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Column: To mark the European Year of Citizens, let’s rebalance Ireland’s political power

“Citizens’ initiative” is a mechanism to control the political process between elections – and Ireland sorely needs it, writes Donal Ó Brolcháin.

Donal Ó Brolcháin

THIS EUROPEAN YEAR of Citizens prompts us to look abroad for models to improve the way we govern ourselves. In this article I propose that we provide ourselves with a mechanism to control the political process between elections, similar to that which the Swiss have had since the mid 1800s.

Article 6 of our Constitution states that:  “All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate all the rulers of the State and, in the final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good”.

We delegate power to our elected representatives with the result that between elections we temporarily lose our political power.  We have no method to intervene if those to whom we have delegated our power do not use it as we would wish.

Citizens’ initiative

Citizens’ initiative is a means of controlling our government between elections. It is a formal method whereby a group of citizens can call for a referendum by securing enough voters’ signatures – to propose or oppose legislation including changes to the Constitution. It is a form of direct democracy that complements the indirect democracy on which we currently rely.

Direct democracy would allow us to propose laws that government or legislators are either unable or unwilling to propose.  The re-introduction of residential property taxes shows weaknesses in the way government currently works.  During 2012 about one-third of households did not pay this new tax.  This indicates that without enhanced means of ensuring democratic legitimacy, policy is not effective even when agreed with the EU-ECB-IMF Troika.

During the 1960s, the late Dr David Thornley pointed out the effects of such external pressures on our democracy: “There may be change in the criteria of decision-making at the top; change in social habits at the bottom.  But unless these two are bridged by the mutual education of the democratic process, communication between the top and the bottom may cease.  In Ireland, where the stimulus to change is external, something like this may in fact be happening…”

Current discussions on economic policies and abortion suggest that this gap in communication exists as it did 50 years ago.

Democracy is never easy

Recently, the Swiss President Doris Leuthard pointed out that:

Democracy is hard work – sweat and often uncomfortable confrontation. Democracy lives in ‘the conflict of interests and opinions – but also in the wisdom to recognise the limitations of this conflict’. Democracy is never easy – especially in an increasingly globalised world, in which state borders become more and more porous. In our country, democracy is not ‘the rule of the politician’ as defined by Joseph A Schumpeter. In Switzerland there is a direct trade-off and active participation in shaping policy between the political establishment and the voters via the right of initiative. Here the initiative and referendum process has become a direct political feedback loop.

Over the past 150 years, the Swiss have developed methods of direct political feedback. This has inspired the introduction of direct democracy elsewhere, eg US. The Swiss now have direct democracy at both national and local levels. Federal legislation (except budgets) can be subject to a petition leading to a full referendum. At a local level, some Cantons (eg Zurich)  have citizens’ initiative on budgetary matters.

In Switzerland, there are referenda on more than a dozen federal laws each year.All it needs is for some group to find 50,000 electors (about 1.2 per cent of the electorate) who sign a form demanding a referendum within 100 days. The possibility of a call for a referendum means that those proposing legislation take much greater care in its preparation.

Three changes are needed

Introducing direct democracy into our constitution needs three principal major changes to our Constitution

1. A clear statement that the people, as  the source of legitimate power of the State, have the right to exercise that power directly on their own initiative, to propose a referendum  to revise the Constitution or any law.  This could be done by adding a new section to Article 6 of the Constitution.

2. Setting out the forms and requirements of citizens’ initiative, in terms of:

  • the number of signatures needed from persons eligible to vote  (eg, 1 per cent of those voting in the previous general election or just over 22,000 based on the 2011 general election)
  • the timeframe within which these signatures are to be collected
  • the right of the Dáil to make a counter proposal (this could be done by replacing Article 27 which has never been used)

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3. Specifying the timeframe within which the outcome of any referendum must be implemented.  This is needed to overcome “implementation deficit disorder” (eg the “X” case).  This could be done by replacing Article 47.2, which refers only to Article 27.

European Citizens’ Initiative

It would be relatively easy to validate voters’ signatures for citizens’ initiative.  In fact, most of the work has already been done with the introduction of a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) which took effect on 1 April 2012.  This is a consequence of the Lisbon Treaty, which most Irish political parties supported.

As Madison, one of those who drew up the US constitution over two hundred years ago, outlined:

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men the great difficulty lies in this: first you must enable the government to control the governed and in the next place, you must oblige it to control itself.  A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Citizens’ initiative is a means to increase the primary control of the people. Direct democracy is an ever-present reminder to Government that it depends on the people. It is the essential way to ensure that the government responses to change match the real requirements of the people.

What better way to mark the European Year of Citizens than by focusing on how we can rebalancing our political power? Based on the republican ideals of the French Revolution, Swiss-style direct democracy offers us a means of rebuilding our trust in governance, which has been abused by politicians, parties, parliaments, policy makers, public servants and lobbyists.

For further consideration of the ideas in this article, see “The Mutual Education of the Democratic Process – a case for Citizens’ Initiative and direct democracy” –  Donal O’Brolchain’s contribution to the Shadow Constitutional Convention series (edited by Dr Eoin Daly, School of Law UCD) in the web-forum Human Rights in Ireland here.

About the author:

Donal Ó Brolcháin

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