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Constitutional Convention illustrates that ordinary citizens can play their part in the process after all

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Political World with Harry McGee

I have to say I was sceptical about the notion of a citizens’ assembly becoming part of official political discourse in Ireland. The idea is that rather than getting politicians to decide on new political direction, you get a representative group of people drawn from all strands of society – getting the demographics and geographics right, as Bertie Ahern kept on saying.

To me it seemed like an indulgence to political scientists – telling them all their Christmases had come as one. My instinct was there was potential for manipulation, conscious and subconscious.

But I must say I have revised my view somewhat. The Constitutional Convention has, on the whole, been a good idea. I have been at three or four of the sessions, some looking at relatively trivial constitutional change, others grappling with big ideas like Constitutional Change.

Overall, I think it’s been a worthwhile exercise and a really good example of democracy being more embracing and inclusive.

Of course, there are a couple of variations to the Irish model about which people will argue. The first was the fact that it’s not all citizens but that 33 of the 99 ordinary members (chairman Tom Arnold has been neutral) were politicians. In effect, a majority of the politicians have acted as a brake on some more of the radical ideas… though not all.

Having said that, on another level, the mix of politician and citizens worked surprisingly well as they weren’t really two opposing camps but worked together and fed off each other.

In the round-table discussions the citizens were able to rely on the experience and expertise of TDs and Senators (plus a number of Assembly members from the North) to explain how things are done, or should be done, or could be done.

The converse was that the politicians were able to hear first-hand the considered view of ordinary people about what works and what doesn’t work.

The result of the Convention isn’t binding on Government, but I hope it does take its reports seriously. The thing that impressed me most was how seriously the 66 citizens (and their alternates) who took part in the Convention took their roles and responsibilities.

I was there for the very first session where many of them were tentative and nervous and seemed a bit overwhelmed by the experience and all the media attention. But by this weekend, the sixth session, all had long overcome this.

The quality of question and contribution from ordinary members was very impressive. When you hear a guy quoting not just from the 1937 Constitution but also from its 1922 predecessor you know that guy is engaged.

The level of commitment was also evident from the weather. For the first weekend in living memory, the sun shone continuously – yet here were ordinary citizens happy to be holed up in a darkish room for the entire weekend on a voluntary basis.

We’ll briefly touch on the thinking behind such conventions before looking at the format. The citizens are selected by a polling company and come from every corner of the country. They are from cities, from the countryside, rich and poor, men and women, old and young, well educated or with minimal education.

The idea is that this is a mini-population and if given sufficient information and briefing in a balanced manner they will make recommendations that will mirror that of the larger population if there was a referendum (but without the kind of emotion and extremes and shouting of a campaign).

The format is simple. Political academics give briefings on the issue that is under discussion. They will outline the history, describe the pros and cons of the current situation, and then explain all the alternatives that will be available. Usually, two people will also be invited in to vote for and against the proposed change.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Connacht Tribune

Labour’s awakenings will take time to reap any real reward

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Passing of the baton...Michael D Higgins with his successor Derek Nolan at the Galway West count at Leisureland.

World of Politics with Harry McGee

The film Awakenings was based on the experience of the psychiatrist Oliver Sacks with patients who had contracted a disease called encephalitis lethargica during and shortly after World War I.

Thousands contracted it around the world. How they got it has remained a mystery but it could have been connected to the Spanish Flu outbreak at the time.

It essentially left them in a catatonic state, sleeping, unmoving, like zombies for decades. By the time Sacks came across a group of them in New York, they were all residents of an institution called the Beth Abrams Home for the Incurable.

That did not leave much to the imagination. Some of these people had been essentially sleeping for over 40 years.

He experimented with a drug called L-dopa, which had been used successfully for the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease.

The effect was extraordinary; the drug was like an electric shock that jolted the patients back to life and to sentient existence.

The ‘miracle’ had its drawbacks, however. After a while, it became difficult to control the patients as they became increasingly manic. Ultimately a tough decision was taken to withdraw the drug and the patients relapsed into their catatonic states.

All of that is a bit of a stretched way of saying ‘flash in the pan’, but life sometimes teaches us that success can be very temporary indeed.

There is a long pattern in Irish politics, for example, of a winner in a by-election going on to win a seat in the subsequent general election. However, less than six months after winning a by-election in Wexford, Malcolm Byrne of Fianna Fáil got turfed out in the general election.

Look at it the other way. Sinn Féin were the big losers of the 2019 local elections but turned the ship around completely less than nine months later. The lesson to be learned is success or failure is never a permanent phenomenon in politics.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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Connacht Tribune

Changing political landscape fast becoming Double Dutch

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Big winner...Ivan Bacik after her by-election victory.

World of Politics with Harry McGee

Holland is so used to enduring a perennial political log-jam – where every election just digs you deeper and deeper into a rut – that they’ve actually come up with their own name for it.

It’s called Dutchification – when society has become so urbanised, and globalised, and fragmented, and lacking cohesion, that no party, or parties, can expect to win any more.

The former RTÉ journalist Peter Cluskey wrote a very interesting article last week about this continued electoral limbo they have in Holland, where he’s been based for many years.

And truth be told, the same is happening here; the day of overall majorities is long gone.

We have gone from having two large parties to having three medium sized ones (and with the demise of Fianna Fáil it could even by two medium sized ones, or one large and one medium).

The reality is that it will be difficult for the foreseeable future for any two parties to form a coalition, and it could be difficult for any three parties to do the same.

The old fealties to the three long-established parties have been blown out of the water.

The biggest pool of voters now has no permanent loyalty. They are the floaters.

And there is a growing ‘none of the above’ contingent too, possibly spurred on by the cynicism, empty populism and downright lies, of social media.

They will vote for a party that opposes the government. And once that party they support goes into government, they immediately withdraw their support for it. Short of coming up for an elixir that guarantees everlasting joyous life, these voters will never support a party in government.

I know it sounds cynical but if you talk to enough people around the country – as I always try to do – the person with a deeply cynical disposition and a hate of politicians is no longer a rarity.

Sinn Féin is the growing party at the moment and – from this vantage point – looks like it will be in government for the next spin.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App

Download the Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App to access to Galway’s best-selling newspaper.

Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

Or purchase the Digital Edition for PC, Mac or Laptop from Pagesuite  HERE.

Get the Connacht Tribune Live app
The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

 

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Connacht Tribune

Toughest of first years for the three at the top

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Tough year...Coalition leaders Eamon Ryan, Tanaiste Leo Varadkar and Taoiseach Micheal Martin.

World of Politics with Harry McGee

Just a year ago, we got a new Government. It contained two parties who had separately led governments throughout the history of the State but had come together for the first time. Then there were the Greens. It was formed during a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, caused by a Coronavirus pandemic. It came after an election of huge churn where the first time no single party won over 50 seats or, indeed, 40 seats. Seven of the Ministers were new to Government and two were recently-elected TDs.

Almost all of the collective effort in the past year has gone into addressing the enormous challenges of Covid-19. It has meant unprecedented levels of spending, of support, has led to extended lockdowns, huge percentages of people without employments, and whole sectors shut down for 15 months and counting.

Every new government has teething problems. Given those additional challenges, this coalition was not going to be an exception. Many of the Ministers had lousy starts and looked out of their depths, or out of sorts.

The administration of late is on a more even keel but the big challenges lie ahead when the huge financial supports currently in place begin to be dismantled.

I interviewed Eamon Ryan last week. He does not do negative. Most others would see the jagged internal Green Party rows and squabbling as a huge drag; the bitter divisions detracting from the achievement; the reputation of both Ryan and deputy leader Catherine Martin being damaged in the process.

Not for Ryan. While he acknowledges there will difficulties this is the prism through which he viewed the Greens’ first year in government and its response to Covid.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App

Download the Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App to access to Galway’s best-selling newspaper.

Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

Or purchase the Digital Edition for PC, Mac or Laptop from Pagesuite  HERE.

Get the Connacht Tribune Live app
The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

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