Political reform: Brief case for a constitutional convention 2.0

There are some batty ideas doing the rounds at the moment, not least with regard to political reform in the Republic. The best I’ve heard so far was from James on Twitter the other night, which suggested emigrants could get the vote, if they lived in a number of extra territorial uber-constituencies (ahem, Northern Ireland wasn’t one of them). For reference you can find my own thoughts on that matter here.

Everyone’s now talking about reform, so much that the academic reform lobby have convened an report card to give a qualitative analysis of the ideas arising.

The debate certainly needs it. Enda was first to make a splash in this area, over a year ago. His ‘big idea’ is to save money (millions, not billions) by reducing the number of elected representatives by getting rid of the Seanad in its entirety, and reducing the number of TDs in the Dail.

His reasons for getting rid of the Seanad? Ireland’s political class cannot be trusted to carry forward the necessary recommendations to make it work. That’s as near perfect statement of no confidence in even his own party’s capacity to follow through on effective political reforms as you’ll hear from any party leader, anywhere.

Fianna Fail’s latest idea (who’ve come incredibly late to the reform feast) is that TDs can be co-opted into the government executive and out of the Dail with new members then being co-opted into the empty seats.

Fine idea. Except it doesn’t include a proposal to co-opt that other great engine of democracy in the US, the separation of powers between the house and the executive. And arguably, whilst the current reliance on generalists within the executives if they are exclusively drawn from the political class, it’s the poor quality of scrutiny in the legislature that most agree is Ireland’s most pressing difficulty.

Deaglan turns this last idea over and wonders:

“…will the Irish electorate wear it? Becoming a minister is a Big Job and the culture of this country militates against choosing those who have not taken the hard road of nomination through canvassing to election.”

That’s the thing. Ireland is not France. Much to the frustration of many radicals this small c conservative state does not routinely have the same thirst for big politics as larger states in the rest of the world tend to have.

Judging by the haphazard nature of the debate so far, the capacity for the political (and the media) class to get their heads around what it means will have to be curated into existence.

Ironically, with their hands tied on the economic measures promised the IMF and ECB and the EU by the last government, political reform may be one of the few big ideas the new government might just get to pull off well.

They mght do worse than setting up a Constitutional Convention 2.0. Whilst it needs to be timely, but the new deal needs to embed itself in an emergent public consensus (albeit amongst a public with more pressing existential matters to deal with), not just another convenient (or in the longer term, inconvenient) insider job.

  • Cynic2

    Why don’t we adopt the approach in Texas and some other US states where the Legislature only meets for a set number of days every couple of years. That limits their capacity to do harm

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, some good thoughts there, eg Ireland is not France where de Gaulle’s big idea was to stengthen the Executive with an elected executive President and a stronger government in the National Assembly after decades of weak government of musical chairs in the Third and Fourth Republics.

    Next, FFs’ notion of single seat constituencies with STV means the end of STV and the substitution for it of AV under another name.

    A constitutional referendum? On what? On some reforms but not on others?. If on lots of reforms, what precisely are people voting for? If on any reform, won’t they vote on the basis of satisfaction levels with the government of the day more than on the merit of the reforms themselves?

    Political reform in a rush spells disaster. A commission rather than a convention would be better to analyse and then recommend. It is always good to ask the right questions before you come up with the answers.

    As Collins suggests, political reform ideas may be partly a smokescreen to distract fromthe economic record and simply to show willing. A full programme of political reform will have to be nonpartisan and not in the end to be passed by a temporary and (maybe even an unstable) Dail majority on the basis of an single party manifesto or even a coalition agreement.

    A lack of consensus is the crucial weakness in the UK coalition’s commitment to an AV referendum and the linked Reduction of constituencies Bill.

  • Munsterview

    Brian : “Political reform in a rush spells disaster. A commission rather than a convention would be better to analyze and then recommend. It is always good to ask the right questions before you come up with the answers….”

    Could not agree more !

    This current reform mania started with Kennys ‘thought for the day’ to grab a sound bites and headline slots without any real thought behind it. His abolishing of the Senate idea was not even discussed first with his own Fine Gael party Senators !

    This proposal caught on with the public because it was posited from a ‘cut down the financial cost of politicians and lets have less of them’ basis rather than the function of the Senate and it’s contribution to the political process per se. Once Kenny had his sound bite and hit the public mood mother lode, the other two major parties had to join in with their own ‘reform’ ideas and just like the banking crisis, the wagon is rolling and no body is shouting stop.

    The Senate could and did provide a useful function and voice. It was the Fianna Fail in the main that began a flagrant abuse of the system by stuffing it with failed political cronies until they could try again at the next election. We got scribe hack for hire Harris instead of the noble voice of someone such as Yeats, and Cassidy instead of Moylan.

    A good start with Senate reform would be to force Senators to make a choice : to run for the Dail or Senate, if they ran for the Dail were not eligible for appointment to the Senate. That would restore respect and weight to what under Fianna Fail had by in large become a well paid rest home for political rejects.

    There is also a small but influential intellectual set of the Connor Cruse O’Brien school who view everything in Irish and Gaelic culture with suspicion. Some of these ‘generals in search of an army’ have latched on to ‘reform’ as a way of harnessing and enlarging what up to now have been a very numerically limited viewpoint.

    Reform by all means, it is a necessity but again Northern ireland looms : while there is a temporary solution to the temporary problem up there, then like Emmets epitaph, the time is not right for writing a full new constitution.