Constitutional reform must be citizen-driven

It may seem churlish to argue against initiatives which claim to seek a greater  involvement by citizens in the affairs of the State, or, in the case of the Labour Party to engage citizens with the process of constitutional reform. But let’s be churlish – with good reason.

Both of these initiatives come out of the political class – a class which has shown scant regard for the notion of equality of citizenship since the foundation of the State, preferring to champion a ‘plutarchy’, a combination of rule by the wealthy and by a special ‘elite’ – a small number of ‘expert’ and/or ’eminent’ people. The outcome of their endeavours to date has been the creation of a hegemonic State in which the desires of the few have precedence over the needs of the many.

Both initiatives have, on the surface, the appearance of offering a semi-revolutionary outcome. The ‘We the Citizens’ initiative, funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, wishes to ‘renew democracy’ and ‘restore trust in  public life’ by creating a ‘national citizens assembly’ to meet in Dublin in June. 150 participants will be selected randomly from a poll of over 1000 people on the electoral register and will, according to the organisers, ‘consider proposals on making the political institutions of the State better suited to serving citizens’. Grand! We can all applaud that effort. Well not all – some may remain churlish, again with good reason.

Who are the organisers of this seemingly fine initiative, ‘We the Citizens’? They are, almost every one of them, members of the same political class that has overseen the maintenance of the very plutarchy that has destroyed real democracy in this so-called ‘Republic’ of Ireland. Apart from Fiach MacConghail, Director/CEO of the Abbey Theatre, almost every other person listed on their publicity material is a senior academic in Irish or US universities. Some, like UCD Professor Brigid Laffan, are ardent advocates of the EU and of Ireland’s integration into it, some might say to the point of madness. Others, like Intel’s Head of Corporate Affairs Brendan Cannon come as advocates of corporate globalisation and capitalism, not seen as forces that promote human equality or true democracy.

The initiative is supported by yet more university academics including those who run the website politicalreform.ie. On the evidence to date there is no reason to suspect that the Trinity College school of politics which seems the driving force behind that website has any interest in genuinely radical reform of the State which, to be genuinely radical requires the destruction of the hegemony which sustains inequality, privilege and injustice.

Many of these arguments can be made against the Labour Party’s fig-leaf of ‘constitutional reform’. What the Labour Party proposes is a constitutional convention which would draw together ‘all strands of Irish society’ with a mandate to ‘review the constitution and draft a reformed one within a year’. Note – reform, not replace. The current 1937 Constitution is the basis on which inequality and injustice and privilege are founded.

And what of Labour’s notion of ‘all strands of society’. Not quite what it says on the tin. The 90 members would include 30 members of the Oireachtas – yes, the very same dysfunctional and corrupted Oireachtas that is destroying our integrity as a sovereign nation, again all members of the political class. Then there would be ’30 members [who] would be academic or practicing lawyers and others with experience or expertise from non-governmental associations and organisations’, again all members of the political class. Bringing up the rear-guard would be ’30 ordinary citizens’, outnumbered at least 2 to 1 by the political class members.

Even if both initiatives brought to their endeavours strong citizens who could stand up for themselves and their fellow citizens the likelihood is that the agenda of both initiatives will have been consciously or unconsciously skewed before a word is spoken. And when it comes to ‘expert’ advice to the citizens in advance of their deliberations, who will deliver that advice? Why, the self-same political class that has overseen the anti-republican direction that this corrupt, hegemonic State has taken, and who now propose to manage its reform!

What is the intended outcome of either of these initiatives? It is to create a ‘new’ republic, or even a ‘second republic’. What the real outcome will be is best summed up by an Irish saying “cur síoda ar an gabhar, is gabhar i gconaí é”, or “put silk on a goat, it’s still a goat”.

What no-one wants to mention is the only republic we have had – the republic laid out in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of April 24th 1916 and which stood until the Treaty and the counter-revolution which followed immediately. It is, to the Irish political class, the leper that needs to be sheeted, the vampire that needs a stake in its heart, the mad uncle who needs to be locked away. They despise it for its purity and its practicality. They have contempt for its vision of a better future for all. They reject its concrete universal principles of freedom, equality and justice.

There is a real need for an alternative to these spurious pretenses at initiating ‘reform’. That alternative demands a truly democratic convention that does not privilege members of the political class, or any social class. It requires the engagement of citizens – ordinary citizens – to the task of getting the work underway. The process of creating real, meaningful and revolutionary change needs volunteer citizens – as was the case 100 years ago when all appeared lost, but was redeemed.

Minds must meet to start the process. The time was never more right. This volunteer stands ready. Who else will come to the task?

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About Tom Stokes

Tom Stokes is a writer and journalist, and has taught media and journalism at foundation and under-grad levels. He holds a BA in Communications and Cultural Studies and an MA in Journalism from Dublin City University. He is a grandson of John Stokes, a striking tram driver in the 1913 Lockout and a Volunteer in Boland’s Mill in the 1916 revolution. He is an organiser of the Citizens’ Initiative to establish a new national day in Ireland on April 24th, to be known as Republic Day, and is co-organiser with Marie Mulholland of the campaign to have Ireland's new children's hospital dedicated to the memory of Dr Kathleen Lynn, to be named The Kathleen Lynn National Children's Hospital. View all posts by Tom Stokes

2 responses to “Constitutional reform must be citizen-driven

  • Eoin O'Mahony

    Tom, thanks for this. It does seem churlish to criticise initiatives such as We The Citizens (perhaps even Claiming our Future) but it is necessary. The very idea of a republic, sovereign by its borders and defined by a univocal purpose may indeed have run its course as a political entity. Citizenship cannot be defined any more than religion, the state or society can. They are abstractions, forged in crucibles distant in time and space.

    What you have outlined here is exactly what besets any attempt to ‘restore’ or ‘renew’ democracy. They are masks for some other problems. Great post.

    • Tom Stokes

      Thanks for your response Eoin, much appreciated. In a small way I’m trying to unwind the spiral of silence that underpins hegemony in all its forms. I don’t travel the exact road that Desmond Fennell walks, but I agree with him about the intellectual tyranny that is imposed on us in which some ideas must be silenced. And that is what is going on with these bourgeois schemes.

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