly a kite such as this as populist. Yes, any measure that helps cut the deficit that targets only politicians will receive popular support in these times given the regard politicians are held in. But the point is that we do have a massive fiscal deficit. Everything will have to looked at. In every area of the public service, or that receives state funding, organizations will claim that theirs is the one that should not be cut, and that at the end of the day, €30 million is only 0.1% of the deficit anyway.
A proposal to abolish the Seanad is not a new idea. It was first seriously proposed by the Progressive Democrats in the new Constitution drafted in 1988. I was proud to have been a member of the Progressive Democrats in their time, but this was one of many policies that due to their relative strength in government, was never seriously promoted, and unfortunately it faded into the 1990s as a proposal.
Now that the party that will almost certainly lead the country after the next election is raising this question, this should be welcomed, as they do have the credibility to tackle the question. As to the method of securing headlines, yes, this is more likely to animate the public, but should not in itself be a criticism. The public should see that politicians are willing to take cuts themselves at this time, just as it is to be welcomed that Ministers will be taking a pay cut in December’s budget. Mr Kenny’s suggestion has indeed been welcomed by An Taoiseach, Brian Cowen as part of the process of suggestions on democratic reform.
Once the time comes, if a referendum is taking place, then a debate can take place in earnest, or in the months leading up to drafting such legislation. Mr Kenny is not calling on the government to hold such a referendum, we are all a little tired for that. It is not something that will or can be done in haste, but such firm statements as this concentrate the minds of both politicians and the public on this question, which is no bad thing.