Time for a Constitutional review that takes the Irish public into its confidence

Compare a print copy of the US Constitution and that of Ireland’s Republic and the first thing that strikes you is the difference in length. It is almost possible to have the US by rote, and many more passionate citizens do.

The Irish Constitution may critical to the good function of the state, but it is largely unknown (never mind unloved) by the vast majority of citizens of the State.

So it’s hard to disagree with Donncha O’Connell’s assertion that the constitutional review must seek first and foremost engage the people:

…the proposed constitutional convention, involving the active participation of citizens, should be seized as an opportunity to deal with the real problem of popular disengagement from constitutional affairs. It will, predictably, be dismissed as a talking shop by people who have ready-made solutions for all constitutional problems but who lack the patience required to influence public opinion by means of a transparent deliberative process.

There is, however, a more essential argument for a constitutional convention. You cannot change a word of the Constitution without the consent of more than half the people voting in any referendum. Thus, a small number of people can effectively veto a constitutional amendment, for example the Nice 1 referendum of 2001.

It is vital, therefore, to engage the public not just when you need them to rubber-stamp a proposed constitutional amendment but also with the processes of constitutional reform and, indeed, with the Constitution itself. Knowledge is power but ignorance is not necessarily bliss for a government that cannot convince the “don’t knows” to vote Yes.

It is somewhat paradoxical that we vote so frequently in referendums (by comparison to some other countries) on a document that is hardly understood by the people voting. Popular ignorance about the Constitution is no accident. Like so many facets of the inchoate Republic that dare not speak its name, even in the Constitution itself, we carried on after 1937 as if the new Constitution was, like its British counterpart, unwritten. Consequently, it remained largely unread.

There is now an opportunity to correct this if the proposed constitutional convention is designed and operated as a genuine and open exercise in deliberative democracy. It should not proceed on the basis of any non-negotiables, such as abolition of Seanad Éireann. The framework for debate on vital issues of political reform – about which there was considerable talk prior to the last election – must be open to the possibilities of radical democratic renewal.

The redrafting of any parts of the constitution must avoid the sheer technocratic idiocy of say the Lisbon Treaty. The aim should be to make more accessible, by which it needs to become great deal more laconic and open textured.

In this interactive age, people want agency with their political life (which is one reason they are no longer joining hierarchically organised political parties in the numbers they once did.

Some form of open source public engagement would be a great start. The greater the public engagement, the greater chance of improving its wider currency. But key to a successful outcome is the quality of the design, both of the review process and any renewed Constitutional document which arises from that process.

That, at te very least, requires a much greater degree of humility from the Irish political establishment than we have become accustomed to seeing…

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