Last year, as part of the agreed Program for Government between Fine Gael and Labour, the two parties agreed to establish a constitutional convention to recommend constitutional reform.
Since then, I have raised this issue regularly in the Dáil with the taoiseach. I have told him that the Irish diaspora must be represented in the convention and that part of its agenda must be to discuss extending voting rights in Irish presidential elections to the diaspora.
In the course of these exchanges the taoiseach undertook to consult with the opposition parties. He also agreed that the extension of the franchise in presidential elections to citizens in the North would be part of the convention’s agenda. I also pressed him on including the diaspora.
Despite frequent requests by me to hold the consultation with opposition parties, and the taoiseach’s repeated assurances that he would, meetings were held. In an effort to assist this process, I wrote to the taoiseach on February 7th setting out Sinn Féin’s view of the convention, and of some of the matters we believed it needed to deal with.
In recent days, the late evening news on RTE carried a position from the government announcing, without any prior notice to the opposition parties, that the cabinet had agreed to go ahead with the convention and that it would consist of 100 members, made up of 66 citizens and 33 political representatives and a chairperson.
The government statement said that the first issues to be discussed would be the reduction of the presidential term and the voting age, and it then set out a list of other issues to be discussed.
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What value a consultation when the government has already decided on the format and terms of reference for the convention?
Fine Gael and Labour spoke often of transparency and accountability and criticized the Fianna Fáil/Green Party government’s way of doing business and then they do the same thing.
The government’s unilateral announcement on the constitutional convention was cynical. It was an effort by it to set the agenda of the convention and maintain control over it. It was not about inclusiveness and an open debate on the future shape of the constitution, but about control. Similarly, with the announcement of the sell-off of state assets, which took place a few days later outside the Dáil, it has become clear that this government is in the business of media spin and control, and not concerned with political accountability.
The taoiseach’s office rang my office after the government’s announcement and suggested a meeting the following week. This is a very unsatisfactory way of discussing this important issue. I indicated that I would attend, but it should be about consultation not merely notification.
Sinn Féin welcomed the proposal to convene a constitutional convention, with a view to comprehensive constitutional reform. In the Dáil, and in a letter I wrote to the taoiseach on February 7th, I set out Sinn Féin’s view of the convention and of those issues which we believe it must address if it is to make a constructive contribution to the Ireland of the 21st century.
In my letter, I said that the “Convention’s Terms of Reference must therefore at a minimum both acknowledge and take account of the relevant prior commitments under the Agreement, including provisions regarding the convening of an All-Ireland Parliamentary Forum, an All-Ireland Consultative Civic Forum, and especially the agreement of an All-Ireland Charter of Rights.”
It must also “consider whether and how the Convention could contribute to the fulfillment of these obligations.”
I also suggested that the constitutional convention should be “able to consider recommending a new constitution for the 21st century which is inclusive, reflects the desire for Irish unity that is shared by the majority of citizens on this island and which protects the rights of citizens, including our unionist neighbors. The Convention’s Terms of Reference must also ensure that the outcome of this current process of constitutional reform does not prejudice any future process of agreeing an all-Ireland constitution – post a referendum on unity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.”
Sinn Féin believes that the convention should have specific priorities.
It must be fully inclusive in its composition and its participatory process. This means it must involve in particular “the economically disadvantaged; the socially marginalized; citizens from all provinces including northern citizens; ordinary unionists and their official representatives; citizens in the diaspora; and our newest citizens – in addition to the political parties, civil society representatives and those with relevant academic and legal expertise – and ensuring the equal representation of women on the Convention.
“The Convention’s process must also be fully public, transparent and accountable, from discussion of terms of reference to appointments, and from the debates to conclusion of recommendations. In particular, there must be clarity in the Convention’s Terms of Reference as to the expected form and effect of its conclusions in relation to the final text, and the process by which this eventually comes before the people in a referendum. “The Convention should examine the ‘need for express guarantees of economic and social rights, the extension of voting rights for northern citizens and citizens in the diaspora, and the architecture necessary to establish a more robustly inclusive, fully representative and accountable democracy with mechanisms for direct participation, in addition to those matters and areas already identified by the Government, which we welcome. “It is essential that there is the ‘Maximum human rights guarantees.’ We believe that the inclusion of enumerated rights is absolutely essential for any future constitution, and that it must contain all the modern equality and human rights protections that reflect the full spectrum of our international obligations and any others that are necessary to establish a rights-based society.”
And finally: “Mindful of the Good Friday Agreement obligation to ensure at minimum the equivalence of human rights protections north and south, but also of the freedom to draft guarantees that exceed the existing standard, the Convention must in its work consider and make a complementary contribution towards an All-Ireland Charter of Rights.”
Embarking on a process of comprehensive constitutional reform is a most serious undertaking which provides a huge opportunity to build the sort of inclusive, equality and rights-based society envisaged by the architects of the 1916 Proclamation. It must not be squandered because of a lack of vision, or narrow party political positions.
There is the potential, if managed properly and democratically, to create a durable outcome that can advance reconciliation and peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland and between our people.