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New Irish Constitution for a New Republic

 In April 2010, I submitted a proposal entitled New Republic - New Constitution to the Your Country Your Call (YCYC) competition launched by the President of Ireland.

In summary, I proposed that the Citizens' Assembly mechanism be used to undertake a comprehensive review of the 1937 Constitution with a view to a new Constitution being put to a referendum ahead of the centenary of the 1916 Rising.

It arose from the wonderful Renewing the Republic series in The Irish Times during March 2010 and was prompted by a comment (3rd April) which I made to one of the articles proposing to Establish a Citizens Assembly or similar to commence drafting a new constitution with a view to launching a Second Republic to mark the centenary of the 1916.

You can view the Constitution or buy a copy in bookshops for under €3. Relevant material on the Internet includes the following:

Here is my full proposal incorporating specific ideas for possible changes to the Constitution which I appended as a comment to the YCYC entry.

1. Background

What better way to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the 1916 Rising than to establish a New Republic with a New Constitution to lead Ireland into the 22nd Century.

Lots of great things have happened since 1916. Ireland has made astonishing economic and social progress; peace has come to Northern Ireland; and we are joined the EU, a trans-European movement.

The world has also moved on. New technologies have emerged; the third world is gaining a larger share of world prosperity; and the lessons of two world wars appear to have been learnt. However, many aspects of Ireland's laws and institutions need to be updated to help ensure that economic progress is sustained and that equity, fairness and balance are kept to the fore over the next century.

Here in Ireland, we have had ups and downs but on balance ups have greatly outweighed downs. However, we are currently in the middle of a substantial downturn. In recognition that the Japanese word for threat is the same as that for opportunity, we should use the current situation to create a spring board to rebuild momentum.

2. A New Constitution

The starting point for making Ireland an even better place in which to work and live is reform of the fundamental rules governing the State's activities and management, namely, the Constitution. For example, we need to change the way that citizens are represented and governed at local and national levels - most people would probably agree that the current systems are unsatisfactory. Lots of changes to the Constitution are needed. For example, it would be appropriate to ensure that "cherishing all the children of the nation equally" in the 1916 Proclamation is transposed into a new Constitution.

Changing the Constitution requires substantial courage and determination, supported by clear thinking, a sound vision and widespread support. This can only be achieved if people and their leaders rally round and work to override the inevitable institutional inertia and intransigence.

3. Possible Changes to the Constitution

Possible changes are presented below. Purposefully, I have avoided some potentially controversial issues like the status of Irish, religion and the family. Constitutional law can be very technical and it would be important to consult widely via the proposed Citizens' Assembly and to secure the help of experts and other interested parties.

  • Replace all references to he by he/she and his by his/her.
  • On the Presidency in Article 12, reduce the term of office from seven years; reduce the eligibility age and broaden the nomination procedure.
  • Change the requirement (Article 13 Clauses 7.3 & 11) for Governmental approval of every presidential message or address by requiring prior consultation with the Council of State as is the case for communicating with the Oireachtas.
  • Extend Article 16 Clause 1 to give the vote in presidential and Dail elections to first-generation emigrants and reduce the minimum voting age. In Clause 2, increase the ratio of Dail members to population and consider moving away from the PR-STV system and multi-seat constituencies. 
  • Article 18 relating to the Seanad should be reviewed with a view to either (a) changing its composition, election procedures and/or role or (b) abolishing it.
  • Article 27 about referring bills to the people should be modified so as to better facilitate its use and extended to embrace Citizens' Initiatives on national issues to complement plans for an EU-wide scheme proposed in the Lisbon Treaty.
  • Article 28 Clause 4 about budgeting should be extended to place maximum limits on State borrowing and deficits.
  • Article 28 Clause 7 should be modified to allow some citizens who are not members of the Dail or Seanad to be appointed to the Government.
  • Article 28 Clause 11.2 should restrict the activities of the Government following dissolution of the Dail and/or require that certain actions, e.g. appointments, be confirmed by the incoming Government.
  • Article 28A Clause 1 regarding local government should be strengthened to facilitate greater regionalisation, local democracy and vocational activity.
  • Article 33 Clause 1 should extend the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General to assess proposals for major expenditures by the State.
  • Article 35 Clause 5 should be modified to allow the remuneration of judges to be reduced.
  • Article 37 Clause 1 might be extended to give some judicial powers to Oireachtas-based enquiries into matters of national importance.
  • Article 40 Clause 2 about conferring titles of nobility might be reviewed.
  • Article 43 regarding private property might be modified to take account of the impact of the granting of State licences and approvals on private ownership.
  • The role of the Constitution in Article 45 should be strengthened, Clause 2 might extended to provide for "cherishing all the children of the nation equally" and Clause 4 regarding weaker sections of the community might be sharpened.

It might be desirable to extend the Constitution to include general guidelines on the need to take account of prevailing economic circumstances when setting the remuneration and pensions of officials specifically mentioned in the Constitution.

Over the years, I have compiled a list of possible changes to the operation of the Dail. They are mainly operational changes but it is likely that some items like Freedom of Information and Data Protection should be referenced in a new Constitution.

4. The Proposal to YCYC 

My proposal to YCYC is that a process be initiated to develop a New Constitution for a New Republic by 2016. The process should embrace the new technologies (as YCYC has done) and should be very inclusive. It could be called "Your Country, Your Constitution".

The process would be started by creating a Citizens' Assembly (up to 200 people selected at random from the electoral roll) which would serve as the non-political supervisory body. Its working groups would be supported by Irish and international experts in constitutional law, electoral reform etc. selected by the Assembly.

The Assembly would also tap into all key components of the establishment including the Dail, Seanad, political parties, legal system, big/small business, voluntary and community sectors etc. It would also use market research and new technologies to reach out to individuals and gather their views and determine priorities. All its work and deliberations would be published and it would operate in a very transparent manner.

Once a new Constitution has been drafted, moral pressure would be invoked to ensure that elected representatives present it to the electorate for consideration in a referendum. This should be (relatively) straightforward given the electorate's experience of the infinitely more complex Lisbon Treaties.

5. Conclusion

A new Constitution would lay the foundation for jobs, enterprise and underpin social and economic progress for the next hundred years. With only six years to the 2016 Anniversary, the challenge is to create a New Constitution for a New Republic appropriate to the following Anniversary.

Your Call, Your Constitution.

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