Government Response to Constitutional Convention Reforms Amounts to Empty Political Lip Service
The fourth and final report from the Constitutional Convention on political
reform in Ireland quietly passed through the Dáil this November with an
ambiguity that broached apathy. The manner in which the government swept
the Convention’s submissions through an almost empty chamber as a mere
matter of begrudged housekeeping, decease is significant in showing this government’s
true colours towards political reform. The absence of any reaction or dialogue
from the Taoiseach, remedy or any of the key political cabinet figures from this
government is also unfortunately coupled with a lacklustre coverage from the
mainstream media outlets. The near-silence that the Convention’s moderate
outline for reform has been met with is a harsh lesson for those who were
expecting a ‘new way of doing politics’ in Ireland.
The Constitutional Convention was set up on the back of an incoming Fine
Gael and Labour coalition that held the largest majority in the history of the
Oireachtas. The vanguard of incoming senior ministers had an emphatic
momentum for reform, and the mandate from the people and their parties to
implement real change. The positive reception to the initial reports from the
Convention reflects this; the marriage quality referendum and the
implementation of gender quotas to tackle the issue of women in politics were
both examples of real and significant progress. Yet as the government’s term
in office grew more turbulent and public opinion began to desert the shaky
coalition, the lofty ambitions of ‘change’ were replaced with the gritty politics
The proposals of the Convention in relation to electoral reform included
extending the vote in presidential elections to the Irish diaspora, reducing the
Irish voting age to 16, introducing postal votes, and reducing the age required
to stand for presidential elections. Several other key reforms motioned
included a requirement to increase each Dáil constituency to a minimum
number of five seats, the introduction of a citizens-initiative clause to table a
referendum, and reforms in civic and political education at secondary level
education. Among these reforms are some well-thought initiatives to bring
politics closer to the people at a time when citizens are becoming increasingly
disenfranchised with the established political system.
The motion however to raise the number of Dáil seats in each constituency to
a minimum of five is a proposal that would entail a fundamental change in the
Irish political system. It is a seemingly pedantic agenda at face value, yet there
is a wealth of comparative research across political systems similar to Ireland
that indicate the larger the constituencies – the more representative the
David Farrell was one of the key political scientists that contributed and
advised the Constitutional Convention on his area of expertise – electoral
reform. He sat down with the College Tribune to discuss the political benefits
of increasing the number of seats per constituency to a minimum of five.
“I think it could have an important impact as was discussed at the convention.
There is a sort of rule of thumb that says if you want small parties to win seats,
you need to have at least a district magnitude of five, an average of five.
Ireland is out of step with most other proportional representation systems. So
if you increase the number of seat minimum you get more small parties, more
women elected, greater scope for ethnic minority candidates; a possibility of
making a real change to how politics runs here”.
In assessing and analysing the government’s efforts at reform Farrell was
poised in his calculated criticism of the government, and their promised
‘democratic revolution’ of politics:“They’ve made some changes, they’re made some
reforms. They should be congratulated for things like gender quotas, and re-
instatement of the freedom of information. But they had the biggest majority in the
history of the state, they promised major change, all the parties in the opposition
agreed with the agenda of change. This government have failed. What we are facing
is a government that is in the last stages of its life, and attention has turned now to
the next election, and time has run out. No democratic revolution”.
It is clear that altering the structure of the constituencies in the proposed
fashion would negatively affect the larger established parties like Fine Gael
and Fianna Fail. The result would be a greater diversity of candidates and
smaller parties from the left and the right. Fine Gael therefore has stifled the
reforms and chosen to maintain the status quo in an attempt to maximize
their own seats in the next election. They have offered only hollow electoral
rhetoric and political lip service in place of sustainable change. Fine Gael and
Labour have both failed at providing a new way of doing politics in Ireland;
and voters now have begun to look elsewhere.