Jim O’Brien: We need a new constitution to safeguard basic rights and develop a decent society

There are times when every gathering of human beings needs to pause , to establish or re-establish, articulate or clarify the basic principles by which it lives. Perhaps this is such a time for us.

We are in a period of lull; it is like being at the bottom of the loop on a roller-coaster where the trolleys are slowly building for another climb and another terrifying descent.

The recent trajectory of world events has carried us from the heights of a boom to the breathless descent into recession, followed by a short ascent to recovery before a precipitous drop into depths of a pandemic.

The near failure of the international financial system and the global pandemic confirmed that global solidarity is not even a mirage. The very poor died in their hundreds of thousands while the very rich got even richer.

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In these lingering days of nervous anticipation, nothing is expected of us except to catch our breath before the trolleys start to move again. These are useful days to take time, take stock and take decisions.

Some are advising us to expect a boom that will be even bigger than what went before. There is a great danger that these ‘boomsayers’ will simply lead us back to the future, where we risk repeating all the same mistakes.

Others are scratching their heads trying to figure out where we are headed and if there is a better way to get there.

In Ireland, the housing crisis is symptomatic of the challenges facing us as we emerge from the terrible teens of the 21st century.


We don’t yet know what shape our reality will take once the yellow Covid signs disappear and the facemask becomes an optional accessory, but we know some things.

We know that, by and large, the children of people in their 50s and older will not be as well off as their parents a generation whose members generally own their own houses and have decent pensions to shepherd them through the ‘golden years’. In contrast, their offspring look likely to be trapped in an uninviting and interminable bronze age.

What can be done? We need to start taking charge of the course of events. Among the advantages in being a small country is our capacity to be more versatile than the lumbering behemoths that surround us.

In recent times one of the mechanisms for change to serve us well has been the Citizens’ Assembly. Its careful, consultative and comprehensive approach to its work on elements of the constitution and the climate crisis laid the ground for reasoned and reasonable debate, which in turn resulted in real change.

Perhaps it is time to use the mechanism of the Citizens’ Assembly to go behind the constitution and explore the elements essential for a good life in Ireland.

Establishing these essentials could form the basis for a new constitution and create the conditions for the development of a decent society where the wellbeing of all citizens is safeguarded.

This new constitution could enumerate the rights to shelter, food and safety, giving a constitutional basis to rights and responsibilities associated with housing, the right to a universal basic income, universal healthcare and education.

It could also deal with the right to a clean, sustainable environment.

As a nation we are justifiably proud of our constitutional democracy and its robust nature. We are among the few nations in the world with democratic institutions that have survived, uninterrupted, for almost 100 years.

A key strength and weakness of our democratic structures is the relative brevity of Dáil terms.

Most governments last about four years, and while this makes them very accountable to the electorate, it also leads to short-termism where policy is shaped by legislators who have one eye on the broader horizon and the other on the next election.

I am not suggesting longer terms of office for the Dáil; I am rather arguing for a more prescriptive legislative framework where the basics are protected by the constitution and safeguarded from the curse of short-termism.

In our small corner of the world we can put together a framework of basic principles to guide our progress and safeguard us from decisions formed in champagne-sodden tents at race-meetings.

This framework could also protect us from the impact of decisions taken in far-away penthouse suites where the wellbeing, lives, and livelihoods of our citizens are used to hedge the bets of the increasingly privileged few.

Before the trolleys take off on the rollercoaster again, we need to establish the principles by which we want to live, and move and have our being, as a society and as an endangered species in a fragile eco-system.

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