Report of the Convention on the Constitution: Statements
Thursday, 18 July 2013
I welcome the Minister and it is important the debate is held today. I will begin with a negative, in the context of Deputy Cowen’s remarks on the Constitutional Convention being irremediably flawed.
I very much regret those remarks. It set the wrong tone for his contribution to the debate, which in many cases did not focus on the Constitutional Convention at all. He resorted to political point scoring, which I very much regret.
We have come a long way from the squared copybook scribblings to the Constitutional Convention. Anybody who reflected upon the establishment, composition, theme and structure of the convention may very well have been cynical and in many cases, justifiably so, but they did not count on the stewardship of the chairman, Tom Arnold, and the executive officer, Art O’Leary, for the way in which they have managed to drive it in a non-partisan and collegial way. Equally important – it has been put on record by other Members – has been the contribution of the 66 citizen members who have engaged wholeheartedly.
As a privileged member of the convention who has been engaged in it and who looked forward to it, for me the story of the convention has been in three parts. The first was the quality of the presentations made by academic and other experts. The second was the participative nature of the citizens who came prepared and briefed with questions. They were willing to challenge and seek answers. They engaged in a process that has served all of us well. The third was the chairman, Tom Arnold, assisted by Art O’Leary, and all of the staff – the facilitators, note takers and secretarial staff – who have made the convention a success.
It is worth examining the report of the convention, in particular Tom Arnold’s opening preamble. There is a need for the Fourth Estate in particular to pick up on it, because he sets out a strong template for how the convention should work. I will not quote it directly but I wish to refer to the headings briefly. He referred to openness, fairness, equality of voice, efficiency and collegiality. They are aspirations that are noble on paper but were achieved in reality, which makes the convention the success that it is. It is worth saying that.
In 2011 Deputy Cowen spoke about the democratic revolution. We had a democratic revolution. The people spoke through the ballot box. The Government committed to the establishment of a constitutional convention. It set before it a number of topics, but I will not outline all of them. In December of last year in Dublin Castle and since then we have seen the convention methodically working its way through the topics. Deputy Charles Flanagan, Deputy Catherine Murphy and others referred to the round table discussions. They were a revelation because during them one met and discussed issues. Citizens, elected and unelected, were willing to participate in them, which is important. Equally, within the round table discussions there was no deferential behaviour towards elected Members of the Oireachtas. The contrary was the case. There was a strong emphasis on everyone having an equal voice and an equal say, as should be the case.
I very much regret that in some quarters there has been reference to group think, because that was not the case. I say that as someone who has been at all of the sessions. There was no group think. Members of the convention were eager and quick to give their views. They were not shy about saying what they think. Other Members will corroborate that. To be fair to the chairman, he gradually allowed non-elected members of the convention to speak in public. That was a fundamental positive in the process. We are all equal. One of the aspects of the convention that I admired is that none of us came with the title, Minister, Deputy or Senator. We were ourselves and that is the way it should be. The debate is good. It is full, considered and worthwhile. Responsibility is taken seriously by all members.
I was very struck by the level of preparedness of all members of the convention and by the willingness of the secretariat and the chairman to embark upon new ideas and innovative ways in which we can learn about the democratic process. Deputy Lyons spoke about forging friendships with others. Members of the convention look forward to meeting with and engaging with each other and even discussing issues with colleagues, now friends, between meetings.
One of the big positives has been the establishment of the steering group which has allowed the running of the convention to be a success. I am not a member of the steering group but those who serve on it do a worthwhile job and help the process to be open and transparent and allow the citizen’s voice to be heard. There is no agenda within the convention other than to discuss the matters set down for discussion. It might be the case that we should examine other issues. I agree with Deputy Charles Flanagan that the convention should not end this year. I hope it will continue because as we approach the centenary of 1916 it is important that we would allow the convention to broaden its scope.
The functioning of the Constitutional Convention with expert opinion and advice is balanced. A clear balance is struck in the presentation of arguments. A majority of the convention members favoured a change in the Constitution to reduce the voting age. There was a clear preference for that in the debate at my table during the weekend in question, but it was not based upon a whim. It was based on informed fact on foot of the presentations we had received and the research carried out by members.
I wish to return to a fundamental point that has recurred at the convention about citizen education. I taught CSPE to junior certificate level at school. It was an exam subject. It is a worthy subject for examination. I regret that it is not taught at leaving certificate level. I hope the Government will examine the issue. Citizenship and being an active citizen are about more than casting one’s ballot. When one engages with young people they recognise that politics is not just about voting; it is about the education service, the type of school they attend, the playground and facilities available, the timetable of the school bus and many other issues. Education for young citizens is important.
Having served on the convention I am very committed to what it does and what it is trying to achieve. The convention has been augmented by the seriousness with which Government has treated it but, equally, those who were cynical initially failed to realise that the citizens who were elected or asked to serve would take their responsibility seriously. They feel that a potential legacy rests on their shoulders and that changing the Constitution cannot be done lightly. They deserve a huge tribute because they come to serve and to perhaps bring change for the betterment of society.
I look forward to the next module of debates in the House. While I will not refer to them until they are held, our debate on the presidential term and the voting age was excellent. The report deserves further consideration by the Government.