Saturday 21 September 2019

Willie Kealy: 'When political leaders pass the buck, voters see through them'

There's a fine line between reform and unnecessary meddling in the hope of political advantage

'The fact that the voters have not always gone along with attempts to change articles of the Constitution tells us, perhaps, that there is an attachment here which politicians fail to take account of at their peril.' Stock photo
'The fact that the voters have not always gone along with attempts to change articles of the Constitution tells us, perhaps, that there is an attachment here which politicians fail to take account of at their peril.' Stock photo

Willie Kealy

The members of the Government, and especially the Taoiseach, regard the present administration as a reforming one. They are not without justification in this view, and not just because of the constitutional changes they have championed in relation to abortion and same-sex marriage.

There is little doubt that the original Bunreacht na hEireann is an outdated document from an era so different to today as to be unrecognisable to the majority, and over the years there have been calls for it to be scrapped completely and a new document drawn up. But that idea has never had sufficient support to get off the ground - and so we have tackled the perceived deficiencies in a piecemeal fashion. The fact that the voters have not always gone along with attempts to change articles of the Constitution tells us, perhaps, that there is an attachment here which politicians fail to take account of at their peril.

The challenge is to know the prevailing mood of the people and try to change the Constitution gradually in line with this mood and not ahead of it. Trying to abolish the Seanad and give draconian powers to Oireachtas committees were cases in point. Both were rejected by the people when put to them by way of referenda.

It has not been forgotten that we were told the Seanad would have to be reformed if it was not abolished. Dr Maurice Manning, the NUI Chancellor, wrote a report which recommended an element of direct elections for the Upper House.

And now a further report from a group of TDs and senators which examined how to expand the Seanad electorate to include all Irish citizens at home and in Northern Ireland, suggests that we, the people, would probably have little interest in such an election. They even wonder if this effort is worthwhile pursuing at all!

Progress in the wake of referenda that have been successful has been better - though as we can see on a daily basis, the result on abortion is being contested tooth and nail in the Oireachtas and elsewhere by those who would wish to re-fight that battle.

There is also the danger of referendum fatigue among the voters. They like to be asked their opinion from time to time on really vital issues, such as treaties pertaining to our membership of the European Union. But sometimes they feel that their political leaders are ducking responsibility and passing the buck, first to a Citizens' Assembly and then back to the people to decide.

Obviously issues like abortion and divorce, which necessitated constitutional amendments, had to be put to referendum. And now we are to revisit the divorce issue because when it was first put to the people more than 20 years ago, it was done in a tentative manner, so that the four-year waiting period became an article of the Constitution.

That cautious approach at the time was probably wise, given the very slim majority that ensued. Now it is felt that with the passage of time it is safe to remove the issue from the Constitution completely. But still there are those who are cautious and suggest that progress should be incremental only, changing the four-year waiting period to two years, which would leave divorce in the Constitution until some further referendum, some time away in the future.

Such caution seems politically unnecessary this time, and is more likely a diehard attempt to hold back some little part of the divorce process for as long as possible. But the Irish electorate seems ready to trust their elected executive to take responsibility for legislation in this area, as they have done on the question of abortion.

After all, when the original Private Members' Bill which set this in progress was first moved by then backbencher and now Cabinet member, Josepha Madigan, it received all-party support.

This divorce referendum is one of two scheduled for May 24 next, the date of the local and European elections.

The other is to allow a vote on the proposition that Irish citizens resident abroad could take part in our presidential elections, but it is hard to discern any great groundswell of opinion demanding this change.

And there is the makings of another referendum in the works - one that would remove the constitutional article on the role of women in the home. It is felt that this is demeaning to women, but there is no agreement on how this can be put right. It was supposed to have been put to us in October at the same time as we were voting on the blasphemy issue. But the politicians are divided on this question, or at least divided on how best to address it.

There is support for removing the issue completely from the Constitution - this is the preferred option of Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan - but there are also those who favour amending the wording to keep some recognition for those who provide a caring service in the home, whatever their gender. The Oireachtas Justice Committee could not achieve consensus and has suggested that the Citizens' Assembly should be given a shot at it in the hope that they will have better luck.

All of which serves as a reminder that there is a fine line between championing much-needed reform on the one hand, and messing and meddling unnecessarily in the hope of political advantage, on the other.

It is the primary function of the Executive to administer the affairs of the State in a just manner, ensuring for example that a home, an adequate education and a good health service are not denied to any citizen, simply because of their circumstances or where they happen to be born. There is sufficient there for Leo Varadkar to launch a few crusades (his word, not mine), without needing to consult a Citizens' Assembly or hold a referendum more often than strictly necessary.

Sunday Independent

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