“Constitutional Convention: A progressive initiative with genuine potential

July 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

I took part in a discussion entitled “A Broad Agenda of Reform for the Constitutional Convention” at this year’s MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal.  Below are my opening remarks to the School. 

I’m honoured to have been invited to address the MacGill Summer School on the theme of the forthcoming Constitutional Convention – a body to which I have been nominated by the Leader of the Labour Party and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore. I look forward very much to the commencement in the autumn of this important work.

The Constitutional Convention is one element – a central element I hope – of a dynamic process of reform to reinvigorate our governance and our democratic institutions.

There has been some debate about how broad the agenda is for the Convention – hence the topic for this session presumably. I would like to address that issue, and to argue that the agenda is in truth quite broad. Certainly it is very relevant to many of our contemporary preoccupations in Ireland today.

But it is necessary to acknowledge at the outset that the agenda for reform – and even the agenda for constitutional reform – is not all being encompassed in the Constitutional Convention. Thus, it is planned to proceed soon with a referendum on children’s rights, and a referendum on the abolition of Seanad Eireann – both being manifesto commitments given by the government parties, and others, in last year’s general election. And there have been other announcements within the past week concerning the proposed re-organisation of the Courts under Article 34 which will necessitate a referendum, as would proposals to alter the operation of Article 26 of the Constitution – the reference of a Bill by the President to the Supreme Court for adjudication as to its constitutionality.

Much necessary reform does not require Constitutional change

It is also critical to note that a very great deal of the reform that’s needed in our democratic institutions, and in our ways of conducting public business, does not require constitutional change at all. A huge amount can be achieved through primary legislation or even in some cases through changes in parliamentary practice and Standing Orders, for example by re-organising, and by giving priority to Committee work in the Oireachtas:

• Parliamentary control of the legislative process. The Finance Committee has just produced a report on the forthcoming whistle blowing legislation and will do the same for lobbying legislation; the Justice Committee did extensive and really valuable work on the Insolvency legislation. All of this requires commitment and resources and it requires government Ministers – and the civil service – to take this process seriously.

• Funding of political parties – significant change is being implemented here, in a manner that does not require constitutional change. This will herald a completely new and significantly more transparent regime for the regulation of political donations.

• Strong anti-corruption legislation has been published by the Minister for Justice in the last few weeks, to replace outdated and grossly inadequate legislation dating from 1889.

• Participation of women in politics – A Bill dealing with political donations and measures to encourage greater participation of women in politics passed by the Oireachtas last Friday. (This issue is also on the agenda of the Convention.)

• Freedom of Information legislation. The National Asset Management Agency, An Garda Síochána and the Central Bank are among statutory bodies to be subjected for the first time to public scrutiny under updated Freedom of Information legislation, which will also reverse changes made by the previous government to this pioneering legislation introduced by Eithne Fitzgerald in 1997.

• Local government. There are few areas of change more necessary or desirable; it seems to me, than genuine local government reform. As is often said, we essentially have a system of local administration in Ireland; when what we need is local government. This could be the single most significant step towards real citizen participation in decision-making, giving people a real stake in their communities and in their localities. This can, and must happen, and it does not require constitutional change.

So, we already have an energetic programme of legislative change, and we are to have more, together with some constitutional amendments to which I have referred which are not part of the Convention process.

I would acknowledge too that there are other reforms that we should consider and implement: better education for citizenship, for example, and real efforts to involve citizens not just at voting time, but on a continuing basis in the democratic life of the country. I think this has been one of the valuable contributions of groups like ‘Claiming our Future’ and ‘We the Citizens’, and I hope that the very existence of the Convention will help encourage real democratic engagement and participation by citizens, on a permanent basis, and not just post-crisis.

The Constitutional Convention then is one element – a central element I hope – of a dynamic process of reform to reinvigorate our governance and our democratic institutions. « Read the rest of this entry »

White calls for consensus approach to banking inquiry

July 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

“I welcome publication by the Public Accounts Committee of an analysis of options for the holding of a parliamentary inquiry into the banking collapse.

We are now four years on from the events of 2008 and many questions remain unanswered, including why the Fianna Fail/Green government embarked on the controversial bank guarantee of 29 September 2008.

As I have indicated to Minister Brendan Howlin, the holding of a banking inquiry has been considered by the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure & Reform, as part of our work programme.

Legal advice contained in the PAC report states that the Public Accounts Committee, given the nature of its role, is not currently empowered to hold an inquiry of the type envisaged. For that committee to hold a banking inquiry, significant amendments to its terms of reference would be required.

The Public Accounts Committee performs an extremely important function – essentially as an audit committee. The Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure & Reform is responsible for parliamentary oversight of banking, banking regulation, and government policy in these areas.

The three “pillars” recommended by the PAC for consideration in any inquiry are: the bank guarantee; the role of the banks; and the role of State institutions. Each of these is squarely in the policy domain.  Indeed, the Finance & PER Committee has been dealing with banking and banking regulation on a continuous basis, most recently in hearings regarding the Ulster Bank failure.

That said, I want to agree very much with the PAC’s recommendation that “the views of the wider membership of the Dail be sought in order to build consensus, clarify expectations and design an inquiry that successfully addresses as many issues as possible”.

The general election of 2011 brought many new members into the Oireachtas, with a wealth of talent and commitment. Like those who elected us, we all want to see an effective inquiry into what happened. It may be that the government and the Oireachtas would consider drawing on the skills and expertise of a broad range of parliamentarians,  bearing in mind the need for full public confidence in such an exercise, which should be devoid of party political controversy.”

Finance Committee to meet Ulster Bank executives

July 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Representatives from Ulster Bank will come before the Committee on Finance and the Public Service tomorrow afternoon 5 July to discuss the backlog of unprocessed payments caused by the glitch in its computer systems.

Ulster Bank CEO Jim Brown will be accompanied by Chris Sullivan, CEO, UK Corporate Banking, RBS and Jim Ryan, Managing Director, Branch Banking, Ulster Bank.

Committee chairman Alex White, TD said: “The major technical malfunctions at Ulster Bank have now entered their third week. As a result of this IT glitch, and the resultant inordinate delays in rectifying customer business, many people do not have access to funds and are unable to make everyday payments. It is an unacceptable situation.

“The Committee will press the bank’s senior executives tomorrow on a clear timeframe in which the issues will be resolved and on ensuring customers left out of pocket are appropriately compensated. Having met representatives from the Central Bank’s Financial Regulation Division on the situation today, the Committee is anxious to ensure that the difficulties for Ulster Bank’s customers are resolved as soon as possible.”

The meeting will take place in Committee Room 4, Leinster House 2000 at 2:30 pm tomorrow Thursday 5 July.

Labour delivers on its promise of a fair ireland with JLC legislation

July 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Deputy Alex White welcomed today’s imminent passing of the Joint Labour Committee legislation as further proof of Labour delivering on its commitment to justice and fairness.

“This legislation restoring JLCs is vital in underpinning decent pay and conditions for low paid workers.

“The constitutionality of the previous legislation may have been in question, but the principles of justice, equality and fairness underpinning the JLC system established in 1946 were never in doubt in the minds of Labour TDs. Therefore, we worked hard to see that the new legislation was brought forward as quickly as possible, and I am pleased that it is now to be enacted by the Oireachtas.

“Real reform takes time but Labour is determined to ensure that any reform is done for the benefit of all in society especially, as in this case, those on low pay who are at added risk in a recession”.

Eurozone agreement will unshackle us from banking debts

July 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

The overnight EU summit agreement constitutes a significant step towards resolution of the Irish and European sovereign debt crisis. The effect of this agreement will be to unshackle massive banking debts from sovereign liability – an essential ingredient for recovery.

Ireland’s 2008 bank guarantee can never be fully reversed. However, this represents a real and singificant step towards lifting much of the grossly unjust burden the guarantee placed on the Irish people. The Taoiseach and the Tanaiste must be warmly congratulated on what they have achieved today.

Like many others, I have long believed that a single supervisory regime for eurozone banks is an essential condition for addressing the banking crisis, and for guarding against future collapses. I welcome the fact that this has now been agreed, and that such a supervisory body is to be put in place as a priority objective, and quickly.

The other essential ingredient for recovery is a sustainable growth strategy. We can bring forward a stimulus strategy ourselves, and I fully expect the government to do so. But given the level of integration and inter-dependence that now exists in Europe, only an EU-wide growth strategy can succeed. I look forward to further announcements today from the summit.

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