The Labour Party’s “One Ireland” and a Constitutional Convention
Last night Éamon Gilmore gave the leader’s address at the Labour Party’s annual conference. Entitled ‘One Ireland’ the conference has had a distinctive emphasis on moving forward, as a country, away from what is conceived of as broken or corrupt and towards a more mature political life in this jurisdiction. The Gilmore speech, which can be watched in full here or read here, was extremely strong on this theme and—regardless of the colour of one’s politics—is worth watching or listening to as an exercise in oratory and speech writing. What struck me in particular, however, was the proposal by Gilmore that there would be a constitutional convention with a new constitution being ready for enactment in 2016 (at the centenary of the 1916 Rising).
I have written before on HRinI of my anxiety about populist constitutional reform. What Gilmore suggested seems to have been something at once more radical and less populist than what we have seen proposed by Fine Gael recently. Gilmore suggested that we would establish a constitutional convention made up of experts and a randomly selected portion of the community (he did not mention how large the sample would be) to debate and propose new constitutional structures. The justification given for this was that the Constitution is a document written in the 1930s for the 1930s when there was considered to be one Church in Ireland and one role for women (I am paraphrasing but, as you will hear if you listen to the speech, not by much). Similar themes were recently in evidence at the excellent political cabaret, Leviathan, which suggested a new Constitution and Second Republic earlier this year. Fine Gael’s New Politics which we have written about before suggests some major constitutional reforms but does not suggest a whole-scale redrawing of the Bunreacht.
The suggestion for a Second Republic and new Constitution seems worrying to me at first glance. It is of course true that there are some elements of the Constitution that do not fit well with modern Ireland or with modern conceptions of a liberal democracy: the religiosity of the Preface, the consignment of women and mothers to the home, the exclusion of socio-economic rights on a justiciable basis (apart from property and education) etc. But is it fair to suggest that the political structure itself is outmoded? There are some elements that need reform (the composition and structure of the Seanad, for example) but at its heart the constitutional structure is one of separated powers with constitutional supremacy. I can not imagine that any redrawn constitution would fundamentally alter that basic structure. This is not to say that political reform is not desirable or required: de-fusing the Executive and Legislature would, to my mind, be particularly interesting as well as strengthening local government, increasing accountability and transparency in administrative governance, establishing a dedicated all-party Oireachtas committee for in-house rights auditing, reducing the impact of the whip and the guillotine, and fundamentally reimagining the role and social duties of a public representative are all high on my list of ‘things to do’. However, do we need a whole-scale constitutional reform process in order to achieve this? Or do we need a fundamental reform of political ethics, culture and architecture? My instinct is that the latter is both required and more difficult, in real terms, than the former.
Our Constitution may have been written in the 1930s but by-and-large it is not strangled by originalism. There are areas that need modernisation and reform, and I can imagine an argument for fundamental constitutional reform that would be based fully on democratic principles of participation and a desire to remove the underlying social Catholicism of the Constitution in ideological terms. However, Éamon Gilmore did not make any argument of that kind last night. I am hopeful that Labour will release a document or position paper of some kind on this initiative that we can engage with. In all likelihood it will not appear until much closer to the General Election which—in the absence of fallen government—is not due until 2012. However, Labour and Fine Gael are now both calling for fundamental reform of our political structures although through different means. It looks very much like the Constitution and our structures of state will loom large when the election rolls around.