The Irish Constitutional Convention: Giving Citizens a Voice in Constitutional Debates

By David Farrell, Professor of Politics, University College Dublin.

What is the story?

In late 2012, the Irish government established a Constitutional Convention. This emerged out of a compromise between the two parties (Fine Gael and Labour) that came to power in the wake of the 2011 ‘electoral earthquake’, while Ireland was reeling from the worst economic crisis in the country’s history.

The newly formed coalition’s ‘Programme for Government’ sought to marry the sometimes quite disparate manifesto promises of both parties. This resulted in the constitutional convention set up to examine diverse issues such as (among others) the length of the Irish President term, the voting age, the Lower House electoral system, same-sex marriage, and the participation of women in politics and public life.

It was to take a further 18 months before the Convention was finally established. Chaired by Tom Arnold (the former chief executive of the leading Irish international charity, Concern), the other 99 members of the Convention consist of 66 citizens and 33 elected legislators. Whereas the parties could determine by themselves how to select their members, the citizen members were selected at random by a survey company, which had a brief of ensuring that the membership was a fair reflection of the population in terms of gender, age, region, education and socio-economic status.

The launch of the Irish Constitutional Convention attracted little by way of positive reaction. Criticisms fell into 3 groups: its composition, its agenda, and its limited advisory role. In this entry, I will deal with these 3 criticisms and provide a preliminary assessment of the Convention.

The membership

The main point of contention was over the mixing of ordinary citizens with elected politicians. The argument was that elected politicians would be likely to dominate the discussions and intimidate the citizen members.

A point of detail that many of the critics may not have picked up on is the modus operandi that surrounds deliberative processes such as this, namely the practice of having the members distributed in tables of 7-8 persons, each with a trained facilitator whose role is to ensure that all members are given an equal right to participate in the discussions in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Moreover, the politician members have made every effort not to steal the limelight, particularly in the plenary discussions (as can be seen from the streamed video feed of these discussions).

The agenda

The second area of criticism was over the agenda of the Constitutional Convention, which was seen at the same time as too limited and overly crowded. The first point relates to the fact that the list of themes is too restrictive, not dealing with the fundamental issues of constitutional reform that many called for. The criticism of the crowded nature of the agenda related specifically to the fact that the Convention was given just 12 months to conclude its work, with space and resources for 9 or so weekends of meetings.

It is too soon to offer detailed consideration of these points, but some preliminary remarks are in order. First, in the parliamentary resolution that established the Convention it is explicitly stated that its work is not limited solely to the themes set by government. We will have to see what other themes the Convention members may wish to take up that might result in additional recommendations for constitutional reform.

Second, it is now apparent that the Convention members are minded to read their brief quite liberally, moving beyond the confines of the specific questions posed. This willingness to extend the agenda of the Convention has been expressed regularly, starting at its January 2013 weekend gathering – its first full meeting. There the Convention considered two themes: whether to reduce the voting age to 17, and whether to reduce the President’s term of office to five years. Having read the briefing materials, heard from experts and advocacy groups, and deliberated over the relevant arguments, the Convention members took decisions that undoubtedly went beyond their brief. For example, they proposed to reduce the voting age to 16 rather than 17. In the same vein, they also proposed to reduce the age of candidacy for presidential candidates and to give citizens a direct role in the process of nominating Presidential candidates.

The role of the Convention

The third main area of criticism is more fundamental, namely that the Convention can only make recommendations. Its role is advisory rather than declaratory. This leaves the final power with the government to determine whether or not its recommendations will ever see the light of day in the form of referendum questions.

It will not be that easy for the government to sweep the recommendations under the rug. A point of detail that appears not to have been taken on board by some is the fact that the government has given a commitment to respond and in timely fashion by way of a formal ministerial statement to the Parliament. The common practice of simply ignoring unpalatable reports, of letting worthy documents gather dust in a damp civil service cellar is thus ruled out.

Based on the response to the first report – which was debated in July 2013 – there is some reason for optimism that the government is taking this process seriously. The government has agreed to hold referendums on two of the three recommendations made in this first report and to refer the third recommendation – giving citizens a say over the nomination of presidential candidates – to the relevant parliamentary committee on the (quite reasonable) ground that the details of how this might work needs further consideration.

Obviously, it is too soon to ascertain the full impact of the Irish Constitutional Convention. However, it has certainly had some impact already on the quality of democracy in Ireland. Emulating the same principles of deliberative democracy used in the British Columbia, Ontario and Dutch citizens’ assemblies, this provides a useful addition to our contemporary system of representative democracy. Something for other countries to emulate?

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