Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)
Question 24: To ask the Taoiseach if he has received many requests from members of the public and or groups who wish to partake in the Constitutional Convention; the way he will select the 66 members of the public; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15188/12]
Question 25: To ask the Taoiseach if he has received correspondence from the Council of Civil Liberties in relation to the Constitutional Convention and their request for inclusion in the convention; if he has replied to them; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15189/12]
Question 26: To ask the Taoiseach in view on whether voting rights for emigrants in presidential elections should be on the agenda for the Constitutional Convention; and if he agrees that any future extension of presidential voting rights should extend to citizens living in the north. [17226/12]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 24 to 35, inclusive, together.
The Government published its proposals for the constitutional convention on 28 February and, on 7 June, we published our response to Opposition parties' views on those proposals. We will shortly move resolutions in both Houses of the Oireachtas approving establishment of the convention. The Government intends that the convention will consist of 100 members, including a chairperson. A polling company will be engaged to select at random 66 people entitled to vote in a referendum to be members of the convention on the basis that they will be representative of the population generally in terms of gender, age, social class and region. The selection process will be overseen by the convention's independent chairperson. Legislation will be required to use the electoral register in the selection and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will bring forward that legislation shortly.
The remaining 33 members of the convention will be made up of Oireachtas Members and a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly from each of the political parties in the Assembly which accepts an invitation from the Government to be represented on the convention. While I have not met interest groups in regard to the convention, I am aware that several have signalled a desire to participate in its work. Some, including the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, have made written representations to me. Views have also been expressed that specific sections of society should be included in the membership of the convention, including vulnerable, disadvantaged or marginalised groups; children; persons from Northern Ireland, including, in particular, Northern Unionists; the diaspora; and Ireland's newest citizens. The Government is firmly of the view that the convention should be composed of ordinary citizens and elected representatives. It is not practical to accommodate as members, in a fair and representative manner, all of the groups or sections of society that have been proposed. However, it is expected that interest groups will be able to interact with the convention, including by making submissions, and that the chairperson and members will be anxious to hear from a representative spectrum of opinion in carrying out their work.
The convention will be asked to consider the topics outlined in the programme for Government, including giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections at Irish embassies or otherwise. As well as specific topics, the programme makes clear that the convention is free to consider "other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by it".
To get the convention started, the Government proposes that initially it should look at two matters: reducing the presidential term to five years; and reducing the voting age to 17. The convention will be asked to submit reports on these two matters within two months. In that way, any necessary refinements to the convention can be made before it starts the rest of its work.
The Government is aware that there have been calls for a more comprehensive work programme for the convention. It is our view that the convention should deal first with the specific topics in the programme for Government. The Government is prepared to consider whether other topics could be considered at a later date, in the light of experience. I will consult with Opposition representatives and the chairperson of the convention at the appropriate time.
The convention will be independent in the performance of its functions and the role of the Government is to assist, as appropriate, in setting it up. A budget of €300,000 has been provided for the convention this year and staff are being provided from within existing numbers. Preparations are continuing for the establishment of the convention and I expect that it will hold its first meeting in September.
I should mention that I engaged in two rounds of consultations with Opposition parties on the proposed structure and operation of the convention. Suggestions put forward by them are being taken into account in framing the resolutions that the Government will bring before the Houses shortly. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the Government recently published its response to the suggestions made by the Opposition parties on the merrionstreet.ie website.
Finally, I stress that the Government has made public its commitment to giving a public response, through the Oireachtas, to each recommendation from the convention within four months, and to arrange for a debate in the Oireachtas on that response in each case. In the event that the Government accepts a recommendation that the Constitution be amended, our response will include a timeframe for the holding of a referendum.
I appreciate that time is very short for such a substantive item. I wish to remind the Taoiseach of the ringing declaration that the Fine Gael Party made some time ago when it said a Fine Gael Government would hold a referendum on Constitution day within 12 months of assuming office, in which the people would be asked to approve the abolition of the Seanad and other changes to Articles of the Constitution covering institutions of the State, principally the Executive, the Dáil, the Presidency and the Judiciary. Would the Taoiseach accept that we have come a long way from the lofty rhetoric that he so solemnly and determinedly articulated not so long ago? From our perspective, that goes to the heart of the inadequacy of the proposal that the Government has put before us concerning the constitutional convention. I do not believe the process the Taoiseach has embarked upon is comprehensive enough, nor does it have any sense of vision or definite direction.
The Taoiseach has said that the constitutional convention is likely to meet in September. Many of the non-governmental organisations which have been interested in this feel there has been an inadequate degree of consultation with them. They include the Irish Council of Civil Liberties and Amnesty International, among others. People feel that the human rights dimension of constitutional reform should at least be considered by the convention.
Has the Taoiseach considered substituting the two issues he wants to initiate with the work of the convention - that is, reducing the voting age from 18 to 17, and reducing the presidential term of office? They are not really fundamental or substantive in terms of the Constitution itself, and could even be agreed outside the convention. Other issues dealing with the electoral system - or, in the Taoiseach's own words, the Seanad, Judiciary and the Executive - could be dealt with, as well as some human rights issues.
In the existing Constitution we have universal access to primary education, but have we ever considered that in regard to health? We have heard a lot about the new republic that was somehow to be encapsulated by a new Constitution, but we are nowhere near any of that now. What has been proposed is underwhelming and there is no sense of a timetable, although perhaps the Taoiseach could outline one for me. How does he see any changes that may be recommended by the convention coming to fruition over the next two years?
I welcome the initiative to convene a constitutional convention and I especially welcome the opportunity to attend briefings the Taoiseach has organised. However, the convention's scope has been limited. During the election campaign, the Taoiseach said, "Modern Ireland cannot be governed by a system of government originally designed for 19th century Britain. Ireland needs more than piecemeal reform, it needs radical root and branch change". I fully agree with that.
Our society has changed because of the peace process in the North, the economic crisis and the revelations of corruption and all the other scandals. People, therefore, are up for big, positive change. There is still time for the Government to move this constitutional convention into dealing with the type of reform the Taoiseach has flagged up. For example, my office has been contacted by an independent online youth organisation called Spunout. It has raised a number of concerns, including whether 16 or 17 year old citizens will be involved in the process of lowering the voting age to citizens aged 17 years. The Government's commitment is only for six citizens under the age of 24 to be part of the convention. All the citizen participation is limited to people on the electoral register, which means that those who are not on the register, for whatever reason, will not be able to have an input. It also means that citizens from the North cannot have an input.
Can this process be broadened out by using social networking and other methods? Can we reduce the age to bring in young people? It must be remembered that the constitutional referendum on the protection of children is coming up also, so we should let young people be heard in this convention. Can we bring in people who are not on the electoral register, particularly those from the Six Counties?
Yes, but clearly one has to set up the convention and let it do its work. It has taken some time to get to that point. I recall Deputy Martin speaking about French ministers having no further contact with the people at all, and that Irish Ministers could become full-time operators in this House and lose sight of the people, as the Deputy did when he was in government.
It is clear that the questions of the Seanad and child protection are outside the scope of the convention. This is because the two parties in Government, in respect of the programme for Government, stipulated that the question of the abolition of the Seanad being put to the people would not be a matter for the constitutional convention, but would be put to them in any event. I notice the Deputy's own party seems to have changed its mind on that as well.
In respect of child protection, as we indicated on a number of occasions, the intention is to hold that referendum in the autumn. I will not name a date for it, however, until I am happy that all the bodies and organisations involved are clear about the issue involved and what the wording actually means.
The Deputy raised the question of Amnesty International and human rights. The very reason for choosing the questions of reducing the voting age to 17 and reducing the presidential term is to see how the convention is actually going to work. We will select 66 people from the register of electors, representative of gender, location, regional spread, age and so on. I want to see how it is actually going to work, so those two issues are ones about which one can give a clear-cut answer. Does one agree with reducing the voting age to 17, or not? In respect of the presidential term, does one agree that it should be reduced to five years in order to bring it into line with the European Parliament and local elections? The Tánaiste and I will review the convention after two months. If weaknesses or inefficiencies are identified or if the convention is not working in the manner in which it is intended we will change it. The Deputy stated that these issues could be agreed outside the convention. However, they are constitutional matters.
This will be a constitutional convention to recommend change. One cannot agree outside of a constitutional convention to change to 17 years the age at which a person may vote. That is a matter for the people by way of referendum.
The convention may discuss the issue of human rights and so on. It may also, together with the independent chairperson to be appointed - this is provided for in the document which perhaps Deputy Martin did not read - recommend other issues which it deems appropriate for consideration.
On Deputy Adams's comments, I do not believe that the structure currently in place is fit for a modern democracy in 2012. The programme for Government is clear on the scale of reduction needed in the Oireachtas and governance generally. It is proposed to reduce the number of Dáil Deputies, as per the recently published constituency commission report which proposes a reduction in the number of constituencies and Deputies. This will be followed by a referendum in regard to abolition of the Seanad, which is also provided for in the programme for Government. The Deputy will be aware of the initiatives being taken by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in regard to changes at local authority level, including in Limerick city and Limerick county, the amalgamation of Tipperary North Riding and Tipperary South Riding and other changes to be announced in terms of political reform, including back office services, shared services and a reduction in the overall bureaucracy around local governance.
The Deputy will be aware from the briefing that a facility will be made available to allow 17 year olds and any other person, at home or abroad, to make submissions online. The same will apply in respect of citizens from Northern Ireland, Australia, America or anywhere else. Those parties who are elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, including Sinn Féin, who wish to respond to the invitation to do so, will be able to nominate a person, separate from their elected representatives here, to attend the convention and reflect the views of the communities which they represent. It is hoped the first meeting of the convention will take place in September and that it will respond on the first two issues by end November. The Government undertakes to then examine those findings and to make a decision within four months on whether a referendum on the issues in question is required. We will at that time know how efficient or inefficient the convention is. If it is not working as proposed we will make changes as appropriate.
I thank Members for their input into this and for the contributions made by the representatives who attended the briefings, including Deputy Ó Fearghail on behalf of Fianna Fáil.