20 January 2005 Edition
New century, new constitution
When delegates attend the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in March, they will be taking part in an historic occasion for the almost 100-year-old party. One of the topics that will be hotly debated over the weekend will be the party's new constitution, the final draft of which is being signed off on this month.
The party membership will be getting a look at it in the coming weeks, so they can give their say in six weeks times on what final changes should be made before voting on the document.
On Wednesday, we met with Sinn Féin Vice President Pat Doherty, the man charged with producing the party's most important document. He spoke to us about why the constitution was reviewed.
"Well, to reflect the massive growth the Sinn Féin party has seen in the last few years, as well as its ever-continuing success, we decided that the old constitution had to be reviewed and revamped with the view to being ready for this, Sinn Féin's centenary year," he said.
"After the 2003 Ard Fheis, at the first meeting of the officer board and then of the Ard Chomhairle, it was decided to set up a group to review the constitutional rules and to come back with a report on that.
"We had talked about doing it two or three years before, but we had never actually got down to it."
Doherty was put in charge of the task and was told to set up a working group.
"We established a six-person working group consisting of Anne O'Sullivan, Lucilita Bhreathnach, Frances McCole, Proinsias Ó Maolchalain, Daniel Callanan and myself. When we finally submitted our last draft it was our 24th — there was a lot of work involved, but the committee was great.
Lucilita made a great contribution to the gender balance needed. Frances did a huge amount of work on party structures, party discipline and membership generally, and that's well reflected. Prionsias, being a barrister, and Daniel, a solicitor, both did good work on the legal side of things, including the terminologies used. Anne was invaluable as she did all the drafts and re-drafts and took all the notes."
The group looked at previous constitutions and relevant historical documents and made sure their core principles are reflected in the new draft. This entailed research of the 1910 and 1920 constitutions, as well as the 1916 Proclamation of Independence and the 1919 Democratic Programme.
"We had regular tie-ins and meetings with the officer board as well," Doherty said. "We met with other groups also, including Ógra. We didn't want to create an ivory tower-type situation where we were the only people deciding what the new constitution would look like, so we carried out a lot of consultation."
Doherty said that having been left for so long, the document had acquired too many "add-ons".
"At the very start we didn't actually have proper terms of reference, but once we got into it we realised that the biggest problem was that additional changes had been made to the constitution and the rules, year in and year out, and in many cases, they were out of sync," he said.
"There needed to be a huge re-ordering, particularly in what was constitutional and what was rules. Although both are subject to the Ard Fheis, the difference is that the constitution takes a two-thirds majority to change and the rules only take 50%. The next task was the simple job of just making it more accessible, adding a contents page and changing the headings, things like that. We also tried to remove any duplication."
As well as editing the constitution, the group added a number of new pages.
"We dealt with the whole question of people who may not want to be members of Sinn Féin in the formal sense, but who do want to relate to the party," Doherty said. "There was a section on associated membership and we tried under that same context to make it more accessible. I do think that that is an area that will develop in the coming years and we may have to revisit it.
"We also added a lot more in the area of finance. For example, we dealt in a more legal way with the question of trustees. There was always a facility in the rules to have party trustees, but we never really had it taken up in a very active way. Now that the party has grown and owns so many properties throughout the country, constituency offices and so on, so we had to do a huge amount of work with the finance department and legal people on the issue. What was originally two sentences in the old constitution, is now about two pages."
The group also worked hard to remove any anomalies or contradictions, which in the past might have allowed opposing sides in an argument to quote the party constitution to back up their points.
"We tried to make it clearer, but the constitution reflects life and there will always be difficult areas to deal with," Doherty said. "While this document will serve as guidance, common sense has to be used in all cases. But we did our best to make sure the constitution protects the rights of our members."
Now Doherty is hoping that the membership will make use of the document.
"It has been the case in the past that people have only gone to the constitution to check something if a dispute arises and so on," he said. "We want this to be part of the new members' training programme and we will also be advising older members to take a copy and read it. This is the party's guidebook, and people in the party should know what it says.
The final draft of the new constitution was proof read on Wednesday and is now on its way out to Ard Fhéis delegates so it can be examined before the party's annual conference.
"I'll be undertaking a tour of the five cuigí in the coming weeks to go through the document with them," Doherty said. "On Monday 24 January I'll meet the Six-County Cúige in Belfast, on Wednesday 26, the Connacht/Ulster Cúige in Sligo, Thursday 27 will be the Munster Cúige in Cork, Friday 28, the Dublin Cúige in Dublin, and then on Saturday 5 February I'll meet the Leinster Cúige in Dublin, I think."
Doherty urged party members to attend these cúige meetings to discuss the constitution in detail.