Tag Archives: Constitution

Broad Left Policy Platform Essential – Now

We will have a General Election in the next few months, no later than April 2016 but very possibly before the end of this year. With signs of a dramatic shift in public attitudes that election represents the first opportunity since quasi-independence in 1922 to fundamentally change the politics and the ideological basis of government in this state, and to create a better society for all.

Instead of capitalising on that opportunity we are still, at this late stage, witnessing a war of words between socialists and republicans and within both socialist groups and republican groups.

For some in either camp it seems far more important to hurl abuse or to issue weasel words against prospective allies than to work assiduously on a set of ideas to present in common to the people in the hope that they will take the opportunity as rational autonomous citizens to radically transform the sort of society we live in for the better.

What ideas are there that should be capable of finding broad agreement on the political left among socialist groups and republican groups, and between socialists and republicans? As a socialist-republican straddling those categorisations, here are 15 policy areas that I think should be relatively noncontentious.

1 Adequate, affordable, secure housing as a right, where necessary through public provision.

2 A single-tier publicly funded, secular and excellent education system with no provision from the exchequer for private fee-paying schools with exclusive enrollment policies. Religious instruction outside school-hours. Ending the university-controlled points system for third-level entry. Free third-level or vocational education/training subject to contractual obligation to work within the state for any three of first five years post-graduation with debt-related penalties for non-compliance.

3 The right of all children to adequate housing, nourishment and provision of health and care according to need, guaranteed by the state.

4 The right of workers to employment, or to further education or training as required, including those who wish re-enter the labour ‘market’.

5 A living wage, the ending of oppressive zero-hour contracts, workers’ right-to-organise and right-to-negotiate guaranteed by the state.

6 Full equality for women including pay-rates, personal autonomy and dignity including reproductive rights. Repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Provision of supports for mothers and carers commensurate with their contribution to society for that work.

7 State ownership of essential services, natural resources & physical infrastructure. Constitutional provision for public ownership of water and protection of Mother Earth.

8 Empowerment of communities, starting with disadvantaged communities – rural and urban. State support for community initiatives to achieve personal and community empowerment.

9 Strong laws against public and private corruption with strict sanctions. Ending political appointments to judiciary. Curbing legal costs for citizens. Equal access to civil courts regardless of means. Refocusing criminal justice system and penal system. Taking politics out of policing in favour of civic obligations.

10 Realigning taxation system to shift burden towards wealthiest. Ending tax-exile status, tax loopholes and tax-havens. Enforcing Corporation Tax.

11 Properly codifying the state’s position on neutrality, opposition to war, concentration on international and intra-national conflict-resolution and peace-keeping. Adherence to international codes on prevention of torture, refugees, humanitarian obligations, etc.

12 Proper commitment to reunify the people of the island through concerted, direct, rational dialogue with the objective of creating a fully representative all-Ireland parliament based on equality, respect and civil and religious freedoms.

13 Greater local and regional democratic control as appropriate. Making government fully accountable to parliament and the people. Creation of a democratically elected upper house to speed legislation and as a counter to excessive power of parliament. Installing a publicly accessible online register of lobbyists and a publicly accessible tendering system for state acquisitions, both updated daily.

14 Regulation of media in terms of ownership and the public’s right to essential information, fairly and accurately delivered. Active fostering of ideological diversity in media in the public interest. Insistence on journalistic ethics in the public interest. Higher values of Public Service Broadcasting a requirement for state media.

15 A commitment to expedite a widespread public consultation process towards creating a new constitution for a genuine republic.

Written-up in a little over an hour, this list could be contracted to be a 10-point or 12-point plan, or expanded to include further ideas. Of course, it may be that socialists would take issue with some elements of the list, and republicans with others, although it is hard for me to see where that would apply. But that is what sober discussions should be able to tease out.

The upcoming election should not be about disputation between potential allies but about disputation between conflicting ideologies – on the one hand the over-arching ideology of the state’s ruling parties since 1922 and on the other an ideological alternative that is being demanded by upwards of 50% of prospective voters in the next General Election.

Meanwhile, on the ground, grassroots political activists and mobilised communities are developing their own ideas. Leftist parties of all stripes would do well to understand the price they will pay if they fail to reach agreement to provide an alternative to the hegemonic tyranny of the right by providing a different road-map that would make a better-functioning society possible.

As paragraph four of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic points out, the republic is not just about the prosperity of the people, but about their happiness too.

And who, other than the wealthy, is happy with the state we live in – the political state, and the psychological state?

Stop sniping, stop hurling insults, sit down and discuss. And show us the list. We want to be able to vote for something worthwhile.

Like the prospect of a decent future.

Another Time, Another Place – Alleviating The Housing Crisis

Providing adequate housing for all – a human right – is a problem in all capitalist societies where sensible solutions based on the notions of the common good and simple decency are discarded in the interest of speculators and landlords. Private wealth triumphs over human rights and higher human instincts, but more than that private wealth shoots itself in the foot, repeatedly.

Just as maintaining a numerically significant cohort in society in a state of permanent educational disadvantage and consequent inhibited development makes no economic sense at all, maintaining a significant number of individuals and families in a constantly precarious position with regard to housing makes no economic sense either.

With an ever-aging society where lower birth-rates do not provide a hedge against future demands for health-care or pensions, the idea that it makes sense to discard perhaps 20% of the population – potential earners – based on social class is simply insane. Further, stealing the potential happiness of men, women and children is simply naked brutality at play.

Homelessness brought about by repetitive capital-driven boom-bust is equally insane. It is impossible for those who are homeless to harbour any realistic ambition to seek and find satisfying and productive work or further education or training. Where they are eligible, decent human beings are forced to rely on social security payments or on the charity of strangers to survive. They are not allowed to advance their position, to be productive, to be healthy, to be even moderately happy, to contribute to the exchequer or to have dignity.

In 1970, living in a Notting Hill bedsit in London and with a baby due, my wife and I needed more suitable but affordable housing. Fortunately we lived within the Kensington Burrough Council area, and that council had an enlightened, pragmatic solution that worked.

It was relatively simple. Where a house lay unused, or where a landlord failed to maintain a house in proper order for existing tenants, the council had a procedure for taking control of those houses, carrying out any necessary refurbishment or repairs, letting the units to those on its housing list or to existing tenants, and using the rents to pay for the cost of any works necessary to render the buildings habitable and to a good standard. When the costs of works had been recouped the properties would revert to the owners.

The policy worked on a number of fronts. It provided additional quality housing to the council, it pressured landlords to maintain their buildings to a good standard and to ensure occupancy as opposed to dereliction, it enhanced the appearance of the urban environment, and it made use of existing housing assets to alleviate homelessness.

According to An Spréach housing action collective “…there are over 270,000 vacant houses, flats and apartments scattered around the country, and over 30,000 in Dublin alone”, and “There are over 90,000 people waiting on the social housing list in Ireland”.

There is a short-term solution. It was tried at another time, in another place, and it worked. It was not a permanent fix. One downside was the gentrification of the Notting Hill area a few years later – a boon for landlords and speculators. But there were some housing protections for tenants that made it more difficult for landlords to clear tenants out so as to profit from the property boom.

Adopting that solution runs up against an ideological problem of our own construction – the constitutional right to property. In this non-republic property rights trump human rights. But a creative approach could get around that issue pending a change in our constitution, preferably by scrapping it completely and offering the citizens a new constitution fit for a 21st century republic in which human rights trump property rights.

And it runs up against the problem of an institutionalised belief in local and central government and among the political class that capitalism rules, that no interference can be countenanced in the supremacy of capital to earn unencumbered profit regardless of social or human costs.

So, the homeless crisis is ideologically driven. Worse than that, it is fueled by a brutal indifference on the part of each of the three counter-revolutionary parties – Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil – to the suffering of a significant part of our population and to their under-development or, worse still, un-development.

That is why it is so vital to build a progressive alternative to brutish government dedicated to helping the disadvantaged to move towards not just prosperity, but also happiness, and dignity. Stable decent housing is a component of that.

It’s about humanity. It’s about society. And it’s even about the economy.

Create Alternative or Continue to Fail – Time for Dialogue

Although there are good reasons for optimism arising out of the protests that centre on water metering and billing at the moment – particularly the politicisation of so many who had been silent, the problem is getting past the widespread and mistaken belief on the part of most citizens that our only demonstrable power resides in our interaction with the ballot-box every four or five years.

Because of that, pressure must be maintained on those parties that are not FF, FG and Labour, and on independents – whether lone voices or representing groups, to atempt to overturn permanent misgovernment by any combination of those three parties and replacing that bad option with the option of a progressive alternative combination.

Let us admit from the off that the progressive alternative that we can construct in the short-term will not be perfect, but let us understand that we are capable of refining that initial model. ‘We’ does not indicate a top-down leadership but a bottom-up movement of politicised and increasingly better-informed autonomous citizens.

The most important result of the presentation to the people of an alternative is not necessarily electoral success this time but rather the process of breaking old bad habits of opting for the ‘safe’ haven of ‘the divil you know’. We have had 93 years to learn the hard lessons of that repeated foolishness, and we didn’t.

But the next time out at the polling stations in the General Election offers the opportunity to allow enough people to imagine, many for the first time, that there may be another better option. And if it worked (and it’s a long shot) and there was a government including SF, SP, SWP, other leftist parties and independents, but which didn’t ultimately measure up to our expectations, then we are not married to them either – a politically better informed and more adventurous electorate would be better positioned to move the pieces around the chessboard and less likely to accept failure.

There are real signs of a hunger for change and a willingness to leap into the unknown on the part of 40%-50% of likely voters. There are real signs of a growing active citizenry determined to have their say, to speak directly to existing power structures, and to make their demands for a place at the negotiating table.

Writing Sinn Féin out of that alternative equation, failing to pressure that party into moving further left, is to effectively run up the white flag and to consign the citizens to another five years of counter-revolutionary tyranny. There is currently no alternative that works without the numbers that Sinn Féin will provide which may well be closer to 30% than 20% by election-time. There are valid criticisms that can be made of that party, just as there are valid criticisms that can be made of the SP, SWP and other left groupings. Those criticisms should not trigger ostracisation but should trigger honest dialogue aimed at genuinely serving the citizens by creating a viable alternative.

There are those who will have to hold their nose so as to get over the potential mix of an alternative, some part of which they don’t like or don’t fully trust or about which they have misgivings. We all have to do that to a greater or lesser extent. The important thing is that we hold our nerve, dispel the idea that there can be a ‘pure’ revolution, and try to achieve an electoral payoff that lays the foundation for future transformational change if we don’t succeed this time – or even if we do. Light a fire in the imagination of citizens, and fan the flames. And then don’t be surprised if they start exercising some real control. Welcome it.

Meanwhile, and in parallel, all on the left should engage with the process of creating a new constitution for the sort of society (I call it the Irish Republic, but that’s my bias) that we think would work far better for all citizens, and for those who live among us, than the existing failed entity. Venezuelans and others have been able to do that, but for some strange reason we either believe it to be unimportant or that we are incapable of pulling it together. Without doing that work all we have to offer the people as we seek their support are broad principles, often fuzzy, rather than a clear outline of what the state that the citizens must own has to offer politically, socially and economically under that new constitutional regime over which the citizens must exercise ultimate authority.

Leaving the gate open for more of the same dreadful failure that we have consistently endured since 1922 is simply not an option for any genuine socialist or republican whose concern must be implementing immediate change to significantly alleviate the severe plight of many of our people, and whose goal must be the creation of a far better country in which to live, and not just exist.

The State, and loyalty withheld

The constitution of this State (Bunreacht na hÉireann) demands two things of citizens in Article 9.3 thus – ‘Fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State are fundamental political duties of all citizens’.

The authors of this dreadful constitution have tried to conflate two very different things, making both fundamental conditions (duties) of citizenship. Like many others I have no problem declaring my fidelity to the nation (the people) in all of its (their) diversity. However, my membership of that nation does not rely, and neither do my rights as a native-born citizen, on expressing or having loyalty to ‘the State’.

There is a moral/ethical price for exacting loyalty, otherwise it is induced through coercion or bribery or persuasive propaganda. A State which has lost all moral/ethical compass, as this State demonstrably has over many issues of fundamental human rights over many decades, cannot demand the loyalty of citizens to the State. That loyalty can only be in the gift of the citizen, or can be withheld.

The treatment of women and children in particular since the foundation of the State, the thrashing of their fundamental human rights, well documented, is so egregious as to lead any right-thinking person who is a citizen to withhold any sense of loyalty to the State, as I publicly state that I do.

Now, perhaps the government would refer my disloyalty to the State to the Gardaí – the coercive agents of the State – for investigation and prosecution, the same Gardaí who see nothing to investigate in the case of the Tuam septic-tank disposal of of 796 bodies of children born and prematurely dead in what was effectively State ‘care’, the same Gardaí who have on many occasions covered-up crimes against the fundamental human rights of women and children.

This State has long-since lost any right to exercise any moral/ethical authority over me as a citizen. My tacit complicity in this State’s crimes against humanity is a price for loyalty that I will not pay, regardless of what the constitution demands.

The State that will have my loyalty is one that is constituted as a true republic with its fundamental and binding laws expressed in a constitution fit for a republic, embodying all of the rights and guarantees that those who live within its boundaries, both citizens and non-citizens, are entitled to.

Those rights and guarantees will include the vigorous prosecution of any agent of the State at any level of authority who fails to protect and vindicate the fundamental human rights of the person.

Until that is achieved my fidelity and loyalty belong only to the nation – the people – ‘the native-born Gael and the strangers within our gates’, as James Connolly described the Irish.

Referendum should tick No! and No!

Opinion polls suggest that both the abolition of the Seanad and the creation of the Court of Appeal will be approved by the citizens in the double-referendum on October 4th next. While there is a widely held view that the Seanad is undemocratic in its election-process and its party-political appointments and that as a second parliamentary chamber it is ineffectual, and that long delays in appeals to the Supreme Court and the inefficient use of that court for many appeals needs to be corrected, there are valid arguments against approving either proposal.

The faults attributed to the Seanad are valid, but they can be corrected. One of the most oft-quoted objections refers to the undemocratic selection of senators. There is no reason, other than fear on the part of the permanent parties of government, Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil, of a loss of control, why all members of the Seanad could not be elected by the citizens as befits a democracy, and not just by elite groups or at the whim of the Taoiseach, as at present.

The manner of electing the senators to a reformed Seanad is up for debate, whether using current or special Seanad constituencies or a list system or a combination of both. By opening up the selection to the electorate at large we would have a second house that could be truly representative of the people. The argument that it is necessary to stack the Seanad with ‘experts’ is a specious one, since ‘experts’ have led us to disaster, including the loss of sovereignty, massive debts, widespread scandals across a range of institutions, and so on. In any case, expert opinion is widely available, for free or for a fee.

It is possible to give the Seanad powers that would stop short of the power to bring down the government, if that is a concern. Its function could be as a debating chamber with a different structure and dynamic to the Dáil, and its powers could include generating and introducing legislation, and offering amendments to government proposals for further consideration by the Dáil, and could also include the power to hold Seanad hearings with the authority to summon relevant government ministers, civil servants, and other powerful people outside parliament or public service, for questioning on legislation, or matters of grave public concern, or on contentious issues, while also providing a means by which citizens could address parliament on issues of concern or on the effects of policy proposals on them or their communities. It could also have the power to delay legislation for a reasonable period to prevent it being ramrodded through by using the party whip system, as at present.

All political power at present rests with the government, and in effect that means with the executive branch – the cabinet. In fact that is further refined in the case of the present government in which Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan act as a super-cabinet – they might be called the Four Horsemen of the Austerity Apocalypse. Government backbenchers are lobby fodder. Given the massive majority the government enjoys over the opposition, there is no possibility of the government being challenged in any effective way, including the possibility of bringing down the government, which should always exist as an option in a democracy.

Far from abolishing the Seanad, there is a pressing need to recreate it as a truly democratic second chamber which applies checks and balances to the Dáil and provides a forum for other voices to come through. And that is in reality the most immediate reform of the political system that is required. Far from being a representative democracy, the Dáil as constituted fails to include in its makeup representatives that spring directly from, for instance, the large working class constituency, whose interests are mediated through political parties dominated by lawyers, teachers and other professionals belonging to the middle-class and the bourgeoisie. Other groups are un/under/mis-represented at present. Where are the 51% of the population – women – in parliament, or the factory workers or carers or unemployed or under-employed, or the families of those forced out of the country to find work? Either non-existent, or very few and far between.

The second proposal for October 4th is the creation of a Court of Appeal between the High Court and the Supreme Court. The principal argument in favour of the creation of this new court is to speed up the hearing of appeals, currently creating a four-year back log for the Supreme Court.

Creating this new court allows very necessary overhauling of the way both the court and legal systems work, or in fact, often don’t work, to be kicked to touch. The same inefficiencies, the same ridiculous costs and the same lack of access to the higher courts for the great majority of citizens will still exist.

That lack of access to the courts cuts at one of the pillars of democracy, creating a dreadfully unequal situation for many, either through the delaying of justice or the denial of justice.

The problem is not the absence of another layer of courts but the practices that prevail now and will prevail with the new court, if passed. Any citizen who takes the time to visit the Four Courts, or as they are known by many, the Four Goldmines, and who goes into the various courts, Circuit, High and Supreme, will observe bewigged and gowned barristers playing out games more suitable to secondary school debating. Far from being wise and learned, judges very often indulge the game-playing and posturing by opposing teams of scandalously well-paid barristers. It is far from edifying to observe the ludicrously expensive pantomimes in progress.

It is also evident at times that there is a bias or a favouritism towards a particular barrister or team on the part of a judge, hardly surprising given the manner of selecting judges, with many having had previous lives when barristers or less often solicitors as activists for one of the three parties of permanent government, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, and no doubt enjoying relationships with other barristers from their past whether they are based on legal collaboration, or party affiliation, or old school connection, or…whatever.

The fact is that the legal profession, at the top, is drawn from far too small a pool of relatively wealthy people, often from well-known legal families and from graduates of a small number of private schools specialising in preparing students for the  ‘elite’ professions, especially medicine and law. All of the dangers of incestuous professional relationships exist because of the structures around entry into, and advancement in, the legal profession. There should be no place for this in a system of laws and courts in a genuine democracy, let alone a democratic republic.

These and other problems, including the scandal of massive fees charged by elite barristers and solicitors, will not be removed by the creation of another layer to the courts, but will only exacerbate them. Capping legal fees, measures to prevent ‘elite’ lawyers from monopolising too many cases, changing the way judges consider evidence to the inclusion of a book of evidence from each side with only relevant arguments taking up court time, and the appointment of a Courts Ombudsman acting on behalf of citizens where there are complaints of unfairness in the way cases are heard or adjudicated by judges, would be far more productive in making the courts more efficient and fair, and more democratic, as they should be.

These two proposals, one to abolish the Seanad, the other to create an extra tier to the courts system, are trick-of-the-loop proposals from political parties with no evident interest, either now or in the past, in genuine reform of either politics or the law. Both proposals should be thrown back in their faces, and instead citizens should insist on proper reforms that will lead to changes designed to improve the workings of both parliament and the courts to the benefit of the citizens.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the constitution itself, a bad constitution in very many respects, outdated, still sectarian, still misogynistic, still favouring property over the rights of citizens, still providing a hiding place for politicians wishing to preserve a corrupt status quo, still pretending to citizens that since they have a constitution they are sovereign. They are not.

The pretence of ‘reforming the constitution’ is carried on under the noses of an unobservant and disengaged citizenry, another trick-of-the-loop manoeuvre by a hegemonic political class. Real reform of the constitution would start with a blank sheet and the aim of creating a state and a society in which the citizen was paramount and sovereign, with no citizen above or below any other.

We are capable of doing just such a task. After all, the citizens of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela have achieved that, in a short period of time, and we are no less capable than the Venezuelan people. While our 1937 Constitution is meaningless to most Irish citizens, theirs is central to their lives, owned and read by most Venezuelan citizens, and employed by them – across the social classes – to vindicate their civil, legal and human rights.

Aquiescence in our own fooling by three-card-trick chancers digs us into a deeper hole. We should use that powerful word ‘no’ twice on October 4th – No! and No!

And then insist on real change, and no less.

First Principles Fundamental To Constitutional Reform

‘There needs to be real political reform’ was the mantra of all parties in the last General Election. Judging by the text of the Coalition’s Programme for Government constitutional reform can be taken to mean tinkering around with the existing Constitution. But this reform needs to go far deeper. Real change requires the scrapping of the 1937 Constitution – a flawed, misogynistic, sectarian, anti-egalitarian document which has institutionalised inequality and injustice under a range of headings, making it anti-republican in a country that claims to be a republic.

The tone of the current constitution is set in its  preamble which states:

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 Éire,

Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial,

Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation,

And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations,

Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.

It is legitimate to argue that this preamble is inappropriate to today’s Ireland in which reside many citizens who worship a different version of ‘God’ to the Christian one, or who are non-believers, including Atheists. It is not for the State but for the citizen to pay homage to a ‘God’ or not to do so. There is a valid argument that the State should guarantee religious liberty while maintaining a strictly secular stance of not seeking to interfere in the personal beliefs or practices of the citizen with regard to religious or spiritual belief or lack of same.

A more appropriate preamble in the constitution of a republic would be one which lays out the founding principles and ethos of that republic, and names the republic, and that from this preamble all subsequent articles of the constitution and all legislation by parliament both past and present should flow in accordance with the principles and ethos of the republic. By way of comparison with the existing preamble here is one option:

The Irish Republic is a Sovereign Independent State and is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of all citizens. The Republic declares the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and all of its natural resources and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible, and will strive to achieve this in full by peaceful means. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights, respect and opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts.

This is of course a reconstructed synthesis of the key points of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic which takes into account  the political reality of partition and divided allegiances on the island now, and the need to redress these physical, cultural and psychological divisions through dialogue in parallel with the practical application of progressive enlightenment republicanism, and through this the construction of a State and society worthy of realising the ambition of the unification of the island and its people to the advantage of all.

It is worth using that proposed preamble as a way of gauging how any of the key issues that affect citizens would have to be determined either in the Constitution or through legislation. For instance, there are two words in that preamble that are significant in their own right – one is ‘happiness’, and the other is ‘all’ which is repeated a number of times. The use of ‘all’ with respect to citizens removes any qualification of or diminution of citizenship and fundamental rights by reason of religion, gender, sexual orientation, race, social class, disability and so on. The use of ‘happiness’ has significance if it is applied to the State’s duty in providing for the fundamentals of life – sustenance, health, education, housing, care of children and the elderly, human respect and dignity, and so on. It is a word that is subversive to authoritarianism and corruption – the ‘happiness of the whole nation and of all of its parts’. What a great concept! It is time to make those words work for the citizens and by extension for the nation.

If we are to reform the Constitution then we must start at the beginning and define precisely what sort of Republic we want to have. That is what the signatories to the Proclamation intended, and left the template as their legacy to us.

It remains to us to live up to that legacy. The time is right to do it now. We, the citizens, must take control of reform away from the sectional interests of political parties, and must settle for nothing less than our full legacy.

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