The DIY constitutional convention

The idea of constitutionalising economic and social rights is nothing new – either here or abroad. While these kinds of rights won't be debated in the Government’s charade, they could be in a People’s Convention that is rooted in civil society. By Michael Taft.

The Government is bringing forward proposals for a constitutional convention. Dr. Conor O’Mahony of UCC calls it a ‘charade’. It might be that. It certainly is irrelevant. With unemployment and poverty rising, the economy stuck in recession, the Eurozone at threat of break-up – what does the Government serve up? A debate over whether we should reduce the Presidential term from seven to five years; give citizens the right to vote at embassies; reduce the voting age to 17, etc. Is there anyone out there buying into this ‘charade’?

No doubt, progressives will grumble (just like I did). We are good at grumbling at the Government. Grumbling can cover up our powerlessness; for how can we convince this Government to do something substantial and progressive – whether it’s on the economy, labour market or social policy?

Well, let’s give up our grumbling and do something. Let’s take possession of the debate on constitutional reform. Let’s push our priorities up the agenda. Let’s convene a ‘People’s Constitutional Convention’.

The difference between a People’s Convention and the Government’s charade is that in the former, real issues that actually mean real things to real people can be put on the agenda. Here are some examples:

  • The right to an adequate means of livelihood (that is, not to live in poverty or material deprivation);
  • The right to employment;
  • The right to free and equal health care based on need;
  • The right to free education;
  • The right to secure and suitable accommodation.

The main objection is that these are ‘policies’ which should be legislated for and are not appropriate for a constitution. I've never understood this objection. The courts don’t write policy – but it is one more means to hold the Government to account, to ensure that whatever policy is pursued peoples' rights are vindicated. In other words, these rights transcend the programmatic solutions a government might or might not introduce.

That such rights can be ‘constitutionalised’ comes from relatively recent US history. Near the end of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt made an historic radio address:

“We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people - whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth - is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.”

He went on to state that the traditional political rights – free speech, press, worship – “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” He, therefore, proposed a ‘second Bill of Rights’, in which he hoped to include:

  • The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
  • The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
  • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
  • The right of every businessman, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
  • The right of every family to a decent home;
  • The right to adequate medical care and
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
  • The right to a good education.

Works for me. Even the framers of the 1937 constitution saw some merit in this social approach – constitutional mandating of the provision of primary education. But in the debate, some TDs wanted to go further – in the direction that FDR was to propose. William Davin, TD stated:

“If the individual citizen has any right under the Constitution, he is entitled to receive in unqualified language...a guarantee of the right to work and the right to a decent livelihood, and, if he cannot get work the right to a decent standard of maintenance. That is a provision which the present Government which calls itself a democratic Government and a workers' Government should have inserted in this Constitution.” (Dáil Debate, 11 May 1937)

Patrick Hogan, TD agreed:

“I should have thought that there would be expressly set out in a Constitution the right of all citizens either to work or maintenance. That is one of the most serious omissions in this Constitution... There is no provision made by which citizens...will find any means of existence provided for them. One would expect to find in a Constitution a provision on these lines: ‘that every citizen shall be afforded an opportunity of sustaining life and the lives of those dependent upon them by labour, physical or mental, and where such is not available that the State shall maintain him and his dependents in frugal comfort.’ That is a provision that should find expression in a Constitution of this kind.” (12 May 1937)

James Pattison, TD threw in that whole economic democracy thing, proposing that the following be inserted into the constitution:

“The State shall endeavour to secure that every section of the community engaged in wealth producing operations will have an influence in directing the policy and tendency of the enterprise.” (June 10 1937)

[Labour members should take note – all the TDs quoted above were from their party.]

So the idea of constitutionalising economic and social rights is nothing new – either here or abroad.

These and other rights should be debated in a constitutional convention. It won’t happen in the Government’s charade. It can happen in a People’s Convention that is rooted in civil society.

How can we proceed? Here are three principles that should be considered.

  • First, the People’s Convention must be organised and administered by a reputable group that everyone can have confidence in – a group that is ruthlessly non-sectarian. The Sheehy-Skeffington Summer School (where the above was discussed) could be one group. Claiming our Future could be another group. Whichever group leads this, the People’s Convention cannot be seen as a tool of any group pursuing a pre-conceived agenda.
  • Second, all civil society groups (social and community organisations, single-issue groups, trade unions) should be invited to send delegates to participate. The widest possible net should be cast to ensure the highest level of buy-in.
  • Third, the activities of the People’s Convention should mirror the Government’s charade schedule. When they hold a plenary session, so should the civil society groups; when oral submissions are made to working committees – the People’s Convention should schedule the same thing for the same day. In this way, the contrast between the two will be brought into the sharpest focus.

The outcome should serve as a new narrative for progressive groups. We will have a constitutional blueprint that we can all unite around – and serve as a substantial alternative to the cosmetic make-over the Government is proposing. This, in itself, can provide a new tool for mobilisation.

So onward with the People’s Convention. The constitution belongs to all of us. It should include all of us. It should vindicate all of us – our rights and our hopes. Let’s make it happen.  {jathumbnailoff}