SO, MY FIRST real blog post in well over a year. I won’t make the usual ill-fated apology about trying to do more in future – variety is the spice of life, etc etc – but instead want to put across an observation about the current lie of the Irish political land.
The presidential election has been and gone, and frankly there is little left to say other than to wish Michael D the very best for his impending tenure. He’s been given a pretty hefty mandate – the largest that any person has ever won in Irish electoral history; only on six occasions (all of them referenda) have the people voted in larger numbers for a common end – and my personal hope is that he does his best to use it. It has always struck me as a political curiosity that the President (mandate 1,007,104 votes, from voters in 43 constituencies) could be politically neutered by a Taoiseach (mandate 17,472 votes, from only one constituency); it would be a personal hope that the cabinet might keep the new President’s electoral standing in mind if he should give them a subtle nudge towards a particular social goal.
Anyway, specifically I wanted to make a note on the aftermath of the two constitutional referenda from last week, and the potential impact that the fallout might have on the government’s plans to make inroads on the one place that almost everyone wants it to succeed: political reform.
MY LIVING MEMORY doesn’t extend to very many of them, but I’d wager not since 1919 has a Dáil election centred so much on the need for political reform as the 2011 general election did. The two ultimately successful parties wanted reform so wholesale as to scrap a house of parliament; almost everyone was I agreement that we have too many TDs, and that the legislature’s oversight of the executive needed beefing up. And so, the Programme for Government made several commitments: to hold a constitutional convention, to cut the number of TDs, to ‘make government more accountable’ and so on. A figure of which little was made at the time, but of which more has been made in the last few days, was that the government would hold up to a dozen referenda on amendments to the Constitution over the course of its term – a gesture of bringing about some long-term reforms to the document from which all Irish political power is derived.
The 29th and 30th Amendments to the Constitution were the first attempts to set about on that – the former proposal being intended, through government eyes at least, to bring the judiciary in line with the rest of the public sector; the latter an attempt to allow Oireachtas committees gain the right to cause a public spectacle by bringing pantomime villains to account in the face of live TV and popularly elected scrutiny.
In hindsight it was, perhaps, a little short-sighted to try and hold both ballots on the same day as the Presidential election – the sheer volume of candidates meant it was simply easier for the media to build a narrative around personalities and not abstract concepts – and ministers seemed to admit to this error afterward. Complaining that the public discourse on each measure had been too limited (fatally so in the case of the latter), the government argued that the late emergence of a concentrated ‘No’ campaign on Oireachtas Inquiries served only to confuse voters, leaving a Yes side with too little time to form cohesive responses.
It is certainly fair to acknowledge that the theatre of the presidential election left little time for the imagination to be caught by the referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries. Take away the obvious first example – of an inquiry, led by TDs and Senators, into the banking scandal – and it became even more difficult to try and captivate the public. The government might imply that a longer campaign could have given it time to counter the negative press – or that delaying the referendum and holding it early in 2012, alongside the ballot on Children’s Rights, may have been more wise – but the outcome is the outcome: the public voted, in its wisdom, to reject the proposal. The 30th Amendment to the Constitution will never be made.
LAST SATURDAY AFTERNOON I was in Dublin Castle to cover the counts for TheJournal.ie  as Brendan Howlin, the minister in charge of the 30th Amendment, arrived to join the celebrations for Michael D Higgins’ impending victory. I, and some other bystanding hacks, wandered over to listen to him speaking with Higgins’ manager, Joe Costello. Eventually, we interrupted their chat to ask about Howlin’s comment – specifically that “three out of four ain’t bad” – and asked if he had thrown in the towel on the referendum, before an official result had been declared but after nationwide tallies indicated it would fail. Specifically, I asked, would the government be taking another stab at passing a similar referendum?
“It’s going to be very difficult to have the sort of parliament that this Government is committed to having – and that is an Oireachtas that holds the Executive to account robustly, that seeks after truth, that ensures it’s done efficiently and effectively – without powers that are close to or analogous to the ones we proposed,” he replied .
Assuming that the government doesn’t ‘do a Lisbon’ and ask the public to vote again on precisely the same issue, the next chance that the government will probably have to push through some kind of reform is as part of the Constitutional Convention. And this, I believe, is where it may have a problem. Even if the Constitutional Convention – which the government has already hinted will be formulated so as to put it beyond the immediate control of the cabinet – is to recommend a similar empowerment of Oireachtas committees, it may risk throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.
The logic that the referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries was beaten simply because of public reluctance – whether educated or not – is sound. But what, then, comes of the Constitutional Convention which will be proposing political reforms on a scale never before seen in modern Irish history?
I HAVE SOME small experience in constitutional reforms. Back in my UCD Students’ Union days we tried a similar project, appointing a select group of class reps to a group which was then asked to examine each point of the Union’s constitution, on a clause-by-clause basis, and to write a more ‘modern’ replacement. The same project had been tried on pretty much an annual basis for the preceding years, each time failing to get the job done through a combination of disagreements, time constraints and simple inertia. Eventually, in our year, a small core of full-time officers (and a barrister) had to sit in a small room and do the job ourselves – giving the document the once-over it had badly needed for a few years. (Our full document – presented to the membership of the Union as a whole, rather than a collection of amendments – was passed with 85% approval.)
Admittedly, his experience is pretty parochial, and would bear almost no resemblance to the work of a Constitutional Convention which would have far higher stakes at play. The reason I mention it is because our success was bittersweet: in order to ensure that the new constitution was adopted, we needed to play it safe. We omitted proposals like the abolition of the unpopular and toothless Women’s Officer position, simply because including them would be tantamount to painting a giant bullseye on the ballot paper. A certain core of voters would oppose the document because of the abolition; another chunk would oppose another, others would find another matter to vote No on… addressing more controversial had the genuine potential to derail the vital reform needed elsewhere in the document.
THERE MIGHT BE a lesson to learn from this: if the Constitutional Convention does its job properly, it’s going to come up with a similarly revitalised document – potentially scrapping the Seanad, reforming the courts, cutting the numbers of TDs, enshrining the rights of children, addressing the constitutional role of the family, adjusting the Preamble to remove its reference to God, tackling the thorny question of abortion… there will be any number of reforms. Putting these to the public in a single document – and in a single vote – is a recipe for disaster. The current constitution was put in a similar fashion in 1936 and only just managed to get ratified (56.5%). Asking Ireland of 2011 to consider a multitude of major reforms at once will obliterate all of them, irrespective of the public’s real thoughts on individual ideas.
The alternative to putting the changes as a single document is to put each of the changes as an exclusive proposal – a tactic which could lead to ten (or more!) referenda being held all at once. Not only would that end in logistical and political chaos, but it would go directly at odds with the lesson that governments were taught with Nice I, Lisbon I and on the 30th Amendment: the public is reluctant by nature, and needs to be significantly pacified before it votes Yes to anything. Having complained last week that the sideshow of a Presidential election gave it no chance to fight a good fight on the Oireachtas Inquiries referendum, it would be suicidal of the government to walk itself into another PR battle it has already found impossible to win.
This is also not to mention the damage that such a saturated debate could have: if it is true that the Irish public suffered by a deficit of debate and critique on the two referenda just past, throwing together a dozen major reforms (assuming each gets past the Oireachtas in the first place) and putting their entire fate in one question is going to lead to an even lesser debate, and one that could do irreparable harm to the trust held by the public in its representatives. That trust is a magic ingredient: a secret glue that keeps society together. One is reluctant to consider the implications of an anarchic solvent being introduced to this cocktail.
The only compromise might be to get the Convention to identify a dozen discreet proposals for reform, but then put the ballots in stages – perhaps three or four at a time. This could feasibly ensure that the public gets a chance to debate each proposal on its merits, and to ensure that each is accorded the substantive debate it deserves – but to follow such a staggered path has two implications. Firstly, given the timing cycle that goes into a referendum, it could take well over two years for all the changes to be sequentially put to the people. That’s two years of having our politicians sidetracked from the business of running the country, binding them to participate in weighty debates about the direction of the state. Given the pressures – not least the financial ones – currently on the table, this isn’t quite how we want our leaders to be deployed.
The second problem is the fact that after a marathon of referendums and other elections, there’s simply going to be a level of voter fatigue. Asking the public to vote on 12 referenda in two years leads not only to disinterested voters, but to a disinterested media. If the whole point of constitutional reform is to cast a critical eye upon ourselves and decide where we want to change, then whichever ballots come last in the pecking order will suffer from public and media apathy, compounded by the fact that the votes will be coming several years after they are proposed.
And that’s not all. Let’s say, for example, that of the twelve referenda arising from the convention, the first two are rejected – a real possibility given our recent form as voters. What government then wants to stand over the work of an autonomous body? And devote two years of willpower and political capital to finishing the project – particularly when it might be out of office before the job is done? And what chance is there of encouraging the public to take each subsequent vote on its merits when it may already have deemed the convention’s work to be toxic?
MICHAEL D HIGGINS will be inaugurated next Friday, November 11, 2011. On that date in 1947, Winston Churchill stood on the opposition side of the dispatch box in the House of Commons and noted; “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
It’s funny how often history has a habit of repeating itself.
Addendum: Just throwing in a quick plug for my other blog, Agenda.ie  – a daily guide to the events of Leinster House, including video streams of everything as it happens. It’s also on Facebook  – where you can also watch the Oireachtas streams – and on Twitter .