Letter: Rules to live by for the millennium

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The Independent Online
Sir: Two strands of recent public debate, that hitherto have been treated as if they were separate, could be interwoven to the benefit of all.

On the one hand, the Millennium Commission is looking for ideas to fund, support and develop. On the other, there is an increasing interest in constitutional reform. It seems to me that the foundations for the best monument to the new millennium could be laid by establishing now a Royal Commission on Citizenship and the Constitution.

Government and opposition rhetoric is placing increasing emphasis on citizenship and civic duty. A wide spectrum of voluntary bodies is calling for constitutional reform. Those elements of civic society already engaged in reappraisals of citizenship and the Constitution could feed the fruits of their efforts into such a co-ordinated examination of our democracy.

Moreover, the Prime Minister could take the lead on this because he has gone some way to raising the profile of both citizenship and constitutional matters through two initiatives that have marked his premiership, the Citizen's Charter and developments in Northern Ireland.

Now is the time, rather than after the next election, to begin a formal review of the Constitution. First, this is necessary because what is needed is the kind of process, such as the work of the Opsahl Commission in Northern Ireland, which engages in the widest possible participation at community level. Second, it is necessary to start now because once the commission has reported, it would take time for the government of the day to consider what, if any, proposals needed to be brought forward. There would then need to be further public consultation and it would take considerable time for a constitutional bill to pass through Parliament.

It is important symbolically and practically for reform of the Constitution, above all matters, to be considered as a matter for the whole body politic rather than a question of what any temporary majority might be able to push through the next parliament.

As we approach the new millennium, the pressures for re- evaluating the Constitution will grow because of developments at home and abroad.

One example of pre-millennial tension will be Australia's re-evaluation of its links to the monarchy. Developments in South Africa and Canada will keep constitutional issues to the fore elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Most obviously, it is difficult to think of any progress in Northern Ireland that does not involve a charter of rights and proportional representation.

It is not only the people of Ireland, North and South, who need to determine for themselves the shape of their future governance, their mutual rights and responsibilities, but people throughout these islands who could benefit from such an exercise.

Yours, SIMON LEE Department of Jurisprudence Queen's University Belfast 17 October