Deliberative Democracy, Irish Style Ireland's Constitutional Convention of 2013

Article excerpt

In many countries over the years, governments have involved citizens in debates over constitutional reform, whether by giving them a voice in referendums or public initiatives or by allowing them to run for election as members of a convention. Iceland's Constitutional Council of 2011 is a recent example. The Irish Constitutional Convention, which was established in late 2012 after much anticipation and held its first formal session on the weekend of January 26-27, 2013, also includes citizens as members. (1) But it is how these citizens were selected to participate and how the process is being run that is of particular interest. The Convention is one of a small but growing number of cases in which governments have opted to follow deliberative principles, selecting citizens at random rather than by election and managing the discussions along deliberative lines.

Irish policymakers were influenced by the citizens' assemblies on electoral reform in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia (2004) and Ontario (2007) and the Dutch citizens' forum (BurgerForum) of 2006. (2) In all these cases the citizen members were selected at random rather than running for election and deliberation was the modus operandi.


The origins of the Irish Constitutional Convention

The Irish Constitutional Convention emerged out of a compromise between two parties. In the 2011 election campaign, the Fine Gael and Labour parties included in their election manifestos proposals for establishing citizen-oriented forums to discuss areas for constitutional reform. In Fine Gael's case the proposal was for a British Columbia-style citizens' assembly to consider electoral reform (which, given that the electoral system is embedded in the Constitution, amounts to a constitutional reform issue). Labour's plan was more ambitious: it proposed the establishment of a constitutional convention (made up of equal proportions of politicians, experts and ordinary citizens) to consider a root-and-branch review of the Irish Constitution.

The 2011 general election, which followed the worst economic crisis in the state's history, produced Ireland's "electoral earthquake" that saw the electoral wipeout of Ireland's till then long-dominant Fianna Fail party. (3) Fine Gael and Labour formed a coalition government, with a "Programme for Government" that sought to marry the two parties' sometimes quite disparate manifesto promises. On the question of the parties' respective proposals relating to citizens' assemblies and constitutional conventions, this coalition marriage resulted in the promise to establish a constitutional convention to examine eight specific issues:

* reduction of the presidential term of office to five years;

* reduction of the voting age to 17;

* review of the Dail (lower house of parliament) electoral system;

* Irish citizens' right to vote at Irish embassies in presidential elections;

* provisions for same-sex marriage;

* amendment to the clause on the role of women in the home and encouragement of greater participation of women in public life;

* increasing the participation of women in politics; and

* removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution.

This somewhat eclectic mix of items, from the relatively mundane issue of the length of office of the Irish president (whose role is largely ceremonial) to the potentially explosive issue of same-sex marriage, merely reflected the decision of the interparty negotiators to "park" matters that were in their respective election manifestos that were unlikely to be resolved easily during their febrile and intense negotiations. The clauses on blasphemy and women in the home reflected the strong Catholic ethos that underlay Ireland's Constitution of 1937. The negotiators were up against the (largely media-driven) clock to conclude the negotiations and establish a government, so what better way to deal with these matters then wrap them all together and give them to the Constitutional Convention to consider? …