Saturday 21 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Another year, another vote, as we are sold yet more constitutional snake oil'

Instead of repeatedly tinkering with Bunreacht na hEireann, a better idea may be to get rid of the Constitution altogether and draft a new one

This year, the elections will be held on he same day as the 2019 European Parliament election and a referendum easing restrictions on divorce.
This year, the elections will be held on he same day as the 2019 European Parliament election and a referendum easing restrictions on divorce.

Eilis O'Hanlon

The most popular hashtag on Twitter during 2018 was #repealthe8th. If you were a Government fronted by a youngish man with an apparently unquenchable obsession with social media, it probably seems natural to draw certain conclusions from that.

Whadda Irish people like? Referendums. Whadda they want? More referendums. It's flawed logic, because hashtags merely reflect what people on social media - not a representative demographic, by any means - were talking about over any particular period.

Ploughing on regardless, the Government seems intent on pursuing a positive fiesta of referendums next year, including one on allowing Irish citizens abroad the right to vote in presidential elections, and another loosening restrictions on divorce, both on the same day to reduce costs, so at least that's some consolation.

Taken individually, there are arguments for and against each proposal. That goes without saying in any referendum, and TV and radio shows will no doubt have a field day thrashing out the various positions, exploiting every difference of opinion to fill dead air time. Pollsters will be booking extra large villas in Tuscany for the summer on the back of the fees they can expect to generate from all that extra work. At the end of it, the country won't be very much different than it is now, but the powers that be will congratulate themselves on having "listened to the people" or some such self-serving tosh.

A referendum to change the constitutional position on divorce is particularly interesting because it ties very much into Leo Varadkar's apparent intention to liberalise the country, freeing the Irish people from their oppression at the hands of conservative tyranny. That one will be held in May. If passed - and there's probably no "if" about it; a country which voted through abortion on demand this May is hardly likely to get an attack of the Catholic heebie-jeebies next May - it will mean that those who are going through divorce will either have to spend two years living apart, instead of the present four, before it's official and they can make the mistake of getting married again, or perhaps not have to wait any time at all. The final wording has yet to be decided.

Whether either change is as radical as those pushing for a referendum appear to believe is another matter altogether. Four years, two years, five minutes - it's hardly the most pressing issue facing the country. There must be other things worthier of the Government's attention. It's easy to exclaim "what about the homeless?" or "what about hospital waiting lists?" That, though, doesn't make the questions any less valid.

Most people would surely rather serious social problems were addressed instead of being distracted by the cynical, and frankly transparent, "bread and circuses" of another referendum campaign.

The Government is just trying to pick up easy brownie points. It seems to be the default position these days. Stuck in a rut? Call a referendum! There's something desperately needy about it. It's as if Leo feels an urgency to put his stamp on the country as quickly as he can in case it all goes south in the polls, then at least he can say he dragged us poor, unenlightened savages up from the muck. Meanwhile, out in what's known as the real world, indifference grips the country like a Russian winter.

Who's to say that the Taoiseach will be done once those two issues are out of the way? There are plenty more articles in the Constitution which campaigners would like to see kicked out or amended, a woman's place in the home not least. Bit by bit, the tinkering goes on, and the result is that the Constitution keeps getting bigger, packed with added details like a treaty, when it really ought to deal in broad principles and rights and powers.

In other words, the big stuff. The day-to-day detail is what legislation is for. Wouldn't it be better in the long run to draft a streamlined Constitution fit for purpose, and then vote once on whether to replace the existing Bunreacht na hEireann whilst leaving all the pernickety particulars to the Oireachtas where they properly belong?

Instead the rate of referendums seems to be multiplying. There have only ever been 33 proposed amendments to the US Constitution in 300 years, of which 27 have been ratified, with the rest either pending or having been dropped. Prohibition aside, most have been entirely sensible, unremarkable.

In Ireland, the Constitution is apparently such a work in progress that it's required 37 amendment bills in 80 years alone, and the resulting text seems to have become more, rather than less, complicated. The 31st amendment on children's rights in 2013, for example, replaced an article numbering 52 words with a number of subordinate clauses amounting to nearly six times as many words.

The last amendment to the US Constitution took effect in 1992, which finally ratified a proposal which had been sitting on the shelf for more than 200 years. By contrast, Ireland has had more than twice as many referendums since 1992 than the country had in all the preceding years of the State.

Is it any wonder that referendum fatigue has set in? The figures back up that observation.

Only 43pc of people voted in the blasphemy referendum this year. The proposal to abolish the Seanad in 2013 lured out even fewer voters - just 39pc. Turnout for the children's rights referendum was lower still, at 33.5pc. Turnout at referendums has only risen above 70pc twice, and the last time was in 1972, when the vote was to join the EC.

Rather than apathy, this sharp tail-off in enthusiasm suggests that voters have the sophistication to know that Constitutional amendments rarely make the slightest difference to their lives.

The aforementioned children's rights referendum should be a warning call. On that occasion, the country agreed to include in the Constitution the following words: "The State recognises and affirms the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children and shall, as far as practicable, by its laws protect and vindicate those rights." Still tens of thousands of children don't have a home to live in.

That sneaky little add-on "as far as practicable" is doing some seriously heavy lifting here.

The Government should be exploring ways to make it ruddy practicable, not flogging constitutional snake oil to people who are in no mood to buy. Before 1987, turnout at general elections rarely dropped below 70pc; these days it's in the mid 60s, which itself suggests a worrying lack of agreement in the belief that real change is possible; but it's still a higher turnout than for any recent referendums, even the one to repeal the Eighth Amendment, and that was deemed a roaring popular success.

The idea of tearing up the Constitution and starting again is hardly terrifyingly radical. The Progressive Democrats suggested the same thing back in 1988, noting, in the words of leader Desmond O'Malley, that the 1937 original was "not intended by the drafters as a minimalist document, which set out in bare republican form the framework of rights and institutions, which any republic should have", but instead was deliberately designed as a set of laws enshrining a narrow social ethos of the era.

Bad ideas rarely improve with the passing of time. If we must have another vote, why not the one referendum to end them all?

Sunday Independent

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