That Dáil Éireann:
approves the calling of a Convention on the Constitution to consider the following matters and to make such recommendations as it sees fit and report to the Houses of the Oireachtas:
(i) reducing the Presidential term of office to five years and aligning it with the local and European elections;
(ii) reducing the voting age to 17;
(iii) review of the Dáil electoral system;
(iv) giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in Presidential elections at Irish embassies, or otherwise;
(v) provision for same-sex marriage;
(vi) amending the clause on the role of women in the home and encouraging greater participation of women in public life;
(vii) increasing the participation of women in politics;
(viii) removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution; and
(ix) following completion of the above reports, such other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by it; and
— membership of the Convention will consist of 100 persons as follows:
— a Chairperson to be appointed by the Government;
— 66 citizens entitled to vote at a referendum, randomly selected so as to be broadly representative of Irish society;
— a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly from each of the political parties in the Assembly which accepts an invitation from the Government; and
— members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, so as to be impartially representative of the Houses;
— substitutes may be appointed subject to the selection criteria above, who will be entitled to contribute to the proceedings and vote in their own name;
— the Convention will agree its own rules of procedure for the effective conduct of its business in as economical manner as possible;
— the Convention will have appropriate regard to the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement;
— not later than two months from the date of the first public hearing held by the Convention, the Convention will make a report and recommendation to the Houses of the Oireachtas on each of the matters set out at (i) and (ii) above;
— the Convention will report and make recommendations to the Houses of the Oireachtas on each remaining matter as soon as it has completed its deliberations, but in any event not later than one year from the date of the first public hearing;
— the Convention may invite and accept submissions from interested bodies and will seek such expert advice as it considers desirable;
— all matters before the Convention will be determined by a majority of the votes of members present and voting, other than the Chairperson who will have a casting vote in the case of an equality of votes; and
— the Government will provide in the Oireachtas a response to each recommendation of the Convention within four months and, if accepting the recommendation, will indicate the timeframe it envisages for the holding of any related referendum."
The motion before the House in my name and that of the Tánaiste fulfils the promise in the programme for Government to establish a constitutional convention. The setting up of the convention is an important and exciting step in a process to better equip our Constitution to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
From the outset, it has been the Government's intention that the convention should be founded on a number of principles. It should be innovative, independent, and influential. The establishment of the convention represents an innovative approach to examining constitutional reform, one that has never been tried before in this country. It is true that there have previously been committees to examine constitutional reform, both generally and on specific matters, but this convention will be radically different. In addition to elected representatives, the constitutional convention will comprise ordinary citizens, who will be considerably in the majority. This important innovation will ensure that, for the first time in this State, both the legislators who bring forward proposals for constitutional reform and the citizens who decide on the merits or otherwise of those proposals will jointly and publicly consider whether constitutional reform is necessary or desirable.
The second principle underpinning the setting up of the convention is that it should be independent of Government. Resolutions of both Houses of the Oireachtas will approve its establishment and it will report back directly to the Houses.
The independence of the convention will be further demonstrated by the manner in which the citizen members will be selected. They will be randomly selected, using the electoral register, to be representative of society generally. A polling company will be engaged to select 66 people on the electoral register to be members of the convention on the basis that the persons selected are representative of the population generally in terms of gender, age, social class and region. I strongly urge anyone who is contacted to take the opportunity to participate in this exciting and historic initiative. As Deputies will be aware, legislation will be required to use the electoral register for this purpose and that legislation is being brought before the House by my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. The selection of the public members will be overseen by the chairperson of the convention.
In the spirit of inclusiveness, the 33 elected representatives to the convention will include a parliamentarian from each of the parties represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly which accept an invitation from the Government to participate in the convention's work. The invitations will issue once the Dáil and Seanad have passed the convention resolutions.
The chairperson will also be independent and will be pivotal to the success of the convention. In view of this crucial role, an exceptional person will be needed, combining very high levels of public acceptability, known fair-mindedness, effective chairmanship skills and knowledge of the Constitution and law. The ability to arrive at workable solutions, while ensuring as far as possible that all participants get a fair hearing, will also be crucial. In view of the importance of this position, I invited representatives of the Opposition parties to put forward possible names when I consulted them on the arrangements for the convention. The Tánaiste and I expect to announce the chairperson shortly.
The third principle underpinning the setting up of the constitutional convention is that it must be influential. This can only be achieved if its recommendations are responded to in an appropriate and timely manner. One of the main criticisms of previous attempts to initiate constitutional reform was that after much excellent work by, for example, various Oireachtas committees and the constitutional review group, their reports were not acted upon and, to use the well-worn phrase, they were left to gather dust on the shelf. The Government recognises that unless the reports the convention produces are responded to quickly, the convention and, indeed, the very process on which we have embarked will be called into question.
I wish to give a formal commitment to the House that the Government will give a public response, through the Oireachtas, to each recommendation from the convention within four months. We will arrange for a debate in the Oireachtas on that response in each case and, in the event that the Government accepts a recommendation that the Constitution be amended, the Government's public response will include a timeframe for the holding of the referendum. This goes considerably further than any previous Government has gone and, I think, fully demonstrates the extent of our commitment to this new and innovative approach to constitutional reform. Before making its response, the Government will, of course, fulfil the obligation that every Government has in considering proposals for constitutional reform - first, to consider the proposal itself carefully and, second, to ensure as far as possible that the aim of the proposal is achieved without this leading to unintended consequences.
The topics which the convention will consider are set out in the resolution. They include institutional matters, such as the review of the Dáil electoral system, as well as important social issues, such as the greater participation of women in public life, and same-sex marriage. There has been some criticism that the work programme for the convention does not go far enough and that it should encompass even more comprehensive reform. The Government remains of the view that the work programme outlined in the resolution is appropriate. The issues that will be before the convention are not light matters. In this context, it should also be borne in mind that the establishment of the convention will complement the Government's overall programme of constitutional reform, some of which has already been put to the people in referendums. As Deputies will be aware, proposals for further referendums are being prepared on an important social issue, children's rights, and on a key political and institutional change, the abolition of the Seanad.
I have no doubt that the full programme of constitutional reform which will be put to the people over the lifetime of this Government will be the most comprehensive in many years. However, to show that the Government is prepared to consider calls for an even more comprehensive work programme for the convention, we are prepared to consider whether other topics could be considered at a later date. We will review this in the light of experience and the Tánaiste and I will consult with Opposition representatives and the chairperson of the convention at the appropriate time.
The inclusion of additional topics could, of course, have implications for the timeframe within which the convention must complete its work. Indeed, concerns have already been expressed that the convention will have insufficient time to complete the work programme outlined in the resolution before the House. The Government is of the view that the timeframe proposed in the resolution is appropriate for the convention's proposed work programme. However, we are prepared to review the timeframe in the light of experience and, indeed, any future changes to the convention's work programme and we will undertake this review in consultation with representatives of the Opposition parties.
The Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement are fundamental to the changed relationships on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. It is wholly appropriate, therefore, that elected representatives of the different traditions in Northern Ireland should be enabled to participate in the work of the convention which will, as the resolution states, have appropriate regard to the principles enshrined in the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements.
The Government is conscious of the views expressed that interest groups or specific sections of society should be represented at the convention. Vulnerable, disadvantaged or marginalised groups, children, people from Northern Ireland, especially Northern Unionists, the diaspora and Ireland's newest citizens are some of the groups mentioned. The Government is firmly of the view that the convention should be composed of ordinary citizens and elected representatives. It is simply not practical to accommodate in a fair and representative manner all of the groups or sections of society that have been proposed. However, it is anticipated that interest groups and non-governmental organisations will be able to interact with the convention, including by making submissions. Indeed, we would expect that the chairperson and other members of the convention will be anxious to hear from a representative spectrum of opinion in carrying out their work. The Government also hopes that there will be active engagement with the diaspora. The constitutional convention will be a transparent and an interactive forum. It is important that ordinary citizens can not only contribute to the work of the convention but can also see how their contribution fits into its overall deliberations.
The success of the convention will depend to a large extent on the level of engagement with the general public and I would like to take this opportunity to encourage citizens to contribute to the debate. I have no doubt the convention itself will be anxious to hear from all strands of opinion at home and abroad. To facilitate as wide an engagement as possible, it is expected that much of the convention's work will be done via a new website which I understand will be launched shortly. It is also planned to put the convention's working papers and various submissions on this website and it is intended that plenary meetings of the convention will be webcast live.
It will be important that the convention has an appropriate range of supports to assist it in its work. The Government has put arrangements in train to provide a secretariat from within existing resources. While the secretariat will be relatively small, the issue of whether young unemployed people could be given an opportunity to work on the convention, for example, through the JobBridge programme, will be considered.
The wide-ranging nature of the topics to be considered by the convention is likely to require a significant amount of work for the members. An expert advisory group will assist the convention in its endeavours and will provide specialist guidance on the variety of issues to be examined. This support from leading academics, political scientists and constitutional lawyers will be an important factor in the success of the convention and I very much look forward to their contribution.
The changes experienced and challenges encountered by Irish society over recent years require an appropriate response. The putting in place of this innovative and exciting process for considering constitutional reform, one which directly involves our citizens, is a key part of the Government's response. On my behalf and that of the Tánaiste, I commend this resolution to the House.