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Column: Change we can believe in? Ireland’s Constitutional Convention has delivered

The Constitutional Convention has made substantial recommendations, including on sensitive topics such as gender equality and same-sex marriage. We can only hope the government passes the recommendations on to the people, writes Dr Matthew Wall.

Dr Matthew Wall

AFTER THE ‘democratic revolution’ of the 2011 election, many feel that too little has changed. The recent embarrassing goings-on in the Oireachtas point to a polity that remains deeply flawed. Tales of ministers being accosted in pubs and protests at the homes of some politicians indicate a troubling political climate, while mass emigration, high unemployment, and unmanageable mortgage debt all continue to plague the Irish people.

In this context, last week’s announcement by Phil Hogan that “the Government (…) commits to holding a referendum before the end of 2015 on a proposal to amend the Constitution to provide for a voting age of 16″ and also that “a proposal to reduce the minimum age of candidacy for presidential elections from 35 years to 21 years should be put to a referendum before the end of 2015″ may seem somewhat trivial. However, the Minister’s announcement sets an important precedent – it represents the first time that the deliberations of our Constitutional Convention have resulted in a government commitment to hold a referendum.

Can we really expect elected politicians to be objective?

I was working as a researcher for the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution when I first encountered the concept of a Constitutional Convention. The Committee was looking at the question of whether we should change our electoral system. While researching that question, it became apparent that there was a deeper issue at stake – can we expect elected politicians, who directly benefit from the electoral system in use, to be objective in recommending an alternative system?

For example, many scholars feel that Fianna Fáil’s two (failed) referendum proposals to move to the British ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system in 1959 and 1968 were instances of political opportunism. As the (then) largest party in Ireland, Fianna Fáil would have benefited enormously from a ‘seat-bonus’ resulting from the workings of that particular system.

Conflicts of interest

Citizens’ assemblies are intended to avoid such conflicts of interest. The idea, first developed in the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) in 2003, was to  recruit ordinary citizens to recommend changes to the province’s electoral system. This was an ambitious project – electoral systems are complex and the topic required extensive learning on the part of the citizen participants.

Transparency, balance of arguments and openness to the public were also key. While the Assembly’s proposal (ironically, they proposed a system that is nearly identical to Ireland’s PR-STV) failed to pass the 60 per cent threshold for adoption, an impressive 57.7 per cent voted in favour of the recommendation.

Establishing an Irish ‘Citizens’ Assembly for Electoral Reform’ was recommended in the Committee on the Constitution’s 2010 report. Citizens’ assemblies subsequently featured in the manifestos of the major parties in the 2011 campaign, before finally making it into the programme for government. By this point, given the scale of the economic crisis engulfing the Irish state, it was felt by many that electoral system change on its own was not an adequate response. For instance, the Labour Party committed to developing a ‘Constitutional Convention’ charged with writing a new constitution for Ireland, to be put to referendum before 2016. Like so many of Labour’s campaign promises, this did not materialise.

Concerns remain

When the terms of our Convention were announced, many observers of Irish politics were dismayed. At the time, I wrote ‘the proposed convention, to be comprised of a chair, 66 members of the public and 33 elected politicians, is hobbled by a narrow and disjointed pre-set agenda, and limited to a strictly advisory role’. Frankly, these concerns remain; the Dáil resolution establishing the Convention both limit it to a narrow list of issues and make it quite clear that it is for the government, as opposed to the people, to accept or reject the Convention’s proposals.

My fear was that the government would simply reject any proposals that challenge what Vincent Browne recently described as the ‘central crisis of our political structure: the unaccountability of government’. There were also concerns that the presence of elected representatives as voting members (a radical departure from previous models) would see the ordinary citizens disadvantaged.

High-quality contributions

However, I have been impressed with the Convention’s operation: it has seen high-quality contributions (all available on the Convention’s website) and strict adherence to the principle of balanced contributions from various experts and lobby groups. Convention members have used their discretion to expand the agenda under their consideration – for instance, by overwhelmingly recommending citizens have a say in nominating candidates for presidential elections. This last recommendation was not accepted, but, to be fair to the government, it would require substantial fleshing out before being put to a referendum, and will be considered by an Oireachtas Committee.

If you look at the forthcoming reports of the Convention, you will see that there are some substantial recommendations in the pipeline that include sensitive topics such as gender equality and same sex marriage. I can only hope that the government continues to follow the precedent set last week, and passes the Convention’s recommendations on to the people for consideration. An old campaign slogan comes to mind: ‘a lot done, more to do’.

Dr Matthew Wall is a lecturer in politics at Swansea University. Website:www.politicalreform.ie

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Dr Matthew Wall

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