It may be a tad cynical to suggest that because the first meeting of our long-awaited constitutional convention was scheduled to begin its work just days before a much-feared budget that it might not get the attention such a radical, in Irish terms at least, innovation deserves.
Of course such a clash may be coincidental but if the process had the kind of political support it deserves it would have been set on a stage far less cluttered. The Savita Halappanavar tragedy has made the convention even less visible too.
Sadly, the convention has not captured the public imagination. Neither has it convinced those who still hope this Republic might eventually be able to refute charges that it is a largely dysfunctional state crippled by stasis, powerful interest groups public and private, numbing conservatism and the kind of low self-esteem and deference ingrained by decades of underachievement.
Unfortunately, today’s deep civic and political apathy are the very best arguments for holding such a convention. The risks are great however. If it becomes an ineffective, half-ignored talking shop it will justify the cynicism that has so cheapened the idea of participatory democracy in our country.
Today 100 people meet in Dublin Castle to begin the process. The group is made up of a chairman, 29 members of the Oireachtas, four representatives of political parties in the North and 66 randomly selected citizens. That composition seems over-heavy with politicians but it is too early to form any worthwhile opinion on this. After all, there is always the possibility that they might be surprisingly effective once freed from the shackles of Leinster House’s stifling etiquette.
The convention’s agenda is hardly weighed down with the issues that might bring citizens onto the streets. The bizarre absence of any effort to advance transparency or accountability, probably the two greatest weaknesses in how we conduct our affairs, is more than glaring. Indeed the principle of transparency is hardly honoured by the fact that the identity of the 66 citizens involved has needlessly been kept secret. Once again politicians have resorted to the trust-us argument when it could hardly be more inappropriate.
It is disappointing too that there is no reference to the Seanad, whether it should be abolished or reformed. Despite all of these reservations the convention offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try to change things for the better.
The convention may have to be more resourceful and forceful than any of its members imagines to have its voice heard — so let us hope it is made up of people with the kind of steely backbone that means they cannot be ignored.
Our discredited political system needs this convention to work as much as any disheartened citizen of Ireland does. One group is not happy with the other and this process might prove a kind of civic Rosetta Stone where one group can better understand the needs and the often opaque motivations of the other.
Let us hope it is a great success but to be that it will have to immediately change the largely irrelevant agenda laid down for it. That assertion of independence would show intent and determination. It would, more importantly, generate a level of public interest that would make it impossible to ignore the convention, an option probably close to the heart of some politicians.
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