Report of the Convention on the Constitution: Statements

I am pleased today to provide in the Oireachtas the first Government response to recommendations of the Convention on the Constitution. The establishment of the convention was a commitment in the programme for Government. We delivered on it and despite a good deal of scepticism from various quarters the convention has successfully provided a new forum for engagement and interaction between ordinary citizens and politicians about aspects of the Constitution. The recommendations of the convention are considered by the Government and are thus adding to the deliberations of the Government on constitutional reform and amendment, a key commitment in the programme for Government.

Establishment of the Convention on the Constitution was approved by resolution of the Oireachtas 12 months ago in July 2012. The resolution states that 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 first report of the Convention on the Constitution was submitted to the Oireachtas on 26 March 2013. I am now, in accordance with the resolution, providing in the Oireachtas the Government response to the recommendations in that report. The Government welcomes the first report of the Convention on the Constitution, is encouraged by the engagement of the participants and is accepting the main recommendations of the convention in that report. These are that the Constitution should be changed to provide for a voting age of 16 years and that the presidential term should not be reduced to five years nor aligned with local and European elections.

The Government therefore commits to holding a referendum before the end of 2015 on a proposal to amend the Constitution to provide for a voting age of 16. The Government will proceed now with preparations for bringing forward the relevant legislation. This will include careful examination of the consequences of such a change across the policy spectrum including for the age of majority.

In addition to these two main recommendations, the convention made two other recommendations relating to presidential elections which it asked the Government to consider. The Government has considered these two supplementary recommendations of the convention. These are that the age of candidacy for presidential elections be reduced from 35 years and that citizens be given a say in the nomination process at presidential elections. The Government accepts the recommendation on reducing the age of candidacy for presidential elections and has decided that a proposal to reduce the minimum age of candidacy for presidential elections from 35 years to 21 years should be put to a referendum before the end of 2015.

In considering the recommendation that citizens be given a say in the presidential election nomination process the Government is conscious that the present arrangement already provides for citizens to have a say in the presidential election nomination process through their elected representatives both at national and at local level. We would encourage citizens, candidates and elected representatives to exercise fully their democratic mandate in this regard. The Government therefore proposes that this recommendation be referred to the relevant Oireachtas committee for consideration.

I will now cover these recommendations in more detail. One amendment to the Constitution would be necessary to change the voting age. The amendment would be to Article 16.1.2°, which states:

i All citizens, and

ii such other persons in the State as may be determined by law,

without distinction of sex who have reached the age of eighteen years who are not disqualified by law and comply with the provisions of the law relating to the election of members of Dáil Éireann, shall have the right to vote at an election for members of Dáil Éireann.

No other constitutional amendment would be necessary to lower the voting age at presidential and local elections and at referendums because there is a link back, in the relevant articles, to the voting age for Dáil elections.

In the event of the people deciding by referendum to reduce the voting age legislative change would be necessary to provide for persons aged 16 to register to vote and the necessary administrative arrangements for this would also need to be made in due course, but that is another day's work. In the meantime, the Government's preparations for bringing forward the constitutional amendment Bill will include careful examination of the consequence across the policy spectrum of reducing the voting age. The Age of Majority Act 1985 generally provides that adult or full age is 18. Different age limits are provided for in a range of other legislative codes in different areas across the policy spectrum.

It is 32 years since the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 years. Many arguments have been made since, both for and against further reducing the voting age. I do not propose to make any of the arguments here today but I will refer to some of the arguments made at the January meeting of the convention as set out in the first report of the convention. Arguments in favour of reducing the voting age put forward at the convention included that it could help to increase electoral turnout, that reducing the voting age would be consistent with other legal rights that 17 year olds already have and that it could help to facilitate voter registration through schools.

The main arguments against reducing the voting age included that it would be a mistake to "adultify" children; that there is little public support for the proposal; that simply to reduce the voting age would not solve anything; and that 18 is the normally accepted age of legal maturity.

These are all important and valid points of view. Opportunity will be presented for further debate when the constitutional amendment Bill comes before the Oireachtas in due course. Ultimately the decision on reducing the voting age will be made by the people in a referendum on the Constitution.

The second recommendation which the Government has accepted and agreed should be put to the people in a referendum is to reduce the minimum age for presidential election candidates. Article 12.4.1° of the Constitution states: "Every citizen who has reached his thirty-fifth year of age is eligible for election to the office of President." The convention recommended reducing this minimum age but made no recommendation as to what it might be reduced to.

We have decided to accept the recommendation of the convention and to put to the people a proposal to change the minimum age for presidential election candidates from 35 years to 21 years. This is the same age as applies for election to the Dáil and to the European Parliament. As with the voting age amendment this would be a simple amendment to the Constitution. The impact of such a change on a presidential election campaign would not be known until the time for such a campaign comes. However, it would open up the office to a significant additional proportion of the population but that of course is subject to the people voting for such a change.

The Government proposes to refer the recommendation on giving citizens a say in the presidential election nomination process to the relevant Oireachtas committee. Changing the presidential nomination process was not a subject the convention was requested directly to consider. However, it is noted in the report that a very prominent theme to emerge from the small-group deliberations was whether the nomination rules should be amended to give a greater role to citizens in nominating candidates for the presidency and thus help to increase public engagement.

This matter was considered in constitutional reviews in the 1990s and the practical difficulties of implementing such an approach were recognised. The Convention on the Constitution did not offer any insight as to what might be practical. I would expect that the Oireachtas committee would include such considerations in its examination of the recommendation.

In considering this recommendation the Government noted the highest ever levels of activity in local authority nominations in the 2011 presidential election. Local elected representatives in almost every county in Ireland had the opportunity to engage in the presidential nomination process. They met many more potential candidates than those who finally made it onto the ballot paper. There may be a risk of undermining that process if a direct citizen nomination process was put in place.

Others may hold a different view, but one of the great things about our democratic system is that we can debate these issues and sometimes disagree. The convention has shown the value of dialogue. It has provided a new forum and a new way of conducting political deliberation. In the process it has proven itself to be an important and valuable addition to our democracy.

I commend the work of the convention. We all owe a great deal of gratitude to the ordinary members of the convention for engaging so positively in this important work. Participants have given up several weekends and, I am sure, time outside of those weekends in preparing for the meetings.

They are ably led by the chairman, Tom Arnold, and ably supported by his team and by the expert support group. I commend the productivity of the convention in submitting three reports to the Oireachtas in the first half of the year.

I call Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, who is the only Opposition Member present.

Deputy Catherine Murphy and I are the two Independent Deputies on the Constitutional Convention. Initially, I had thought it would be a daunting process because there was a serious and lengthy time commitment and time constraint, but, probably because of the organisation of the Constitutional Convention, it has proved a worthwhile and positive experience. Although initially I may not have been altogether positive about it, I am certainly more so having taken part in it. Deputy Murphy and myself have been at each of the meetings while within the parties there has been some change of personnel. We have been there for each of the weekends.

The proposal came from the programme for Government. It was interesting to reflect on the associated principles. The Government decided that the convention should be innovative, independent and influential. Certainly, it has been innovative. Once it was established I believe it began to show its independence. On the influential aspect, in so far as it can be, it has been, but that aspect will depend on how the Government responds to the reports from the various meetings.

Various committees have been formed to examine reform but the involvement of citizens is one aspect of the convention that is definitely a plus on the innovative side. This is the first time such a measure has been tried in the State. Great efforts were made to ensure that the citizens were representative of society generally, although this was not always fully the case.

On 10 July 2012 I said I hoped that there would be a balance in terms of age, gender, socioeconomic background, the employed and the unemployed, urban and rural, people from the Gaeltacht, the islands and new communities. I pointed out the need to include young people proportionately but I do not believe that box has been ticked in reality. That was part of the debate in the House with the Taoiseach. When we consider the extent of the youth population in this country, it is clear that it is under-represented. We all believe that we are young, but I am referring to people under 24 years.

I expressed a fear that the make-up of 33 Members of the Oireachtas and the 66 citizen members could result in parliamentarians having an inordinate influence on the convention. Having attended the convention over the months, I believe parliamentarians tend to dominate the proceedings, in spite of the best efforts of the chairman, who does say, on occasion, that if a Member has spoken then she should not speak again until other people have had an opportunity to speak. Nevertheless, sometimes parliamentarians get in more often than citizens. Some of us keep to the principle that if a Member has spoken, she should not dominate proceedings subsequently, but I do not believe that is par for the course. We should leave some silences to allow citizen members to speak more. Citizen members have been particularly articulate at the table discussions and have been very open and frank during those sessions.

We know that there is a disconnect and disaffection in the political system as well as a lack of interest in public representatives. We see this in the low level of voter turnout. The parliamentarians who have taken an active part in the Constitutional Convention have probably boosted the general citizen perception of what parliamentarians do.

I had the honour of being the independent speaker at the opening of the Constitutional Convention in Dublin Castle. One point I made at the time was that it should be about our identity as a nation. Another point I made was that sometimes we take our democracy for granted. We have basic rights that people, especially women, do not have in other countries. It is important to remember the freedoms we have, including the rights of free speech, assembly and education. We also have a free press, fortunately, for a while at least. We also have the right to amend the Constitution. I chair the Irish section of the Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa, AWEPA, which involves African parliamentarians. We will have some African parliamentarians attend one of the convention weekends and this represents an important opportunity for them to see a constitutional convention in action.

In the Technical Group submission, we made a point about the need to strike a balance between those areas in need of reform and protecting those parts of the Constitution which have been a solid foundation for realising our democratic free and sovereign State. It is important to remember that since we are in the era of the decade of commemoration and commemorating the defining moments in our history, we should acknowledge that the Constitution came out of the Proclamation and the ideals of the 1916 Rising under the tricolour and the starry plough. It was about breathing more freely together, growing, changing and rising to all challenges, and there are many challenges.

I acknowledge and compliment the organisation of the convention, from the appointment of Tom Arnold as chairman and Art O'Leary as his right-hand person, to all of the staff involved from the Oireachtas not only during the weekend meetings but also in preparation for the meetings and after the meetings when they are writing up the reports. One idea that came from the group was to have a steering group that would meet in between the meetings of the convention and that has been a useful development.

I acknowledge the venue and the practical arrangements at the Grand Hotel, Malahide. There has been an excellent service there. I acknowledge that much work went into ensuring value for money in terms of the budget available. It had been intended that one of the meetings would take place outside Dublin but when the staff from the convention investigated it the costs were far higher than holding the meeting in Dublin. Again, this is part of the innovative aspect of the convention. It came up with the idea of bringing the convention to various towns in Ireland where there would be more citizen representatives who would be able to voice their opinions and where citizen representatives from those areas would have the opportunity to advise people in those areas of the essence of what is going on.

The media has been somewhat hit and miss in its coverage of the convention. It has given a good deal of coverage to certain aspects of the convention, but it could give more coverage to other aspects that are perhaps not as prominent or that might not generate as much media interest.

At each of the meetings to date, great work has been undertaken by the Oireachtas team to ensure balance in the various presentations on the topics. It is fair to say that given all of the submissions received by the team and all the offers they get from various groups etc., they have done a great job to ensure that there is balance and that various voices are heard.

On the Sunday mornings there is a session while the votes are being counted where there is an opportunity for people to make points on what they believe was positive or areas they believe could be improved. In fairness to Mr. Arnold, Mr. O'Leary and the team, they have been very proactive and they have engaged in taking on those particular suggestions. As a result, there have been some changes. At the first meeting, on the Sunday, even when the voting was going on or being counted, other presentations were taking place. Most of us took the view that it would have been useful to hear those presentations before the voting. That was taken on board and there were some changes in the following meetings.

At the time the topics for the convention were announced, there was a good deal of disappointment on the part of various people, myself included, at the narrow remit of the convention. That point was made in the Technical Group submission on the matter. The view was that there was an exclusion of certain topics, which, we believed, were of vital importance in shaping the type of society in which we live, including economic, social and cultural rights as well as matters of housing and health. I am keen to see the rights and conditions of prisoners being considered by the Constitutional Convention and the rights of people with disabilities, mental and physical. I hope that during the last weekend we will have our usual frank and open discussion about where the Constitutional Convention will go afterwards and I believe that would be useful.

We started off with a rather non-contentious issue, reducing the voting age to 17 years - I heard what the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government had to say on that - and the presidential term of office. I was somewhat surprised because I had thought there would have been more of an interest in reducing the term to five years. My opinion and the view of the table I sat at was that seven years with a possible further seven years was rather a long time. We live in a democracy and we know the outcome of the vote.

There is much useful discussion on the nature of the ballot paper. That goes on for some time and we get a draft paper early on Sunday morning. Then, there is a discussion on that and if there is a belief that it needs to be amended it is taken on board and there is general agreement on what that ballot paper should look like.

It is important that the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and perhaps the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government should make an appearance at the Constitutional Convention before it concludes its deliberations. When it came to the presidential election, I acknowledge that when we were debating that matter, the chairman was rather open about considering the nomination process for President, especially for people who are independent. That was important.

When it came to Dáil reform and the electoral system to the Dáil, there was much disquiet on the part of some people that it was too narrow and only considered one particular area in need of reform, whereas many people there would have liked to have seen it cover many more areas. It was very hard to understand the reason Seanad reform was not being discussed at the Constitutional Convention and I acknowledge some Senators went to great efforts to try to have it included. I understood from where the chairman was coming and he allowed their views to be expressed, but I believe a real opportunity was lost in that regard. I hope it is not because the Government had made up its mind that this was the done deal, that is, the Seanad is going, because that would be a shame. Here was an opportunity for citizens to give their opinion on that issue as well before going immediately into a referendum on it.

The weekend devoted to the provision for same-sex marriage was one of the most emotive sessions and while I would not use the word "challenging", it was really great to have been there on that particular weekend and to have heard the speeches from those who are directly affected by the lack of equality of marriage. For me and for others who were present, it was confirming and affirming of the value of marriage because other people also wished to be involved in marriage. Attending that particular session was one of those times about which one subsequently will ask where one was, when it was being discussed and decided, and it was very good to have been there.

As for the session on greater participation of women in public life and so on, I do not believe that simply amending the Constitution really will bring about any great change in that regard. I believe there are two more sessions to go and then a weekend to consider further ways forward. It has been a highly positive experience and the parliamentarians who were present certainly are doing their best to show we are not really the waste of space so many people consider us to be.

Two and a half years ago, we were told a democratic revolution had taken place. A political whirlwind was to sweep through the corridors of Government Buildings and usher in a brave new political world. The citizens of Ireland were clear that the economic crisis demanded a fresh approach to the institutions of the State and a fundamental overhaul of how we do our business. Fine Gael and the Labour Party set out bold promises to enact that change. It was the dawn of a new political era.

Two and a half years later and those heady days seem a distant memory. At the stroke of a Minister's pen, the new Cabinet's reforming zeal has cooled off and hardened into complacency and cynicism. The bright promise turned out to be a dark cynical ploy, a mirage created by charlatan politics. Instead of change, we have found stagnation, instead of renewal, we have suffered decline, and instead of reform, we have endured sheer cynicism. The need to address inadequacies in the architecture of the State was a central part of the national discussion in the aftermath of the economic crisis. The election manifestoes of the parties now in government and the subsequent programme for Government made it a central part of the goals of the present Administration. However, from the outset it was all too clear these pledges were built on sand. Behind the window dressing, the Government consistently has scuppered any real opportunity for reform.

The much-vaunted Constitutional Convention is a case in point. The original idea evoked images of Philadelphia in 1787, a gathering of citizens committed to focusing, in their collective mind's eye, the challenges of redesigning the ship of State. The concept of a body that would deliberate on the challenging questions of how to recast the framework of the State and put forward solutions is a striking idea. However, far from that seminal meeting, the Government's Constitutional Convention was irredeemably flawed from the very outset. From the beginning, the Government has muzzled the convention. It took the conscious decision to constrain the convention within a severely restricted set of topics, while the Government continues to concentrate power into the hands of a four-man council at the top of the largest majority ever seen in the State. The big issues will be denied to the convention only to be driven on by a small clique.

Seanad abolition takes an axe to more than 40 articles of the Constitution, thereby removing the checks and balances that safeguard our democracy in a brutal measure that will mutilate the guiding book of the State. Yet this topic has not been deliberated upon by the very convention the Government set up to revise the Constitution and make it fit for purpose in a changed Ireland. Instead, the Government has engaged in a cynical game of political gimmickry masquerading as reform. For the sake of short-term political gain, it is jeopardising the fundamental law of the land, the basic architecture of the State that has sustained the country for more than 75 years through war, armed sedition and economic crisis. The Government's enthusiasm for slash and burn politics stretches into the corridors of local government with the policy to abolish town hall democracy. As Edmund Burke put it, "To innovate is not to reform". Change is not an improvement in itself and eliminating swathes of the structure of government in Ireland will not improve it unless real reforms are implemented across other levels. However, the Government is only interested in quick and easy headlines, not the time-consuming and politically demanding challenge of getting local government to work for the citizens. The emasculated state of local government in Ireland and the immense impact this has on our political culture nationally has been utterly ignored. The myopic nature of the political reform agenda fails to appreciate the inextricably bound nature of local and national politics. Genuine political reform must stretch from the community hall to the corridors of the Cabinet, but the convention is not allowed to deal with this.

Away from the high level political stunts, a darker agenda is at play from the present Administration, at which the convention is not being empowered to look. I refer to the concentration of power into the hands of a few, that is, the amassing of power by a small clique of men -I underline that for all the talk of gender equality they are solely men - calling the shots in an unbalanced Cabinet. The four-man Economic Management Council runs the show while the backbenchers ossify into idle irrelevance as lobby fodder. The convention has not been put in a position to pose questions on the critical relationship of the Executive and the Legislature, which continues to dominate Irish politics. Until this relationship is addressed, any changes are merely tinkering around the edges and this is the ultimate aim of a Government that is content with the status quo.

If one looks at the actions of the Government in this House, the bleak agenda of a power grab hiding behind the charade of reform becomes clear. The record shows a dark litany of hypocrisy. First, the Government is systematically breaking its pledge in the programme for Government not to guillotine Bills, as 63% of all legislation has been guillotined to date. Second, it has failed in respect of 78% of Bills to implement its programme for Government commitment to allow for two weeks between Stages of Bills. Third, the Topical Issue debate is being completely undermined by the failure of relevant Ministers to turn up in more than 40% of cases. The Friday sitting farce constitutes mere window dressing to bolster sitting days without any real debate. Moreover, sitting days have expanded by 23% and not the 50% increase promised. Finally, the Government continues to engage in cronyism in State board appointments, thereby ignoring the open public process, with a mere one in five appointees actually coming from that process.

This chronicle of political avarice illustrates the lust for power hidden by a thin veil of change that really drives the Government, and the Constitutional Convention has been hamstrung by this underlying motivation. The most disappointing aspect of the approach ruthlessly taken by the Government is not merely the growing pile of broken promises on which its position is built but the sharp sense of a missed opportunity. It is rare in history that one gets the opportunity and the political capital to tackle head-on the challenges of reshaping the State. The Free State had it in 1922, de Valera had it in 1937 and the present Administration had it again in 2011. However, history will record that it wasted its opportunity to match those accomplishments. It will show up the chronic short-term cynicism and cynical spin that has characterised the present Government. Under the harsh light of time, the spin and cheap headlines will give way to the hard realities of a Government that mutilated the Constitution. History will expose a Government that traded its political legacy to the future generations that will share this island for a few points in opinion polls. Ultimately, it is the citizens of Ireland, present and future, who will pay for this Faustian pact. The democratic revolution of two and a half years ago is but a distant memory and a cruel, unfulfilled promise.

I welcome the chairperson of the Constitutional Convention, Mr. Tom Arnold, and Mr. Art O'Leary, with whom I have become very familiar over the last number of months. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan and I represent the Technical Group on the convention and we have been fortunate to have been able to attend each of the sessions in their entirety. That continuity has been very useful.

I regret the tone of the last speaker, even though I agree with some elements of what he said. I was a sceptic about the Constitutional Convention. The Technical Group made a submission in which we sought an opportunity to put different items on the agenda, asking that the Constitutional Convention be able to write its own agenda and a number of other items. I still believe that would be valuable. The subject we are discussing today was the first item on the agenda. The Government said at the time that the convention would deal with one of the less controversial topics first, which would allow the convention to settle down. We said we would engage in an honest way with the agenda that was before us, and that is what we are doing.

I wish to pay tribute to another group in the convention, the citizen members. I have been incredibly impressed by them. They have taken the work of the Constitutional Convention very seriously and, in most cases, have approached it with an open mind. Many of them would say that they consider it a privilege to participate. They do not confine themselves to the narrow agenda. There are a couple of items in the report that were not on the agenda.

The functioning of the convention, with expert opinion on both the pro and anti side of an issue, has worked very well. The steering group has done a great deal of work to ensure there is the right type of balance. Another thing that works well is the practice of reshuffling people at the tables. I found myself at a table with Deputy Charles Flanagan on one day, while for the discussion on marriage equality I was at a table with Senator Rónán Mullen. Given that we were on opposite sides, it was quite an interesting day. I did not feel that people were leading, for what that is worth. It certainly did not happen at my table, and if it did, it certainly was not from my side.

I have some misgivings about 16 being the voting age. There must be political education with that. It is not just an age; there is more to be considered in that regard. However, the type of debate that would be generated by having a referendum would be quite important. What is very interesting is the way the citizen members are capable of giving us an overview of what type of debate would take place if that was put to a referendum. I welcome the fact that the Government is considering reducing the age. Citizens are capable of deciding if somebody is capable of doing the job or not, and I do not believe it should be determined by age. That would be an important change.

The issue that dominated that weekend was the opportunity for citizens to nominate somebody for election. I have debated this previously with the Minister in respect of, for example, the abolition of the Seanad. One of the consequences of that is there will be a change in the number of Oireachtas Members who can nominate a person to run for the presidency. However, it is a pro rata change from 20 to 14. I believe it should have been changed to ten. The Minister said at the time that there were seven people on the ballot paper. Seven is a choice. The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution that deliberated a number of years ago - I cannot recall the exact year so I will not try - said that 10,000 citizens would be capable of nominating somebody to be on the ballot paper. In fact, anybody who has stood for election as an Independent and taken the route of getting people's signatures, taking them to a local authority, making sure they have their passport or driving licence and so forth, and given the type of checks and balances that go with that, will be aware that getting 10,000 signatures is a very tall order. People are really saying that they want to take an element of control over those choices. Up to now they have been the preserve of the political parties.

There is also the local authority route. I recall being a member of Kildare County Council on the first occasion the council successfully nominated a candidate. I supported a man called Mr. Derek Nally at the time because only four women had been nominated until then. I believed there should be a gender balance, at the very least. I did not have to agree with the individual being put forward but I believe that when citizens are presented with a choice and with a very robust campaign, they can be trusted. That is an important message. Another important message is the fact that approximately 94% of people at the Constitutional Convention wanted this change. If this convention is going to be a process that will be valued, the litmus test will be that when it takes a position on a matter to that extent, it will be responded to by giving its deliberations serious consideration and putting them to a referendum. I am not quite sure what the Minister was saying on that last item. It is going to a committee. There is no commitment at present to put it to the people in a referendum but perhaps the Minister will tell the House if the converse is the case and if a decision has been made not to do that. I believe it is worthy of more consideration and it should be the subject of a referendum.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan spoke about the weekend dealing with marriage equality. The young people who had grown up in families with same-sex parents made an impact. It was wonderful to hear the contributions they made in a very honest way. Even though it was a challenging issue for many people, there was a good balance on either side in the debate. I realise this is not the topic we are dealing with in this debate, but I thought that was a defining point for the Constitutional Convention. When people heard the views from both sides in a very considered way, a large majority were capable of making a decision. The other session which I considered was quite limited, and people strayed beyond it, was the one on electoral reform. It was quite extraordinary how people could see the need to decentralise power and free the Dáil to do the work it is intended to do.

An important and astonishing message which has emanated from the convention is that when 100 people are put in a room together in the expectation that they will engage in a quality debate, they can be trusted to do just that. Such individuals do not have to be members of political parties or formal groups in order to take part in debates of that nature. It is amazing how people can follow a debate or a conversation and reach their own conclusions. It is a privilege to be a member of the convention which, I hope, will be given a much wider remit in the future. The agenda for the final weekend session is much too narrow to facilitate discussion on the range of issues which people - both members of the convention and those intent on making submissions to it - feel are worthy of consideration.

It is appropriate that we are engaging in this timely debate halfway through the year and on the final day of the current Dáil session. It is important that we should evaluate the work done to date by the convention. I am pleased the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will be present for the entire debate.

The convention, of which I am a member, has been a resounding success. It is a novel and, in some ways, experimental venture. It involves detailed round-table debate and deliberation of a type not previously seen in this country. Its membership comprises individuals from all political parties and none and 60 citizens who are broadly representative of society. In the past there have been constitutional review groups and groups within this House which have met and deliberated. As far as taking action was concerned, these groups did not, perhaps, cover themselves in glory or obtain the types of results that were sought at the outset.

Our reform of the Constitution has been both piecemeal in nature and has been more mandated by Europe rather than brought about as a result of objective analysis and subsequent action. Our Constitution very much reflects the Ireland of the 1930s. Those who drafted it borrowed heavily from the prevailing mood of the day and from the bill of rights and constitution of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, which obtained in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. The nationalist and religious strictures contained in our Constitution are no longer relevant in 21st century Ireland. Some of our people would seek a complete rewrite of our basic law that would contemplate the retention of the fundamental rights of freedom, equality, family, education, children, property and freedom of expression. Despite the criticisms levelled at it, our Constitution has served us very well. We must continue to bear in mind the fact that over the years, 75 laws enacted in this Parliament have been declared repugnant to the Constitution. It is important that the Supreme Court should remain all-powerful in the context of the checks and balances which apply in respect of the Government.

The Constitutional Convention is both innovative and impressive. As Deputy Catherine Murphy and others indicated, citizens are more than anxious to participate in it. As politicians, we are mindful of the status of citizens serving on the convention and their concerns. It was interesting to hear, during informal conversations held on the first day on which the convention met, that the citizens were anxious not to be dominated by the politicians and that their views would not be considered as being inferior to those of politicians. If I might be so bold as to speak for all of the politicians who are members of the convention, I would state that we have been mindful and sensitive about the concerns of the citizens. The results of this approach are beyond doubt. As a member of the largest political group at the convention, I was extremely anxious that the party Whip would be left outside and that we would deliberate and debate in a way that would not be subject to the rigours of party discipline. We have done that very well during the past seven months and I am anxious that we should continue to do it. If applied, the straitjacket of the Whip system would stifle debate and act as a barrier to any meaningful analysis.

Great credit is due to the chairman of the convention, Mr. Tom Arnold, whose independence and impartiality are beyond question. The convention has a committed secretariat, willing experts, excellent moderators and enthusiastic staff, and these all ensure value for money is obtained on each weekend it sits. The constant feedback and continual evaluation are meticulous in both content and detail. The recommendation on reducing the voting age to 16 came as a surprise. The level of turnout among young people at elections is declining. The convention heard evidence from, among others, Professor Theresa Reidy of UCC, to the effect that voting may be habit-based and that people who begin voting at an early age are more likely to continue to vote for the remainder of their lives. Keeping young people outside the political process ensures a disconnection and is demotivating. A recent opinion poll suggests that 30% are in favour of reducing the voting age, that 54% are against doing so and that 14% have no opinion. The clear message is that, regardless of the political hue of those involved, positive and active campaigning will be necessary in respect of the recommendations of the convention.

I accept that the agenda of the convention is somewhat on the light side. The debate on same-sex marriage has been the most controversial to date. Before any referendum is held in that regard, we must ensure our family law code is updated. Such an updating must precede any referendum and there is a need for a national debate on consequential issues such as adoption, parentage, guardianship, custody, access, maintenance, tax and succession. When all of that to which I refer has been done, we will be in a position to put the matter to the people in a referendum and provide them with full information and a wide-ranging debate.

The convention's recommendations are within target and its members expect that the Government will respond to them within target. I am a great believer in the idea that was floated - perhaps there has not been adequate deliberation in respect of it - to the effect that we should hold a constitutional referendum day. If we proceeded with this, we could put five or six questions to the people on the same day. There is every reason to do this. Some 135 Deputies in this Chamber are non-officeholders and it is my view that they have the ability and enthusiasm to take these issues directly to the people. There is a need to establish a powerful constitutional referendum campaign committee in these Houses, the membership of which would be drawn from among the ranks of the political parties and the Independents. If we are serious about constitutional reform, we need to inform and bring the electorate with us.

There are certain aspects of the Supreme Court judgments on the McKenna and Coughlan cases which are ludicrous. These judgments and that relating to the Crotty case have had an extremely adverse impact on our ability to campaign. The requirement laid down in the Coughlan judgment that Government must adhere to a 50:50 broadcast rule represents a subversion of the democratic process. This judgment also undermines the democratic mandate of Deputies. As a result, the view of citizens become confused and unclear. These judgments can only be reversed if a constitutional referendum is held or if they are struck down as a result of a further Supreme Court case. It has been argued that the Coughlan 50:50 broadcast judgment can be overturned by legislation and regulation and that the broadcast rules can be changed without the necessity of holding a referendum. If that is the case, then let us proceed. If what I describe cannot be done, then let us identify the barriers that exist. In any democracy it must be lawful and reasonable for broadcasters to recognise the position of elected public representatives in the allocation of air time. The requirement to distribute air time on a 50:50 basis is simply bizarre. Legislation or a referendum is urgently required in respect of this matter. If legislation is introduced and is the subject of a constitutional challenge, so what? Let us have the challenge and deal with it.

Will the Minister comment on the Referendum Commission and the work it does? I would like the latter to be reconstituted as an electoral commission. In addition, I would like the Constitutional Convention to be given a permanent role. If that is not possible, then it should be given more time to deliberate and its remit should be extended.

A small all-party committee to steer the recommendations in a proactive way is essential.

I agree with much of what Deputy Cowen said about Dáil reform but I certainly do not agree with his sentiments and the phases he used regarding a dark agenda or mutilating the Constitution. I note he has left the Chamber in a rather hurried fashion before listening to the contributions of others.

One issue on which the Constitutional Convention has agreed is the need for improved citizen education and training and that is essential. Looking to the schools, the current CSPE course is haphazard and inadequate. The Oireachtas outreach programme that we have here has been cut. It is no longer functioning adequately. Dáil tours have been curtailed. Some of the €20 million we will save if and when the Seanad is abolished must be funnelled into political education and training.

The Government programme of Dáil reform and of political reform, of which this represents a fundamental part, needs to be accelerated next term, particularly with the likely abolition of the Seanad in the autumn.

I value the opportunity to participate in this debate. I welcome Tom Arnold and Art O'Leary to the Distinguished Visitors Gallery. Like others, I want to start by paying tribute to all the staff of the convention who have been very effective in ensuring that it worked smoothly and effectively. The background organisation has been quite superb. I regret very much that I was not able to attend on the last two occasions but in respect of the previous events one could not but be impressed by the manner in which they were organised.

As alluded to by Deputy Catherine Murphy, I was also impressed by the way in which the citizen members participated and their palpable sense of excitement and pride in having the opportunity, as presented by the convention, to participate. I also pay tribute to political colleagues, many of whom found it difficult to contain themselves. In the early days of the convention one of the concerns was that we would hear far too much from politicians and not enough from the citizen members. Under the control of the chair and with some cajoling, the politicians succeeded in containing their contributions and not influencing the course of the convention in a way that perhaps they could have done, but I enter a personal caveat about the format of the convention. Having politicians participating and voting does distort the outcome. We are getting a different outcome from the convention than we would get if we had 100 citizens there, albeit 100 citizens who might on occasion in the course of their work be addressed by politicians who would give their views and their perspectives on the issues coming before them. I would come away from the convention thinking that it would be a stronger, more effective and more representative process if politicians were not directly involved and I say that with the best will in the world. It has been my experience that when one sits around the tables, albeit that people are not going there under any Whip as Deputy Charles Flanagan said, one finds oneself almost invariably arguing the party line, especially if a member from another party is arguing his or her party line. That tit for tat exchange arises and the convention would be stronger if that was not a feature of it.

In the early days when we were discussing this the Taoiseach engaged actively with the Opposition parties in how this convention was to be undertaken. I repeatedly pointed out to him that the process lacked ambition. There were some challenging issues such as the same-sex marriage issue that came before us but in terms of issues that are agitating people the need for constitutional reform, such as it is, is not as obvious on the agenda that has been given to us. Like Deputy Catherine Murphy, I pay tribute to the secretariat and the chair in that they have agreed to identify issues to which we will return as the Standing Orders allow us at the end of the process. Those issues that are identified by citizens and politicians alike in the course of the convention will take perhaps more time to consider than is currently envisaged in the way in which the convention is being organised.

Two issues are the subject of today's report. It is good that we are having this debate but I am conscious we are starting it on the last day of term. There is a certain degree of truncation inevitably in the debate that will take place here today. One can argue that the two issues before us are not of enormous significance and do not require a great deal of debate but I would like to think that the subsequent reports that will come to us on the meatier issues will receive more detailed consultation and discussion in the Houses than these issues are likely to get. One of the issues before us is the reduction of the voting age to 16, and I was surprised that was the decision of the convention. The young people who came in to address the convention were particularly impressed by this and the vote on it, 47:52 or whatever the figures were, was quite close. We should respect the integrity of the process. I hope the Government will proceed with a referendum on this issue and give the people the opportunity to decide. If the Government wishes to see the voting age of 16 installed in the Constitution, a great deal of work will have to be done to convince the Irish people that this age should be enshrined in the Constitution and that people should be encouraged to vote at that age. As a parent I have some reservations about the adultification of children. There are many other areas of State activity where we talk about protecting the child and the rights of the child. There is a certain contradiction in a position where one sees 18 as the age of majority and one seeks to protect a person as a child up to the age of 18, while one advocates that this person should vote. We all visit schools on a regular basis and to a man and a woman we would have to report that the young people in schools tell us they would like to be able to vote. Those in second year, third year and transition year tell us they would love to have the opportunity to vote but we all know that the 18 to 25 age cohort has the lowest number of participants in the democratic process. In approaching this issue I have tended to say to these young people that if they could convince their older brothers and sisters who have a vote to use it that this would become perhaps the most compelling argument for reducing the voting age thereafter.

On the issue of the term of the President, I do not know how it found its way onto the agenda of the convention. It being on the agenda is one of the issues that tended to undermine the validity of the convention to some extent. I do not recall ever meeting anybody who raised concerns with me about the term of the Presidency. I met many people who had issues about how the President was selected and how one could win a nomination. In fairness to Senator David Norris, he came along to the convention and while he was his usual colourful self, the way in which he highlighted the issue brought home to all of us who were present the ludicrous, almost incongruous, situation that existed, whereby the public were talking about, say, the abolition of the Seanad but we could not discuss that issue during the course of the convention.

Obviously, Senator Norris raised the methodology for nominating presidential election candidates in light of his own experiences in that regard.

In the aftermath of all of that, I would like to think these Houses are at the beginning of a process of careful evaluation of the reports we will receive from the Constitutional Convention. I hope adequate time will be made available over the coming months for an evaluation of each of those reports. The Houses of the Oireachtas must respect the proposals in the report that has been given to us. I look forward to considering the Government's proposal to put to the people the question of whether the voting age should be reduced to 16.

I am pleased to speak about the Constitutional Convention. The convention, which held its first plenary meeting over a weekend in January of this year, consists of 66 citizens, 33 parliamentarians and an independent chairperson. This is democracy in action. The balance among the citizens, who were selected randomly from the electoral register by a polling company, is representative of Irish society in general. I would like to know how many people refused to participate in the convention because they were too busy or they felt it was not in their interests. Can the Minister comment on the level of take-up among those asked to be one of the 66 citizens? I congratulate the chairman, the politicians and the citizens on the great work they have done at what seems to be an open and fair forum. The various matters seem to have been dealt with in a very efficient manner.

The main recommendations made by the convention are that the voting age should be reduced to 16, that the presidential term should not be reduced and that the presidential term should not be aligned with the local and European elections. The issue I have with the proposal to reduce the voting age to 16 is that a kind of X factor is coming into politics. When someone appears on "Tonight with Vincent Browne" or is interviewed on the radio, that does not mean he or she is a brilliant politician. It does not matter whether he or she is making no sense or is making loads of sense. I have seen such people coming through the doors of the local county council. I am not saying I have any X factor. People who are in politics have to represent their constituents, regardless of whether they have a quiet personality, a mad personality or a good personality. I hope no one in here has a bad personality.

We think the Deputy has plenty of X factor.

One must have resilience when one is in politics and in government because one does not always get one's own way. The people want a stable, open and transparent Government that does what is best for all the people. I think that is what this Government is trying to do. Despite having a significant majority, the Government has provided for a reduction in the number of Deputies. I get 40% of my vote from the County Leitrim part of my constituency, but that is being moved into another constituency. Now that we are getting part of County Galway, I suppose I will have to support the Galway team. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will agree that there are good people in that area.

The Government has also provided for the abolition of local town councils. The town council in my home town of Boyle is the only town council in County Roscommon. It is being abolished by Fine Gael, which is the party that controls the council. It has been difficult to have to say apologetically to four town councillors that their positions will not be in existence in a year's time. I must admit they have shown considerable openness and understanding. It is difficult to be understanding when someone tells one that one will not have a job in a year's time. The number of councillors on Roscommon County Council is being reduced from 26 to 18, which means that eight county councillors will lose their positions next year. Similarly, the number of councillors on Leitrim County Council is being reduced from 22 to 18. The Government, which controls the Seanad, is asking the people whether they wish to abolish that House. While it is making mistakes, the Government is trying its best to be open and transparent.

I would like to bring a few issues to the attention of the House. Dr. Theresa Reidy made an informative contribution to the convention. The Government is trying to be open and transparent and to do the right thing. During the nine years I spent in opposition, I was invited to go across the bridge to Government Buildings four times. It is probable that I was more likely to be called across to hear bad news. My party now uses a very nice parliamentary party room on the fifth floor, which has a lovely view over the city. It is very welcome.

I am glad the Deputy's party is enjoying it.

We had a job trying to get Deputy Ó Fearghaíl's party out of it.

It is said that when we had one-party Government in this country, decisions on what was good for that party were made at a lovely round table beside that room before the Cabinet decided what was good for the country. That is not an example of true democracy, as far as I am concerned. I had huge respect for Jack Lynch and Seán Lemass when they served as Taoiseach. The culture of jobs for the boys, patronage at party level and favours that existed in the past has gone out with this Government. When people approach me to ask me to sort things out in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, for example, I have to tell them that everything is now dealt with in a fair way through the system. Thankfully, Ministers do not have a say in such matters anymore. They take the file and sign it off. That is very welcome.

It is also very welcome to see Opposition Deputies crossing the floor to speak to the Taoiseach and the Ministers. I think there is a more open approach. I accept that the division one associates with Opposition still exists. That is fine. Things are a lot more open now. In the nine years I spent in opposition, I did not dare to talk to a Minister. If I did, he or she would certainly not listen to me because of the distinction between "us" and "them" that existed during that era. I welcome the more open and transparent manner in which things are being done now. I agree that the voting age should be reduced. I think we have grown up since the days of Civil War politics involving Fine Gael, the Labour Party and others. I am pleased that people are able to express their views and make decisions for themselves, rather than on the basis of who their mothers and fathers voted for. I came from a mixed family - my father supported Fianna Fáil and my mother supported Fine Gael. I should say I am glad I listened to my mother.

The Deputy is still listening to her.

He could always change.

Government is very difficult. We have work to do. We are trying to be open and transparent. The charges that were laid by a Member of the Opposition were unfair and lacked generosity. When I was in opposition, I commended the Government of the day if I felt it was making a good decision and welcomed that decision. If I felt it was making a decision that was not in the interests of the people, I challenged it. A little generosity is sometimes needed. This is quite a good report. The charge that this Government tries to stifle political debate and divvy things out in dark corners is unfair and should be challenged.

I am delighted to speak on the Constitutional Convention. As we are running ahead of time and I got a telephone call to say we were a few hours early with this debate, I have five pages of notes in front of me and I do not have the exact points to hand. I hope I will be able to cover them in the time available.

What is the Constitutional Convention? My understanding of why the convention was set up was to address the fact that we live in a society that is different from the one that existed when the Constitution was introduced. The type of society in which the young people in the Visitors Gallery live is very different from the one in which young people in the 1930s grew up. Most of the young people alive today finish secondary school and, one hopes, many of them go on to third level. They have a different role in society. My understanding is that the convention has been set up to reflect the fact that Ireland has changed and that we need to look at some items within the Constitution that will help us reflect the change that has taken place.

I do not like political slapping but I am disappointed that Deputy Cowen is not here because he mentioned very little about the convention and made snide remarks about how the convention was denied the big issues, the Government was looking for quick and easy headlines and we were tinkering around the edges of or mutilating the Constitution. This debate is concerned with the first report of the convention but let us look at the argument around same-sex marriage everyone has mentioned. I know we will deal with that in the next term. If we were to reference the issue of same-sex marriage that was discussed at the April meeting and equate it to the comments Deputy Cowen made about mutilating the Constitution, one would be deeply insulted to think that giving equality of access rights to individuals who are denied their rights is mutilating the Constitution. I am very disappointed and think it hypocritical of Deputy Cowen to come in here when he did not attend any of the meetings of the convention. I am not saying that anyone who speaks here today should have attended the convention - far from it - but it is a bit frustrating to see someone come in with those sweeping statements when they did not see what it was like to be part of the convention.

I will move away from that topic and return to what we are here to discuss today. My experience of the convention has been exceptionally positive and I think anyone who has been a member of the convention and who will speak today will probably say the same. Thinking back to our first meeting in Dublin Castle, there was a bit of an "us and them" scenario, with "us and them" being citizens and politicians. I can remember one particular citizen standing up and asking attendees not to let the politicians do all the talking. I thought, "Oh God, here we go, this is going to be a disaster of nine months if this is the attitude", but the ice was broken in Dublin Castle that day. Anyone who is a regular attendee of the convention at the weekends has seen that friendships have developed at each and every table across all parties, sexes and ages. Even though there is plenty of work to be done on the convention, and there has been a very legitimate reason to consider whether we should continue with it - we should continue with it because there is a place in modern society for some role for the convention - there will be many people, be they politicians or citizens, who will be very disappointed when the convention finishes because friendships have been developed and there has been a greater understanding of the role of politicians, as Deputy Catherine Murphy said earlier on. Equally, there has been an important reality check for politicians, including myself, that things are not as one sees them at times. I hate the fact that we have a partitionist description of citizens and politicians because we are all people at the end of day.

One of the best things about the convention has been the transparency. My first experience when we were dealing with what the report concerns was the issue of reducing the voting age and the presidential term. I found the experience of the convention over that weekend to be exceptionally transparent. It was democracy in action. Everyone had an equal voice and everyone was heard and listened to equally. There were note takers and facilitators, who worked in a voluntary capacity over the weekend as far as I know, who listened to our views. There were balanced arguments and experts from both sides of the discussion. We got to hear both sides of the argument, which is so important because no one has a monopoly on the truth. That balance of information gave us an opportunity to challenge our own positions, discuss it in the smaller groups and reflect it back to the plenary sessions. The experience of the convention has been exceptionally transparent.

We can talk about whether the issues have been sexy enough but they are genuine issues. Some may see some of them as being more important than others, but they are all constitutional issues that must be addressed. There are other issues that we must deal with at a later date and, like a number of speakers, I believe we must look at seeing what sort of place a Constitutional Convention can have in the future because if nothing else, it is a great engagement with the public in a very fair and balanced way. We might have differences of opinion because there are 33 politicians and 66 citizens but, by and large, it gives one a realistic sense of what the public might be saying about the issues we are discussing.

In respect of fairness and balance, everyone got an opportunity to hear both sides of the argument. Although one might like a particular outcome to a particular argument, which is only natural, what I have learned from the first Constitutional Convention meeting which dealt with voting age and the presidential term is that one does not always get what one wants. There is a learning process in that. It is fair to say that no rigging takes place at the convention. It is a very fair and balanced form of democracy in action. In particular, the first meeting where we looked at the voting age was an example of that. I am all for looking at the voting age. I am not sure whether 16 or 17 is the right age but what the convention has done is allow a space to be created to discuss this in the future in the public realm based on a detailed discussion that took place at the convention.

In respect of the future of the convention, I acknowledge that we are dealing with the first report issued in March within the four month period. It is time for us to take the debate on voting age and the presidential term to the people at some stage because it is important. That is what the convention was set up for, namely, to start the discussion in a fair and balanced way in order that we can have a discussion at national level and create a national conversation. Tom Arnold from the convention, who is here today, has said in any of his press releases that it is important that people get engaged in the convention. People should feel free to make a submission if they feel they have an opinion on an issue being dealt with in the convention. They should not wait until the end. It has been very helpful for establishing a general conversation around some issues.

The discussion of same-sex marriage was the highlight of the convention for me. I know today's debate focuses on the first report of the convention but that discussion was an example of how passionate people on all sides of a debate can be while at the same time remaining respectful. The convention was a safe environment that provided that space.

Before the convention finishes what it was set up to do, we need genuinely to ask ourselves whether there is a place to carry on the process of engagement between citizens and the Parliament that the convention began. I believe there is and that we need to have a discussion around that to see what place the convention can have in dealing with what is often a very big gap between the Houses of the Oireachtas and the public. I commend Tom Arnold and Art O'Leary and all their team. They have been professional in their delivery of the convention.

They have also made it exceptionally enjoyable for everybody there, and I smile because I genuinely mean it. Not a member of the convention it is not enjoying it, by which I mean really getting into it and getting something out of it. Everybody who turns up at the convention, although it can be tough to attend on a full day on Saturday having worked for a week and then going again on Sunday morning, has created a space which is positive, transparent and enjoyable and I thank them for it.

Tá brón orm nach raibh mé anseo níos luaithe chun páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo. Shíl mé go mbeadh sé ar siúl níos déanaí agus bhí cruinnuithe eagraithe agam. Tá an méid a chuala mé go dtí seo spéisiúil. Don chuid is mó, tá gach duine ag tabhairt tacaíochta don choinbhinsiún agus an chaoi ina bhfuil sé ag déileáil leis na saincheisteanna go dtí seo.

I have attended a number of the convention's sittings and I am due to attend the next sitting also. I have found it to be a very interesting experiment in democracy and it has worked. Sometimes great concepts fall through when put into action, but in this case, due to the chairmanship of Tom Arnold, Art O'Leary and the members themselves, this experiment is working. It sets the bar very high for what I hope will be a rolling Constitutional Convention, not necessarily with the existing members but with a change of membership every number of years. Whether it is a Constitutional Convention, or what was intended under the Good Friday Agreement which is an all-Ireland consultative forum, there is a need for such a body, and there may be an even greater need in the autumn given the proposals the Government will put to the people.

We debated at the convention and in the Chamber the fact that the biggest change to the Constitution since it was first written will happen if the people accept the Government's proposal on the Seanad, but the Constitutional Convention which was up and running was not allowed deal with it. This is its biggest shortfall, and it is not a slight on the convention which had its remit; it is an attack, if one wants, on the Government and its failure to use the convention for the purposes for which it was established, which was to examine, debate and tease out issues, and it has done so on every issue it has been asked to analyse.

Sometimes there can be an arrogance that the public would not understand and could not deal with concepts. This has been fully put to bed by the citizen members of the convention. In fairness, the political representatives from North and South have also weighed in with their views and have accepted and taken on board the views of the citizens. A tremendous amount of work has been done by the citizen members. They engage fully and come prepared, having read the documentation. They engage in debate and work out a position towards the end of each convention hearing based on what they have heard. They are not partisan; they are open to ideas and to teasing out issues. Without their enthusiasm, the convention could have been an academic experiment which would have been filed away with nothing ever heard about it, but because of their enthusiasm they have presented us with its first report and at the very least we should act on it in tribute to their work and the time and effort they have put in.

I find it slightly bizarre, outside of the criticism I have with regard to the Seanad, that in the autumn we will also have a referendum on the new court of appeal but not this issue. It would have been ideal to have dealt with the proposals of the Constitutional Convention at the same time so three or four propositions could have been put to the people on the same day. The likelihood now is that the Constitutional Convention, when it concludes its final day in November, will submit another report at which stage the Government will have received all of its reports but will not have acted on any of them. It has made recommendations on the presidency, voting age, same-sex marriage and the electoral system. At the very least we need an indication the Government will accept the reports and will act on them and they will not be like many other reports which were filed away with no action taken.

Tribute must also be paid to the lecturers who have helped ensure the Constitutional Convention has worked well and is fully informed. They have dealt with quite complex issues, particularly when we discussed the various voting systems used throughout the world and how they would impact on Ireland if a change was proposed by the convention. It is important that at this stage the first two proposals made by the convention at the very least should be brought to fruition.

From what I have seen to date, I suggest that when the convention concludes, the Government, with the support of all parties in the House, should examine establishing a further convention to deal with a number of issues which have been raised and need to be tackled. I have an interest in an issue which is not under the remit of the convention at present, and this is the divergence between the Irish and English language versions of the Constitution and how absolutely crazy it is we have two Constitutions because some parts of the Constitution have opposite meanings in both languages. Quite academic works have been done on this issue. I do not believe most people are aware of the fact that the Irish language version is dominant in a court of law. It is bizarre that we have major divergences of meanings in the Constitution and this needs to be addressed. Perhaps it could be examined in itself.

I support the report and recommend to the Government that it be acted upon as quickly as possible. Obviously, it will not be dealt with when we go to the polls with the referendums in the autumn, but the Government should give an indication that all of these reports and what will flow from them will be dealt with, possibly with the European and local elections next year. This would be an opportunity when the people will go to the polls and it would suit if they could deal with a number of proposals on the same day. Over the years the people have shown they can deal with multiple proposals and have answered "Yes" or "No" to various questions on a range of issues. The public is well capable of debating and understanding what is proposed, particularly on what is contained in the first report of the Constitutional Convention.

I welcome the Minister and it is important the debate is held today. I will begin with a negative, in the context of Deputy Cowen's remarks on the Constitutional Convention being irremediably flawed.

I very much regret those remarks. It set the wrong tone for his contribution to the debate, which in many cases did not focus on the Constitutional Convention at all. He resorted to political point scoring, which I very much regret.

We have come a long way from the squared copybook scribblings to the Constitutional Convention. Anybody who reflected upon the establishment, composition, theme and structure of the convention may very well have been cynical and in many cases, justifiably so, but they did not count on the stewardship of the chairman, Tom Arnold, and the executive officer, Art O’Leary, for the way in which they have managed to drive it in a non-partisan and collegial way. Equally important - it has been put on record by other Members - has been the contribution of the 66 citizen members who have engaged wholeheartedly.

As a privileged member of the convention who has been engaged in it and who looked forward to it, for me the story of the convention has been in three parts. The first was the quality of the presentations made by academic and other experts. The second was the participative nature of the citizens who came prepared and briefed with questions. They were willing to challenge and seek answers. They engaged in a process that has served all of us well. The third was the chairman, Tom Arnold, assisted by Art O’Leary, and all of the staff – the facilitators, note takers and secretarial staff – who have made the convention a success.

It is worth examining the report of the convention, in particular Tom Arnold’s opening preamble. There is a need for the Fourth Estate in particular to pick up on it, because he sets out a strong template for how the convention should work. I will not quote it directly but I wish to refer to the headings briefly. He referred to openness, fairness, equality of voice, efficiency and collegiality. They are aspirations that are noble on paper but were achieved in reality, which makes the convention the success that it is. It is worth saying that.

Deputy Cowen spoke about the democratic revolution in 2011. We had a democratic revolution. The people spoke through the ballot box. The Government committed to the establishment of a constitutional convention. It set before it a number of topics, but I will not outline all of them. In December of last year in Dublin Castle and since then we have seen the convention methodically working its way through the topics. Deputy Charles Flanagan, Deputy Catherine Murphy and others referred to the round table discussions. They were a revelation because during them one met and discussed issues. Citizens, elected and unelected, were willing to participate in them, which is important. Equally, within the round table discussions there was no deferential behaviour towards elected Members of the Oireachtas. The contrary was the case. There was a strong emphasis on everyone having an equal voice and an equal say, as should be the case.

I very much regret that in some quarters there has been reference to groupthink, because that was not the case. I say that as someone who has been at all of the sessions. There was no groupthink. Members of the convention were eager and quick to give their views. They were not shy about saying what they think. Other Members will corroborate that. To be fair to the chairman, he gradually allowed non-elected members of the convention to speak in public. That was a fundamental positive in the process. We are all equal. One of the aspects of the convention that I admired is that none of us came with the title, Minister, Deputy or Senator. We were ourselves and that is the way it should be. The debate is good. It is full, considered and worthwhile. Responsibility is taken seriously by all members.

I was very struck by the level of preparedness of all members of the convention and by the willingness of the secretariat and the chairman to embark upon new ideas and innovative ways in which we can learn about the democratic process. Deputy Lyons spoke about forging friendships with others. Members of the convention look forward to meeting with and engaging with each other and even discussing issues with colleagues, now friends, between meetings.

One of the big positives has been the establishment of the steering group which has allowed the running of the convention to be a success. I am not a member of the steering group but those who serve on it do a worthwhile job and help the process to be open and transparent and allow the citizen’s voice to be heard. There is no agenda within the convention other than to discuss the matters set down for discussion. It might be the case that we should examine other issues. I agree with Deputy Charles Flanagan that the convention should not end this year. I hope it will continue because as we approach the centenary of 1916 it is important that we would allow the convention to broaden its scope.

The functioning of the Constitutional Convention with expert opinion and advice is balanced. A clear balance is struck in the presentation of arguments. A majority of the convention members favoured a change in the Constitution to reduce the voting age. There was a clear preference for that in the debate at my table during the weekend in question, but it was not based upon a whim. It was based on informed fact on foot of the presentations we had received and the research carried out by members.

I wish to return to a fundamental point that has recurred at the convention about citizen education. I taught CSPE to junior certificate level at school. It was an exam subject. It is a worthy subject for examination. I regret that it is not taught at leaving certificate level. I hope the Government will examine the issue. Citizenship and being an active citizen are about more than casting one’s ballot. When one engages with young people they recognise that politics is not just about voting; it is about the education service, the type of school they attend, the playground and facilities available, the timetable of the school bus and many other issues. Education for young citizens is important.

Having served on the convention I am very committed to what it does and what it is trying to achieve. The convention has been augmented by the seriousness with which Government has treated it but, equally, those who were cynical initially failed to realise that the citizens who were elected or asked to serve would take their responsibility seriously. They feel that a potential legacy rests on their shoulders and that changing the Constitution cannot be done lightly. They deserve a huge tribute because they come to serve and to perhaps bring change for the betterment of society.

I look forward to the next module of debates in the House. While I will not refer to them until they are held, our debate on the presidential term and the voting age was excellent. The report deserves further consideration by the Government.

My overall approach to constitutional change is conservative. The Minister probably recognises this part of my character, but conservatism can be progressive. For example, the late Professor Tony Judt, an historian and social democrat who wrote about socialism and social democracy, would say that socialists and social democrats should try to conserve the progressive achievements of those who went before them. In this regard, I wish to preserve much that is in our Constitution. It is a progressive document, including in terms of how it can be changed - in this sense, it is a living document - and interpreted by judges. It sets out broad principles, but when human experience is brought to bear on particular constitutional provisions in court, the outcome is generally fair and endorses human rights.

This point was borne out at the convention, which received two presentations at the outset from Professor Dermot Keogh and the High Court judge, Mr. Justice Gerard Hogan, both of whom have written about the origins of our Constitution. Through their research, they demonstrated that the Constitution was a progressive and forward-looking document at the time. Equality and human rights are at its heart. As I argued during the last module, adopting proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote, PR-STV, as our electoral system was a forward-looking decision. It remains so. Civic campaigns around the world generally want a move towards our system rather than the reverse despite what some commentators might claim.

Some comments get repeated just because they have been made. For example, reading the debates on women's rights reveals a great deal of progressive thought on the issue when those rights were incorporated in the Constitution. That equality is enshrined at the Constitution's heart is evident. I am not suggesting that it is perfect or should never be changed. Indeed, good changes have been made. Since absolute power corrupts absolutely, the Constitution also provides checks and balances.

Much of the commentary on the Constitution can be knee-jerk, with people not thinking for themselves but picking up someone else's commentary about it being this, that and old-fashioned. I am not referring to this debate, as our discussion has been nuanced and complex. Working as legislators, Deputies realise that the Constitution is a progressive document.

The Constitutional Convention has deliberated on the issues forwarded to it. I commend the work of its chairman, Mr. Tom Arnold, its secretary, Mr. Art O'Leary, both of whom are present in the Chamber, and everyone involved, including academics, people who made presentations and citizens. Many people have taken an interest in the convention, including via Twitter and other social media. This is welcome.

I can be quite set in my ways. I say this in a good way. I attended the meeting on the Presidency and changed my mind on reducing its term. I used to believe that it should be reduced, but I eventually voted against such a move. Having listened to the arguments and discussed the matter with the people at my table, I started to see that it was important to separate the term of the Presidency from the terms of the Government and local government. The President's role as protector of the Constitution is important. This is how people started to view the matter and is the reason that the majority voted against a reduction.

I did not support a reduction in the voting age, but I was in the minority. I accept the convention's decision in that regard. If the matter is put before the people, it will be a matter for them and various points of view will be aired.

I felt most invested in the issue of our electoral system. I am very much in favour of it. I attended the two months of discussion on it. The debate was excellent and enjoyable, but I was worked up because it was such an important issue for me. If I attend any of the convention's other discussions, I can relax and enjoy the debate. I welcomed the outcome. The citizens and Oireachtas Members in attendance were open to the idea of abandoning PR-STV, but after considering other electoral systems, they were against replacing it. Two key votes were held, one of which was on whether we should replace our existing system. Seventy-nine people voted against that proposal. Minus the Oireachtas Members, at least 70% of citizens were against replacing our electoral system. Having been open to the idea of a mixed member system, after examining it thoroughly and having crossed out the other alternatives - the list system, the first-past-the-post system and the alternative vote system - they eventually decided against it.

The people at my table had a great discussion on the matter. In fact, I had two tables, giving me a different sample of opinions. Citizens believe that the engagement between constituents and their Deputies is a good aspect of our system. If those citizens were anything to go by, people are starting to react against all of the cuts to the number of politicians, town councils, etc. Perhaps some of this is due to the fact that Oireachtas Members and citizens worked collaboratively at the convention, where they got to see how we behaved without having to look through the cynical lens of the media. People are naturally and rightly sceptical of politicians, but our media is driving a cynical view of politicians.

As the Minister is aware, the convention voted against reducing the number of politicians and wanted the number to remain as was. Were the number to be changed, the most votes were for 159 Deputies or more. Had the Minister tested the convention, he might have made a different decision as regards cutting the number of Deputies. He must move away from playing up to the agenda of anti-politics and cynicism. We must start promoting our role as politicians. That the Constitutional Convention has been so deliberative and well run proves that citizens can be persuaded of the good aspects of our democracy and can make good and wise decisions, as they do through our current electoral system.

The convention's model has worked well. I was sceptical before becoming involved. I am not sceptical now, as it has been a worthwhile process.

I wish to thank all our colleagues in the House who have made valuable contributions to this discussion. The Government has provided its response to the recommendations in the first report of the Constitutional Convention. Many Deputies have made valid suggestions and offered ideas which will contribute further to the debate on the themes of the recommendations.

I wish to assure the House that the Government has an open mind on the convention's recommendations. The response to the convention's first report would clearly indicate that we are anxious to facilitate, as quickly as possible, the implementation of some of the important matters that have been discussed and recommended to the Government.

We are already committed to holding a referendum before the end of 2015 on reducing the voting age and reducing the age limit for presidential candidates. We will further examine the work that has to be done concerning the nomination process for presidential elections, in terms of citizens' engagement. The issue of greater and direct citizen participation in nominating a presidential candidate requires further consideration concerning its implementation. We have asked the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht to do further work on that matter.

As regards other matters that were raised, I can assure Deputy Tuffy that I am not playing up to any anti-political or anti-politician agenda, as she asserts. That might be something she could address with the Fourth Estate - the media - as regards the meaningful work that goes on in this House by all Members. If members of the media were attending the Constitutional Convention, they might see that the type of points the Deputy has made are being teased out with members of the public. Value is put on certain matters that are not always treated with the same respect when they are published.

As regards our voting system, it is clear that lofty academic and media comment will not gazump the people into voting for a different system without valid reasons for doing so. I welcome that. I do not believe we should be changing a system that works reasonably well. We can certainly reform the way we do business but I do not think we need a more elitist parliamentary system. That has been acknowledged by the public, as we have seen through this convention.

Deputy Charles Flanagan spoke about putting a referendum commission into an electoral commission. We can do that but it will not change anything in terms of the content or import of what happens in practice. The Referendum Commission has been in place for many years. It was formalised in the 1998 legislation and was established as a separate independent way of giving voters independent information on a constitutional matter that was put before them. I do not think there is any difficulty in merely putting information before voters independently, notwithstanding the fact that there is some frustration perhaps on the basis of some of the judgments that have been issued over the years on what one can or cannot do.

I wish to add my words of gratitude to the chairman and staff of the Constitutional Convention who are presiding effectively and diligently over the convention's work. All the Members who contributed to this debate have acknowledged that. It is gratifying to see that the work of engaging citizens and Parliament together in this review of our Constitution, through this particularly novel means, is working exceptionally well. It may provide a model for how we can gain greater public participation in future.

I acknowledge the work of the participants and thank everybody for that, especially ordinary members of the convention who gave up their weekends to be part and parcel of this important historic work.