Conference on Constitutional Reform

There has been a fair amount of discussion on this blog about issues of constitutional reform. Some readers may be interested in a interdisciplinary conference to be held on Friday afternoon, 21st May, at the Clarion Hotel, IFSC which includes contributions from economists, political scientists and lawyers on the question ‘Does Ireland need Constitutional Reform. Programme below and further details from

The UCD Constitutional Studies Group presents a conference on
Does Ireland need constitutional reform?
with the support of the School of Law, UCD.

Clarion Hotel, IFSC
May 21st, 2010.

Conference schedule

Session 1: Why constitutional reform?
1.00pm: An Iterative Constitution: dynamics of a rule-based legal system – Dr. Stephen Kinsella.
1.20pm: Re-placing the Constitution in the context of reform – Dr. Maria Cahill.
1.40pm: The problems of public understanding and constitutional reform – Dr. Oran Doyle.
2.00pm: Questions and discussion.

Session 2: Electoral and parliamentary reform
2.20pm: Reforming the Seanad – Senator Ivana Bacik.
2. 40pm: Is electoral reform the wrong answer to the right question? – Prof. David Farrell.
3.00pm: “Relaying the playing field – Implications of political reform for the constitutional law ground rules of political competition – Dr. John O’Dowd.
3.20pm: Questions and discussion.

3.45pm: Coffee break.

Session 3: Improving public governance
4.00pm: Sacred spaces and blurred boundaries: Administrative reform and constitutional governance – Muiris MacCarthaigh.
4.20pm: Enhancing government accountability to the Oireachtas – Eoin O’Malley
4.40pm: An accountability branch of government? – Dr. Eoin Carolan
5.00pm: The place of the media in the constitution – Dr. Carol Coulter.
5.20pm: Questions and discussion.

5.45pm: Close of conference.

By Colin Scott

Colin Scott is Principal, UCD College of Social Sciences and Law and Professor of EU Regulation and Governance at UCD. He is a Co-Editor of Legal Studies (Wiley-Blackwell).

12 replies on “Conference on Constitutional Reform”


I think our biggest constitutional blind spot, is that the party whipp system excludes opposition TDs from every part of political power. Voters who support non-government parties are effectively unrepresented.

In America, the use of the supermajority rule, weakens the power of government whips and forces the majority party to acknowledge (in a small way) the existence of the minority politicians. Typical Senate deals include compromises with some of the minority party’s senators, to get legislation through the Senate. This means that legislation enjoys a wider mandate and cannot be as clientellist.

It also means that there is less frivolous legislation as the difficulties of securing a supermajority are a deterrent to using the legislative process to grandstand on topical issues.

Here, the Government can pass legislation at the drop of the hat, without any real scrutiny, or commitment. The Minister dreams something up, publishes it, and a few days later it is law -whether it is a good idea or not. It could include rank clientellism, it might do nothing except make the Minister look good on TV, it might be a kneejerk reaction to someone operating inside the current laws in a manner that irks the authorities: frankly it doesn’t matter what it is, the power of the whips means it will be passed regardless of its actual merits.

A supermajority undermines the whips and curtails all of these flaws. Legislation must stand up to scrutiny to command a supermajority. Indeed, it even empowers the backbench members of the majority party who do on occasion vote against their leaders on issues. The supermajority rule, makes it self-defeating to eject a member from your party for disobedience: so principled stands are often rewarded by voters and go unpunished by party hierarchies.

For all of these reasons, I believe a supermajority enforces democratic accountability and encourages scrutiny inside a legislature (and whips destroy it).

The Oireachtas could and I believe should organise intermittent local forums in every constituency to allow local Deputies to jointly address the public. This would allow for voters to more ably distinguish between candidates based on their actual skills and persona, rather than their party allegiance. The invisibility of many TDs throughout the year is a real barrier for many people to make informed decisions at voting time.

I agree with the essence of your criticism : on clientelism in Ireland and the fact that in practice the executive actually makes the law not the legislature. But I’m not sure about your super majority.

And in the States, as far as I am aware, a super majority is not required to make most law. Plus, the kind of horse-trading that goes on in us law-making would make TDs blush. The US system specializes in Pork-barrelism and the system they call ‘earmarks’. Not exactly a model to follow.

Irish culture is strong and deeply embedded in every fibre of Irish society. The results of this are beautiful and beneficial in many ways. The other side of the coin is that our culture of corruption runs wide and deep. This manifests itself in a multitude of ways. It is perfectly normal for planners in city, town and regional governments to contract with developers before and after they make planning applications. It is equeally acceptable and expected that politicians palms will be greased by people seeking favours from government. Then we have cronyism and nepotism rampant at the upper levels of government, quangos, banks, companies in general and non profits. Indeed no sooner was an attempt made to crack down on gov’t wrondoing than quangos proliferated to ensure business continued as usual.
In order to deal with this malignancy it will be necessary to weaken the power at the centre of the system. The number of TDs have to be cut by 75% as a first step. Regional gov’ts have to be given the power to tax all property, receive a negotiated portion of VAT and personal income taxes.
The national gov’t will be confined to external affairs, defense, interregional and international transportation, post secondary education and little else.
The polticial gravy train has been damaged by gov’t excess and a lot of effort is already under way to get it back on track. That is what I expect of constitutional change in Ireland. Plus ca change, Plus c’est la meme chose as they say in France. Based on events post 1922 I see little room for optimism on the corruption front, we are, every one of us, deeply implicated and beyond redemption.

Political reform in this country will be efficient when you can realise the potential of your chosen candidate before he/she sits in office.

Pinning your vote on the back of a door to door call without even knowing a second name and putting your confidence solely in a party name is what’s wrong at present.

To step a side from a system so intertwined in our society you have to start stepping away from the foundations.

As for corruption there will always be a hint of it, would be naive to think otherwise, it’s a change in a voting system that might just keep it at low levels.

I think we have a lot more pork-barrel than we realise. It is usually concealed inside of national programs.

The scrappage scheme, the incentives for property developers, the smart economy, these are broad national programs which benefitted particular interest groups at the expense of everyone else (disastrously in the case of the property developers). They may not be as obvious as a US senator asking for a new road, but they are even more damaging -and they would be more difficult to pass if all of the nation was represented in decision making.

And it’s not just in financial largesse that supermajority’s protect against clientelism. The appointment of personnel, such as judges, members of State boards, and a plethora of public appointments (including Local Government employees) are appointed by simple majority and almost always go to those who belong to the political family of the party which happens to be in power on a given day. Some truly astonishing appointments have been made over the years with no real scrutiny and no consensus in the legislature as to their specific merits.

Ger, not a bad shout to be fair. We’re still in the “nod wink and handshake” era of politics, but to get out of that you, realistically, would have to start from absolute scratch so that history wouldn’t tarnish any new reform…saying and doing it are very different, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to reform something thats so deep in Irish society.

The go on a slight tangent a bit….I wouldn’t scrutinise the smart economy as much its a great idea but just missing a lot of crucial factors, goes overboard on innovation and assumes we already have the foundations laid, which we don’t, completely ignores primary activates and basic manufacturing needed for an innovative hub to be functionable …we’re not China or the US and won’t be for the near future, the problem is facilitating what we have, efficiently, and to ensure everybody gets a feel of the bun. That’s innovation.

Thanks to Colin for flagging the event. Further details are available here:,56216,en.html

And thanks to all those commenting on this issue.You’ll see that the programme has left as much time as possible for questions and discussion. We think constitutional reform is too important to be left to any one political party or academic discipline, so these suggestions are just the sort of brain-storming we hope to encourage on Friday. Hopefully, getting people together from different backgrounds will lead to some interesting ideas.

I wont be able to attend, but would be quite interested in “Reforming the Senate”.

I reckon that a Senator’s role should be transformed into something investigative. In a nutshell, a senator’s career would be characterised by the reports that he or she publishes, and the effect they have in public discourse.

When I say a report, I mean something substantial, like the McCarthy (Snip Nua) Report, or the Murphy (clerical abuse) reports.

Importantly, a senator gets to publish the report when he or she decides, preventing the government burying anything it doesn’t like.

I would be grateful if some one could raise this on my behalf.

@ consaw
you’re probably right, but empowering the legislature to hold the executive properly to account would do a great deal IMO.

On the Smart Economy, while educational spending is a must, I think most of the things under this banner are just middle-class ripoffs. It seems to be a program of subsidising the employment of the highly educated (who are generally never out of employment anyway). All the really tough unemployment is at the unskilled end of the population. We can offer the unskilled training opportunities, but we cannot force them to take them, or expect everybody to be able for them. Ultimately our industrial policy must be tailored to our actual (not our wished for) demographics.

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