Ireland Needs Constitutional Reform

Ireland Needs Consitutional Reform by Annette J Dunlea

The political parties in Ireland are proposing constitutional reforms in the Election 2011 campaign to appease an angry electorate. Ireland is admidst a political and economic crisis. Promises of political reform come under intense scrutiny in Ireland. The Irish political system and political culture has failed catastrophically; failing to create a more equitable society during the boom times.People know that there’s an economic crisis and they know there’s a banking crisis. I think what we also have to pay attention to is that there’s also a democratic crisis. Amid public disenchantment, a group of Irish political scientists plans to hold political parties to their promises of reform. The new government will need to rescue the economy, and also the foundations of democracy.

A new political science initiative is planning to follow their every move.The website was launched recently aimed at tracking and rating promises of reform made by all the main parties in their election manifestos. The group will follow the implementation of these promises once the parties are in government.The project of was conceived by two researchers at the Irish Institute for European Affairs, Johnny Ryan and Joseph Curtin. Together with the Irish Political Science academics who make up the group, the project aims to rate all proposals for reform on a scale of one to a hundred and are evaluated under five key headings including how laws are made, how public representatives are elected, transparency, local government and public service.Each heading has five individual aspects under which reforms in that area will be evaluated. Each party will be scored on all 25 aspects of political reform, and will be graded out of a maximum of 100 for the effectiveness of their proposals.Irish voters want an end to the crony culture that helped precipitate the economic crash. But political reform lags behind issues such as jobs and the economy.

The reforms differ according to the political parties.Labour and Fine Gael propose abolishing the Seanad and changing the rules governing donations to political parties. Both propose more effective local government with a focus on financial efficiency, local decision making and transparency in the making of those decisions. They also favor redrafting the Irish constitution and increasing the powers for oversight of the executive and the initiation of legislation for the lower house of the parliament. They want to make it a more effective check on the power of the government of the day, no matter which party is in power at the time.The idea that there is a standard that your peers should hold you to account to is fair.

Sinn Fein want to abolish the Seanad while The Greens would reform it.FG wants fewer TDs, all political expenses vouched for and the Taoiseach’s salary and ministers’ salaries cut, along with an end to severance pay for ex-ministers and no political pensions until TDs reach 65,ban corporate donations.TDs to have more powers and abolish the seanad subject to a referendum, that we can’t afford.Labour wants limits on political donations,abolish the Seanad by constitutional reform and referendum, a reform of the cronyish way in which state agencies are run.It also wants whistleblowers protected and the Dail to sit for more days to do its job better.

Irish voters will face five separate constitutional amendments on one day if Fine Gael gets to implement its plans for political reform. The party wants to hold a so-called ‘Constitution Day’, when people will be asked to vote on cutting the number of politicians by 20, abolishing the Seanad, cutting judges’ pay and reducing the president’s term of office from seven to five years. Those changes will require five separate votes because of the legal complexities of changing the wording of the Constitution in five different cases. But before those changes take place, the public will get to vote in a Children’s Referendum in the autumn. It is included for a vote on the same day as the presidential elections, due to take place in November.

Given the continued delays in holding a Children’s Referendum, the party is making it a priority to hold that vote sooner than ‘Constitution Day’. The party’s children’s spokesman, Charlie Flanagan, said there was an opportunity to hold that referendum vote on the same day as the presidential elections in the autumn.
Fianna Fail wants a new regulatory scrutiny committee and one on corporate governance, ban corporate donations,abolish the Seanad and reform our voting system. Fianna Fail’s reforms includes a reversion to single member constituencies, albeit with the STV system retained, whereby all candidates are listed in order of preference and second preferences of eliminated candidates transferred, until someone has more than half.

Labour is proposing to have a Constitutional Convention to draw up a new constitution for a 21st Century Ireland.The party says if elected it will use a panel of experts to draft a constitution within 12 months of taking office.Gilmore suggested that we would establish a constitutional convention made up of experts and a randomly selected portion of the community to debate and propose new constitutional structures. It is true that 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 obslete ? There are some elements of it that needs reforming.Labour is also promising to end to political cronyism by ensuring all appointments to State boards are subject to scrutiny by a Dáil committee.The party says it will scrap the Seanad, overhaul the workings of the Dáil to increase the number of sitting days by 50% to four per week, and cut the house’s summer recess to just 6 weeks.Meanwhile under its proposals for political reform all pay in the public sector,including that of the Taoiseach, would be capped at €190,000.

They want to renegotiate the terms of the EU-IMF deal and state how bondholders should share in bank losses.They want to introduce an 18-month PRSI holiday for employers recruiting new staff from the Live Register.It proposes to hold a referendum on same-sex marriage and confirms the party intention to regulate scientific stem cell research.Party spokesman for Enterprise Jobs and Employment Richard Bruton said if in Government the party proposes to set up a €100m fund for new start-up companies.The party also plans to legislate and test the constitutionality of removing upward only rent reviews. It also says it would freeze local commercial rates.

The general consensus is that while reform is necessary and welcome, one should proceed cautiously when dealing with the constitution. Radical and potentially effective reforms such as the setting up of a independent economic forecasting agency, or a strengthened governemnt that evaluated policy might achieve more, and more easily.The Oireachtas could and should organise regular local forums in every constituency to allow local Deputies to jointly address the public. This would allow for voters to more ably distinguish between candidates based on their actual skills and persona, rather than their party allegiance. The invisibility of many TDs throughout the year is a real barrier for many people to make informed decisions at voting time.

While most agree that the constitution is not perfect, the constitution was not the cause of the current economic crisis and the policy failures that led to it, though some have argued that the political system can be blamed for those policy failures.Reform is welcome but not a new constitution.Others say, it is fair to say in some respects the Constitution has served the country well, but in a new millennium the time is right to look again and to draft a document that reflects modern values and best practice in national governance. It’s time to start anew.

We need to strengthen local government, increasing accountability and transparency in administrative governance, establishing a dedicated all-party Oireachtas committee for in-house rights auditing and redefine the role and social duties of our public representatives. However, do we need a new constitution to achieve this or do we need a fundamental reform of political ethics, culture and architecture?

The End


About Author Annette J Dunlea Irish Writer

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