Averil Contribution to the Seanad on Constitutional Convention Debate (16/01/14)

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I, too, welcome Mr. Arnold and his officials to the House. As a member of the Constitutional Convention I have been very impressed by how Mr. Arnold has chaired it and the efficient way his team organised all our meetings, communicating with us before the event, ensuring things worked well on the day, as has been mentioned ensuring everybody got an opportunity to speak. The role of the facilitators at each table has been crucial. If people, particularly some of the citizens at our first meeting, were a little nervous about speaking up the facilitators reached out, asked people if they wanted to add anything, whether they agreed, and ensured everybody was heard and that conversations were not dominated by politicians or by the more vocal citizens. They ensured everybody had an equal say. That has been crucial.

As has already been stated, the Constitutional Convention has been a new venture in this country and is not a common way of deliberating on political issues internationally. It has been tried only in a couple of countries. There was a lot of cynicism at the beginning. As Senator Noone mentioned, there was cynicism from some of the members about whether it would work and from the media that it would be dominated by politicians and people pushing particular agendas. There was a debate on marriage equality, which is a sensitive issue and which in media debates often just results in people shouting each other down, not often in the most sensible articulation of the issues. More journalists attended that session because it is such a politically hot topic and several of them said at the end that they were incredibly impressed by how it worked and that that debate alone had got rid of any cynicism they had about the process.

Overall the Constitutional Convention has worked extremely well. The expert presentations ensured the members were well-informed and that we heard from both sides of the debate. The engagement, particularly from citizen members, has been very impressive. We debated a number of issues including the voting age, length of the presidential term, women’s role in the home, participation of women in politics, marriage equality, the Dáil electoral system, votes for Irish citizens abroad and whether the offence of blasphemy should be removed from the Constitution. On each of these we have seen real engagement, not just with the specific questions the Government put to us but also willingness by members to go beyond that.

At our first meeting we discussed the voting age and the presidential term and within ten minutes most members had decided they were not particularly interested in the length of the presidential term. Probably only one person in the country cares a lot about the length of the term, whether it is five or seven years – maybe two people, maybe the President’s wife – but there was great engagement around the nomination process in particular, reflecting the controversy that took place during the last presidential election and the difficulty some candidates had.

I am sure Senator Norris will refer in his contribution to the problems that non-party candidates face in getting onto the presidential ballot. He spoke strongly about it at the meeting. In respect of the electoral system for the Dáil, the issues arising in changing the system were considered and people also wanted us to investigate how the Houses of the Oireachtas operate. It was suggested that elections may not be as key as a properly functioning Parliament which prevents excessive Executive control. It is heartening that the Government has accepted most of the convention’s recommendations. We are still awaiting a response on some of our reports, however.

We had a particularly positive debate on the issue of marriage equality. Once citizens and members of the convention had heard both sides of the debate, there was overwhelming support – 80% – for equality not only for same-sex couples but also for their families. I welcome the fact that the Government is committed to holding a referendum on this issue and it is sensible to deal with some of the family issues first given that they do not require constitutional change. It is essential that the legislation is not delayed, however. The family relationship and children Bill is on the A list for the Minister for Justice and Equality but we need to bring it through the Houses at the earliest opportunity so that we can then prepare for a referendum. Concern has been expressed by some civil society groups that there may be delays and that the referendum will not be held next year as promised. That is an issue I will continue to press.

It is essential that the Government does more than accept recommendations on matters it had intended to address in any event. It must also consider those with which it is not comfortable. The recommendation on the presidential nomination process was kicked to a committee for consideration. I hope it has not been sent there to die. The same applies to other recommendations with which the Government does not agree. It is only when these recommendations have been taken seriously and put to the people that the convention will regarded as a truly worthwhile exercise.

 

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