Time is right for a new constitutional beginning

Professor Colin Harvey
Professor Colin Harvey
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What do we want from the proposed Constitutional Convention? That was the timely question raised at a recent event organised by Amnesty International in Dublin.

The mood was plain. Even in these difficult days, an opportunity exists to open up space for a conversation that embraces many voices and to seize the constitutional moment for the better protection of human rights in Ireland. What sort of Constitutional Convention do you want?

There is little doubt that we are living in a time of transition. As our island reflects on the ‘decade of commemorations’ - and the lessons of our history - the possibilities for change also emerge.

The transformation in Northern Ireland is work in progress. But the political advances are notable; in a troubled world, our process has proven resilient. Does it not demonstrate that what once seemed unthinkable can be attained? For all the flaws, compromises and ongoing challenges, it is suggestive of the incremental breaking of old patterns.

An opportunity to be at ease with each other and discuss the kind of shared society we desire?

The room thus opens for a thoughtful constitutional dialogue. Is it a luxury is these economic times? Not so. Implement existing guarantees effectively, yes. But let’s not waste the chance presented to send a signal to all on this island, to the world, and to future generations, that Ireland seeks a principled fresh start.

Debating how the Irish Constitution might better reflect human rights values seems appropriate and necessary in this context.

The complexity of the mature and serious discussions that must be had should not be underestimated. But there is evident worry that a narrowing of the Constitutional Convention is underway with the risk of eroding the genuine potential for imaginative change.

The energy, cost and effort required will give pause for thought. All the more reason to make this a process we can be proud of and one worthy of determined participation.

The Government’s proposals sketch the basis of establishment, the topics for consideration, as well as working methods and composition, among other things. The need for clarity and focus is understandable and the Constitution has, of course, been reviewed before.

The Report of the Constitution Review Group 1996 contained extensive analysis and recommendations for reform. In seeking to create a limited process, there is a danger that the ambition for a new and inclusive conversation is neglected and the potential to secure tangible ownership is lost.

If we are serious, what might we then be talking about? Many subjects could be mentioned, but two appear pressing: socio-economic rights and equality. Is it now time to advance more robust and explicit constitutional recognition of rights which have a practical meaning to many?

Rights to healthcare, to adequate housing, to an adequate standard of living. These are among the basic rights intrinsic to human dignity and to a secure existence. Can we have, as part of the Constitutional Convention, the debate?

It is a basic point, but retains its force: equality should be the foundation of any republican constitution. Yet there is unambiguous scope for better reflection of a strengthened constitutional commitment. Much more could be said. The ideas are there. Let’s have the debate.

Constitutions embody much that is mundane about the structures of a state. They also capture the hopes, aspirations and values of a country.

The Constitutional Convention presents a chance to engage with each other about the Ireland we want to live in. It should be our legacy for generations to come. It is time for a new constitutional beginning. Why live to regret a missed chance to present an enduring gift to a new Ireland that knows that the better protection of human rights is a definitive rebuke to a shameful past? What sort of Constitutional Convention do you want?

Colin Harvey is a Derry-born academic based at the School of Law at Queen’s University, Belfast.