The Taoiseach met this evening with representatives of the opposition parties in order to consult with them on the Government’s proposals on the forthcoming Constitutional Convention.
The opposition parties undertook to revert with their views within a week, following which a further meeting is envisaged.
The Programme for Government (PfG) contains a commitment to establish a Constitutional Convention. The Government has approved the establishment of the Convention and has agreed in principle arrangements for its structure and operation as outlined below.
The purpose of this paper is, as promised by the Taoiseach in the Dáil, to consult formally with Opposition Party Leaders on the Government’s proposals. The Taoiseach will report their views to Government before any decisions are finalised.
The Government’s proposals deal with: the basis on which the Convention will be established; the topics it is to consider; its working methods; its structure and supports; and follow-up on its recommendations.
Basis of Establishment
The Government proposes that the Convention be set up by Resolutions of both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Resolutions will provide for the Convention to submit its final report to the Houses within twelve months of its establishment.
Topics to be considered by the Convention
The PfG sets out a programme of topics to be considered by the Convention and the Government does not propose to depart from that. The PfG proposes that the Convention examine the following matters:
Review of the Dáil electoral system;
Reducing the Presidential term to five years and aligning it with the local and European elections;
Giving citizens the right to vote at Irish embassies in Presidential elections;
Provision for same-sex marriage;
Amending the clause on the role of women in the home and encouraging greater participation of women in public life;
Increasing the participation of women in politics;
Removing blasphemy from our Constitution;
Reducing the voting age to 17.
The PfG also makes it clear that the Convention is free to consider “other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by it”. It is the Government’s view, however, that the Convention should deal first with the topics in the PfG.
Matters on which there is already a commitment to hold a referendum (e.g. abolition of the Seanad, and Children’s Rights) will not be within the scope of the Convention.
To get the Convention started, the Government proposes that initially it should look at two matters:
Reducing the Presidential terms to five years; and
Reducing the voting age to 17.
The Convention will be asked to submit reports on these two matters within two months. In that way, any necessary refinements to the Convention can be made before it starts the rest of its work.
It is proposed that the Convention can, if it wishes, operate in different streams so as to speed up its work. The Government is of the view, however, that any recommendations should be agreed in plenary session. The Convention will be able and indeed will be expected to submit interim reports, when it has completed work on a particular matter (or matters).
Composition of Convention
It is proposed that the Convention should consist of 100 members, including a chairperson, who must be a person of exceptional ability with a high degree of public acceptability. 66 will be ordinary citizens. The remaining 33 will be made up of Oireachtas members and one parliamentarian from each of the political parties in Northern Ireland which accept an invitation to be represented. The Oireachtas membership – 33 minus the number of representatives from Northern Ireland – will be made up on the basis of parliamentary numbers.
The Government envisages using the electoral register to select the 66 citizens; the question of whether legislation may be required for this is being investigated. A polling company will be used to make the selection so that it is as representative as possible.
It is proposed that the involvement of citizens from Northern Ireland, and of Irish people abroad, will be facilitated by electronic means (i.e. social media and other web-based interactive technology). Such technology should of course also facilitate the engagement of citizens at home.
Interest Groups: The Government is conscious that a number of interest groups have signalled a desire to be represented at the Convention. However, as the Convention is intended to be a forum mainly for ordinary citizens, the Government is of the view that interest groups should not be members of it.
Of course, the Convention can invite such groups to make a presentation when matters in which they have a particular interest are being examined. They will of course also be able to make written submissions on any topic.
Experts: The Government does not propose that experts be appointed to the Convention. However, expert input will be needed and this is addressed below – see section on Expert Advisory Group.
Support Staff: The Convention will also need support staff. Given current constraints on public service numbers, they will be drawn from within existing resources. The number and level of back-up staff required will be settled after the scale of the project becomes clearer.
Funding: A sum of €300,000 has been included in the Vote of the Department of the Taoiseach in 2012 to cover the cost of the Convention in the current year.
Expert Advisory Group: The Government proposes that, rather than appoint experts as members of the Convention, an Expert Advisory Group will be established to provide the Convention with information and advice. This Group would be made up of political scientists, constitutional lawyers and academics. The Convention would be able to call on different experts from this panel according as different topics are examined. Persons on the panel will be expected to give their services ‘pro bono’.
Other Supports: Members of the Convention, particularly those not familiar with constitutional models and concepts, will presumably need to be able to avail of other supports. The scope of such supports can be settled when the Convention is agreeing its detailed working arrangements.
Implementation of Recommendations
It is for the Government to decide whether or not to bring forward legislation proposing Constitutional change, and for the Oireachtas to decide on whether the matter should be put to the people in a Referendum.
It is proposed, therefore, that the relevant Ministers will consider recommendations from the Convention and report to Government as appropriate.