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Liam Weeks: 'Forget referendums: let the people steer constitutional change'

Big votes allow leaders to flex their electoral muscles, but consulting on the Constitution would lead to more ambitious reform

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BEND THE KNEE: Charlie Haughey pays his respects to the former Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid in the Pro-Cathedral in March 1973

BEND THE KNEE: Charlie Haughey pays his respects to the former Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid in the Pro-Cathedral in March 1973

BEND THE KNEE: Charlie Haughey pays his respects to the former Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid in the Pro-Cathedral in March 1973

Like all political leaders, Leo Varadkar craves electoral victories. They lend legitimacy to his rule, reinforce his popularity, and contribute to his standing both within and without his party.

Although yet to lead Fine Gael through any elections, having decided, wisely perhaps, not to challenge President Michael D Higgins last October, the Taoiseach managed to deliver two referendum victories in 2018.

With the next general election now not likely until 2020, getting more wins under his belt before then can only add to Mr Varadkar's reputation.

It should come as little surprise, therefore, that more referendums are planned for this year.

These 'people's votes' are a bit like friendly matches before a football tournament. If a team loses, its manager is quick to dismiss the results, claiming them to be merely a warm-up for the real event.

If it wins, on the other hand, the manager is likely to claim the victories as evidence that his team delivers and is primed for success.

Likewise, if the Taoiseach loses this year's referendums, he will maintain that they are not a reflection on his rule or his party's performance in government.

Rather, he will attempt to claim a moral victory by pointing to the referendums as an example of his reforming nature.

He can say that at least he gave the people their say on an issue, rather than trying to impose his own will.

If the referendums pass, however, the Taoiseach will, no doubt, be among the first to tweet about the success, hailing it as another example of a Fine Gael achievement in office.

This is why international teams organise winnable friendlies before tournaments - and why the Government will have similar results in mind when determining what referendums to call.

Of the three amendments it seems likely to propose - on divorce, the role of women in the home, and on extending voting rights at presidential elections to Irish citizens overseas - the Government is likely to pass at least two of these.

But is this enough reason to have these referendums? It's difficult to imagine that the issues constituents bring up on the doorstep to their local politicians concern Article 41.2 on women and the common good, or the inability of their children overseas to have voted in last October's presidential election.

Likewise, three of the last six referendums were on matters not exactly pressing to the electorate - the abolition of the Seanad, reducing the age eligibility for presidential candidates, and blasphemy.

This begs the question, then: on what basis are we having these referendums?

It is sometimes forgotten in the heat of political debate that the point of such votes is to allow the constitution to evolve to reflect our changing social and cultural norms.

When it was drafted in the 1930s, the Constitution was heavily influenced by Catholic social thought, with Article 44.1.2 recognising the "special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens".

This article has since been deleted, and with the declining power of the church and the emergence of a more liberal and secular Ireland, successive governments have proposed amendments to the Constitution in line with these societal changes.

Hence the referendums on divorce, abortion and marriage equality.

But this process of change is piecemeal and political. Because we restrict the power of initiative on constitutional amendment to politicians, it is inevitable that electoral considerations come into play.

Governments prefer to avoid controversial referendums that can prove divisive, and they want to win. They don't want to propose amendments that Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey would describe as "brave" or "courageous".

And so, what should be the extremely important, and aspirationally non-partisan act of constitutional amendment takes on an electoral dimension - and we have referendums on relatively minor issues.

While the Taoiseach might respond that his proposals on abortion, blasphemy, divorce and the role of women are part of a process to create a more secular constitution, if this was his primary intention, there are a lot of other sections that should grab his attention.

How about Article 44.1: "The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion."

Or Article 41.3.1: "The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded."

Or how about the preamble, the opening words that set the tone of the Constitution: "In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Eire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial."

Rather than have referendums motivated by political and electoral considerations outside of the issue at hand, it might be more preferable to have a public consultative process on any potential amendments.

This would take the power of agenda-setting away from politicians and allow "we, the people of Eire" to decide, or at least advise our political leaders, on what kind of a constitution we want.

It would also ensure a more holistic approach to the issue of constitutional change, rather than the bit-by-bit strategies employed by various governments.

It was the latter type of policies that motivated Eamon de Valera to create Bunreacht na hEireann in the first place, as its precursor, the Free State Constitution of 1922, had been amended considerably in its short 15-year existence, giving it a rather pock-marked appearance.

In recent years, we had a Constitutional Convention and a Citizens' Assembly conducted along these proposed lines of public consultation. And they worked very well, with the success of the assembly on the issue of abortion being a contributory factor to the passing of the referendum last summer.

However, both the convention and the assembly were limited in their scope and considered just a handful of issues. Because the Government decided on their respective terms of reference, the constitutional issues examined included the not-so-pressing matters of the length of the presidential term of office, the conduct of referendums, and the merits of fixed-term parliaments.

Thirty-one years ago this month, the Progressive Democrats (remember them?) published their own review of the Constitution. Their 'Constitution for a New Republic' was a primarily a re-wording of the 1937 text to reflect the changing religious and nationalist ethos of the country.

But in 1988, the vast majority of the population were regular Mass-goers, the Troubles in Northern Ireland were ongoing, and we still had a constitutional claim on its territory.

If change was considered in some quarters as necessary then, what must be the case in 2019?

Given what I have said about how politicians view referendums through electoral-tinted glasses, we might imagine that the chances of a wholesale constitutional revision along grounds of merit rather than political consideration are extremely far-fetched.

However, all leaders are concerned about their legacy. This is what they dream about. While one-off referendum victories might be good for Leo Varadkar in the short-term, the long-term impact of a wider constitutional reform would pale such achievements, if not all, into insignificance.

After all, 60 years after de Valera stepped down as Taoiseach, we are still governed by a constitution of his making. How tempting does a genuine constitutional crusade sound, Taoiseach?

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc government & politics course at University College Cork

Sunday Independent