Enda Kenny’s fascination with his predecessor John A. Costello continues. Not only is Enda determined to beat Costello’s record for time served as Taoiseach, he now seems to want to eclipse Costello’s penchant from making major constitutional announcements outside the country.
Costello announced his intention for Ireland to abandon the External Relations Act (and effectively quit the British Commonwealth and declare itself Republic) during a visit to Canada in 1948, while Kenny announces in Philadelphia that he intends to hold a referendum to give the Irish diaspora votes in future Irish presidential elections – but only in elections after the next one.
There are many legends about Costello’s Ottawa announcement, including one version that claims he made it when was “tired and emotional” and another that asserts he did it after being offended by the placing of a replica of the Roaring Meg canon used in the Siege of Derry in front of him on the dining table at a formal dinner at the Governor General’s residence. But they are only legends.
Today, December 29th 2012, marks the 75th anniversary of the Irish Constitution, Búnreacht na hÉireann coming into effect. This is my Evening Herald column on it continuing importance and relevance to Irish life.
On this day seventy five years ago the Irish Constitution came into operation. As we have seen in recent and current controversies, almost four decades on, the Constitution is still central to much of our political debate.
Within the past year we have seen it successfully amend it three times: Judges Pay, Fiscal Compact and Children’s Rights. But, we have also seen the public resoundingly reject the governments request that they amend it on the issue of Oireachtas enquiries.
It is not the first time the public has done this. Not only did they defeat the Nice I and Lisbon I votes, as early as 1959 they rejected the then attempt to change the voting system. Indeed in 1968 the voters rejected the next two amendments put to them, both related to elections.
It was not until the 1972 vote on joining the then EEC that the people passed the first amendment to the Constitution. (Technically this is the Third Amendment as the first two were made in 1939 and 1941 without referendums as part of transitional arrangements.)
Over the past 75 years the public have approved some twenty five changes to the Constitution. While some were technical in nature, others – such as the five votes relating to abortion – were highly controversial and emotionally charged.
What this shows is that the Constitution makes the people sovereign. They alone decide what changes may be made to the fundamental law of the land.
This important aspect of De Valera’s 1937 Constitution has been much praised over the years. While it is easy to look at the language and some of the secondary provisions as being a product of their time and maybe a little outdated now, most legal experts view the principles set out in the Constitution of 1937 as being ahead of their time.
Five of the fifty articles are devoted to Fundamental Rights. Decades before international instruments, such as the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed fundamental rights and fair procedures, the Irish Constitution had done so.
Indeed, while the Constitution does not declare Ireland as militarily neutral, it does contain in Article 29.2 a commitment to “the pacific settlement of international disputes” and the adherence to International law. This is just something else that marks the document out as being ahead of its time.
But while it may have been well ahead of its time 75 years ago, it is still so?
I would argue that, essentially, it is. The fundamental principles it espouses are just that – fundamental. The commitment to democracy, rule of law, fair procedures etc do not change with the seasons of the prevailing political fashion.
But it is also a living document, particularly in the provisions relating to how government and the judiciary should work. Back in 1937 it seemed natural that only those over 21 should be entitled to vote, by 1972 that was changed to 18 by a margin of over 5 to 1 of those voting.
Events of recent years have thrown up some more significant issues. Are our governmental structures sufficiently responsive – or even fit for purpose – in the context of the IMF/EU bailout and an evolving European Union/Eurozone? Is the 1930’s post independence concept of property ownership appropriate in 21st century Ireland?
But where is reform on these issues being discussed? Not at the Government’s Constitutional Convention, it seems. Its initial priorities, as set out by the Government, are to discuss the President’s term of office and the voting age. This is the equivalent of setting up a dance committee after the Titanic has hit the ice. The one substantive constitutional issue on which the government, particularly the Taoiseach, is committed is abolition of the Seanad.
Just when we require more meaningful scrutiny of government policy, it proposes less and sells it under the guise of “reform”. Fortunately, it is the people who will be sovereign on this.
To quote Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Though I’m loathe to disagree with a Nobel prize-winner, when your editor asks for a prediction you don’t reply: don’t know.
While national polls show the US Presidential election as a dead heat, I reckon Obama will make it. The two keys to forecasting US elections are polls in the nine battleground states and voter turnout.
It is the “electoral college” system. Get the most votes in a State and you get all its “electoral college [EC] votes”. The votes allotted are weighted roughly according to the States population with the winner being the one to get 270.
The system is far from perfect. You can win the election without a national majority. It happened in 2000 when Bush beat Gore by 271 EC votes to 266, while getting 544,000 fewer votes nationally. It may happen again this time.
The campaigns are framed accordingly. President Obama jokingly acknowledged this truth at the Al Smith dinner in New York saying: “In less than three weeks, voters in states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida will decide this incredibly important election, which begs the question, what are we doing here?”
Last night’s State polls show Romney likely to take just one of these: Florida, but trailing the President in the other two. Like Meath, Ohio is seen as a bellwether state. No Republican has ever won without winning Ohio and Obama’s lead there looks solid.
Over the next 24 hours, ahead of polls closing on election day tomorrow, both campaigns will be focussed on their GOTV campaigns – getting out their vote. This is still crucial even though around 20% of likely voters (approx 29 million people) have already cast their ballots.
Obama’s handling of the Hurricane Sandy crisis plus the sight of him working with one of his staunchest Republican critics: New Jersey’s Gov Chris Christie cannot have hurt his chances.
Just in the same way as Romney had started to surge before the first debate, Obama had started to regain ground before Sandy hit. Each event was not the catalyst for a bounce it was what encapsulated something already in progress.
Even before the first debate Romney was closing the gap with Obama, particularly with women voters. The Obama campaign had spent millions over the Summer on TV ads portraying Romney as an aloof, remote right winger, using his own words from the primaries to indict him. The Republican convention and Romney’s selection of arch fiscal conservative, Paul Ryan, as his running mate did not help dispel the image.
But as soon as he hit the campaign trail proper Romney eased his message. Gone was the tea-party rhetoric that won him the nomination: in its place the more emollient, stern but fair tone that had made him a moderate Governor.
Women, particularly married women and mothers, started to rally to his cause as they heard him talk about rebuilding America and securing their children’s future. Obama’s double digit lead amongst woman was slashed to about 6%. This is roughly the same amount by which Romney led Obama amongst white men.
By contrast Obama has a 2 to 1 lead among Latino/Hispanic voters, an increasingly important constituency, and a 20 to 1 lead with African-Americans. Getting both groups to the polls in numbers could clinch it for him.
I could go on quoting polls of other groups. Under 35s, veterans, middle class etc, but let me close with a slightly more bit quirky one. Asking voters who they think will win has, in previous elections, been seen to be a better indicator of an election result than asking them who they plan to support.
This time around voters, by a double digit margin, think Obama will beat Romney. It may not be quite as scientific but it, and my gut instinct, convinces me Obama is on course for a second term.
My take on the third and final presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Gov Mitt Romney, from tonight;s Evening Herald. The print edition features an abridged version of the full piece below.
If recent polls are right then last night’s presidential debate outcome will please about 95% of us, even if a deal on Irish bank debt never made the agenda!
In their third encounter President Obama again came out on top, but Romney was not too far behind. While Obama has been slipping in the polls since even before the first debate, he still leads Romney on the issue of foreign relations and he showed why last night.
He has, after all, been dealing with foreign affairs for the past four years, while Romney has just been studying it for the past few months. President Obama is the man who took the US out of Iraq, the man who focused on finding and eliminating of Bin Ladin. Then again George Bush I was the man who presided over the fall of communism and drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but found his re-election bid frustrated by the weakened economy.
Last night’s confrontation was not nearly as fierce as the previous debate, partly because it focussed on foreign affairs, but largely because the two men were seated throughout.
For this rsason their individual body language was not as noticeable as it had been last time. Their words had to carry the force of their argument – and they did. Both went on the attack – Obama attacked Romney’s grasp of the issues, while Romney dismissed the President’s foreign policy record as faltering.
Obama had the one-liner of the night. He countered Romney’s criticism that the US Navy has fewer ships now that it had 1916: ad libbing that they also had fewer bayonets and horses. Obama’s prepared put down saying that Romney’s foreign policy was from the 80s, his social policy was from the 50s and his economic policy was from the 20s was good, but not as effective.
The reality that dare not speak its name last night is the fact that foreign relations is not nearly as important as everyone likes to pretend.
Despite the high flown rhetoric from both on America’s place in the world, this election is about the contents of the ordinary man or woman’s wallet – no other issue comes closer.
Yes, America’s attitudes to the Middle East, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria are important, but these will not decide the outcome of this election, jobs and living standards will.
The two candidates as good as admitted this as they wove the economy and domestic concerns into their replies. The purpose of the debate was not so much to debate foreign policy, but to see how both candidates could handle complex issues.
As with the past two debates the role of the moderator was almost as important as the performances of the two contenders. Across the three debates it has had something of a Goldilocks quality to it. In the first Jim Lehrer was judged to have taken a bit of a back seat. Candy Crowley, the moderator of the second debate was accused of taking too big a role in the encounter, framing supplementary questions and, most notably, pulling up Gov Romney on his alleged misquoting of the President.
If Lehrer and Crowley had made the presidential porridge too cold or too hot, last night’s moderator, veteran news man Bob Schieffer, worked to get the balance just right. Schieffer was more forceful than his close friend Lehrer in enforcing the agreed rules, but was less interventionist than Crowley.
Most american commentators agree that these have been the most exciting debates in decades, but they have not done much to reduce the numbers of undecided voters.
As in previos elections the debates have envigorated those whi have already decided who they will support. The battle for undecideds will be won or lost on the ground in a handful of states, particularly Ohio.
The outcome of this election will be tight, the next fortnight will be fraught.
If winning the first election debate were the sole criteria for getting elected then Walter Mondale and John Kerry would have been President. They were not.
As I pointed out after the first Obama/ Romney encounter, debates have not decided the outcome of past elections. They are influencers but, despite the occasional bounces, the trend before the debates invariably is the trend after them.
Going into the first debate Obama was leading Romney but the margin was closing. Before they met last night most national polls had the race as either marginally favouring Romney or a dead heat.
The next few days will show what impact last night’s debate had. Chances are that the polls in the key marginal States will bounce up and down in the coming week and the original trend of a narrowing gap with Obama ahead will prevail up to polling day.
So, what happened in last night’s debate?
Firstly, there was a real debate and it was fierce. Maybe it was the format, perhaps it the more effective moderator, but unlike the first the public had the chance to compare and contrast the two men, especially when they clashed directly – and they certainly did that.
Secondly, the 2008 Obama showed up. He did not let Romney’s attacks go unchallenged. On questions on energy, equality, taxation and Libya he not only rebutted the attacks he turned them back on him.
Speaking before last night’s encounter one of Romney’s own campaign aides inadvertently hit on what these debates are about. Pre-emptively dismissing Obama’s likely change in debating strategy, he said Obama could change his style and approach, but he cannot change his record. True.
But this is the Romney campaign’s problem. Obama’s record was every bit as bad a month ago when he was ahead. What changed at the first debate was not Obama’s record: it was Obama’s attitude. This election is Obama’s to win or lose.
At the previous debate undecided voters saw a President who appeared indifferent and aloof. For months, in countless pro-Obama TV adverts, they had been warned that Romney wanted to give tax breaks to the rich and cut welfare programs for the poor.
They had even seen Romney dismiss 47% of Americans as “victims” who think “they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
Yet, when the two men faced each other the President had refused to put those charges directly to him. Worse still, Obama came across as being every bit as ineffectual as the pro Romney ads had claimed.
All that changed last night
Obama came prepared for a fight. He showed that knows the golden rule of politics: a vote is worth getting is worth asking for. He made his case for a second forcefully. It was not a flawless performance, but it was passionate.
By contrast, Romney seemed to lose some of his mojo. While he again started out strong, he did waiver and falter as the debate progressed, coming across as tetchy as he argued with the moderator over the rules and time allowed.
But he did something he didn’t do the first time: he made a gaffe, a serious one. His attack on the President over the killing of the American Ambassador and three other officials in Benghazi backfired badly, not only because of its tone but because his misquoting of the President had to be corrected by the moderator.
He made Obama look and sound like a President and made himself look like an ill prepared political opportunist.
Expect to see that clip played and replayed on TV and the internet right up to the final debate on foreign policy next Monday.
In the first debate we saw the enthusiastic challenger and the tired incumbent. In the second we saw the passionate President versus the wealthy businessman.
If that Obama had showed up in Denver, this race might have been over already – maybe it will be if he shows up gain next Monday.