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What can the UK learn from the Irish constitutional convention?

The Irish Constitutional Convention of 2013-14 provides some useful lessons for the UK.

Iseult Honohan
8 October 2014
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In the aftermath of the vote on Scottish independence and calls for a constitutional convention to decide the future structure of government in the United Kingdom, Stuart White and others have wondered if the 2013-14 Irish Constitutional Convention provides a good model for such a process.

Looking at this from Ireland and the experience of the Convention, I would suggest that there are some – but limited – lessons that might be learned.

What may be most encouraging about this Convention, set up by the government after the 2011 general election, is the way that its mixed composition worked. Its 100 members included both citizens and elected politicians: 66 were chosen randomly from the population of adult citizens to be broadly representative in terms of region, sex, age, class and work status, and 33 were nominated from the Oireachtas (Parliament) by the political parties in proportion to their parliamentary strength (and also included one representative of each of the four parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly that accepted the invitation to participate).

But the Convention was set up with quite different objectives from those of the proposed UK Constitutional Convention. It was not a ‘constitutional convention’ designed to determine the fundamental political institutional framework of the country. It was tasked rather to address certain internal provisions in Ireland’s written Constitution. These did include some political reforms, such as lowering the voting age, changing the electoral system of proportional representation, and granting votes in Presidential elections to citizens outside the state, but also included issues unrelated to political structures, such as same-sex marriage and blasphemy. Moreover, one significant issue of political and constitutional reform was notably not on the Convention’s agenda; the Government had already decided to propose the abolition of the Seanad, the upper house of Parliament (a proposal that was ultimately defeated in the referendum of October 2013).

The agenda of eight discussion topics was largely predetermined by government; even if these were issues where there had been increasing demand for change. The convention worked within the extremely circumscribed time-frame of one year, holding eight plenary sessions at weekends from early 2013 until early 2014, when it wrapped up its business. Each issue (sometimes two) had to be discussed and decided on within the space of a single weekend.

Notwithstanding the largely predetermined focus and constrained time-frame, this was an important exercise in deliberative democracy. The convention defied the concerns of potential critics about the capacity of citizens to engage with and deliberate seriously on the issues it addressed. It took decisions and made recommendations to government, which had committed itself to decide promptly whether or not to bring this to a referendum, the required procedure for making amendments to the constitution. Moreover the Convention was empowered to determine some additional issues that it selected itself for its final meetings – (ultimately economic and social rights and the reform of the Dáil (lower house)), and to propose other issues that should be given consideration in the future.

The Convention’s degree of success seems to have been substantially due to its structure and process, which provided a favourable context for deliberative engagement even within a very tight time-frame. Before the meetings, public submissions were invited and published on the convention’s web-page; and reports from expert witnesses were circulated to the members. The meetings (streamed live on the internet) began with expert witness presentations, followed by discussions in small groups led by trained facilitators, where the experts were available for follow-up queries. A further session featured presentations by advocates of alternative viewpoints on the issues. Finally, alternative proposals were formulated and voted upon.

This process facilitated a genuinely deliberative debate. Most observers seem to agree that the members showed genuine engagement with the information and views presented, and took their task remarkably seriously. There were, however, certain shortcomings in the deliberative process, some of which could be related to time constraints. Ideally, with respect to learning, there would have been more opportunity for further back and forth engagement between experts and members as issues arose through the weekend. Furthermore, the proposals on which members eventually voted did not always provide clearly ordered or comprehensive alternatives, and this may be thought to have led to some anomalies in the results returned on some topics. It is clear that more far reaching decisions warrant a considerably longer and more intensive deliberative process, as Alan Renwick has argued.

Despite initial worries that the proportion of elected politicians was too high, the mixture of politicians and citizens seems to have worked quite well. While some politicians proved eager to get in their sound bite, they did not appear to dominate the small-group discussions and the decision making process in general. Indeed at some points, when constructing proposals for final decision, the experience of the elected representatives seemed helpful in working to crystallise alternative formulations of the proposals. Others have pointed to the way in which the involvement of politicians may have given them a stake in the decisions being followed through in a way which has not been the case after purely citizen-based assemblies elsewhere. Thus the government has already announced its decision to hold referendums on three of the eight issues (same-sex marriage, the voting age, and the age of Presidential candidates) and there is some indication that a decision on blasphemy may soon follow.

While the number of public submissions was relatively small (except on the topic of same-sex marriage), the process did open up some wider public debate – in part by holding supporting regional meetings, through the live transmission of debates and the use of social media as well as newspaper and TV coverage. Even if the discussions did not lead to significant wider debates on issues where these were not already active, the publicity of proceedings and votes served to pre-empt any public sense that these decisions were being taken by an unrepresentative or co-opted group. An initial suggestion that the citizens be anonymous was rejected, so that their names were published, while respecting the other aspects of their privacy.

How much difference did the convention make? The issues addressed may be thought of as falling between two poles. On the one hand, there were those where there were clear pathways in other countries and where change might be relatively uncontroversial: e.g. votes for citizens abroad, votes at 16. The convention may have speeded up political consideration of these reforms. At the other end of the spectrum were issues that were highly controversial, such as same-sex marriage, which politicians might otherwise have been wary of addressing; the substantial vote in favour of this could itself create a pathway, and make a major difference here.

The Irish convention did not face some of the difficult considerations that a UK equivalent will face – on what kind of regional balance of representation there should be, on how to define the agenda, and how long or intensive a convention would need to be in order to decide on any fundamental change in the frame of British political institutions.

But some concerns that emerge from the Irish case do apply, and could be exacerbated in the context of a British convention. Although randomly chosen, citizens could decline to participate, and it seems that it took considerable time to fill the places to be representative. We may perhaps assume that those who participated were either more interested in politics or more easily able - for whatever reasons - to give up eight weekends in the course of a year. A more intensive or longer convention process might result in a further decline in representativeness. Nonetheless, this problem may be seen as more or less serious, depending whether one understands the Convention as producing an authoritative expression of the general will of the people or rather a set of proposals that are more considered because they take account of a variety of viewpoints. The latter seems more consistent with the deliberative approach; it still implies the representation of different perspectives. Given the importance of diversity for genuine deliberation, it was somewhat surprising that, for a country in which now over 12% of the population were born abroad, and which has encouraged a rapid increase in naturalisations in the last few years, there did not seem to be any member drawn from recently naturalised citizens in the Convention. There was also some criticism that it included neither non-citizen residents nor citizens abroad, although video-conferenced contributions from gatherings of expatriates featured in the advocacy session in the meeting on votes for citizens abroad. Thus David Owen rightly draws attention to the question of the composition of the convention and the need for a very broad composition for such a constitutional body.

Ireland’s convention thus provides an example of a relatively successful experiment in deliberative democracy, which engaged citizens in considered political discussion, achieved buy-in from the political elite, and reached decisions, at least three of which the government has agreed to bring to a public referendum. It provides a model of a mixed convention in which elected politicians and citizens sit together – neither purely political, purely expert nor purely citizen in composition. But it offers limited lessons for the convention now proposed, which aims to address the fundamental constitutional settlement in Britain.

 

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