Constitutional convention: learning from experience

By: Dan Jellinek
Published: Tuesday, November 25, 2014 - 08:18 GMT Jump to Comments

A group of academics and campaigners, led by the Electoral Reform Society, are calling for the establishment of a citizen-led “constitutional convention” for UK to focus on regionalism and devolution.

The Labour party has already committed to the “constitutional convention” route, while the Conservatives seem ambivalent. Meanwhile in neighbouring Ireland, such a convention has already been successfully established, leading to proposals for real political and constitutional change which are still taking shape. What can the UK learn from the Irish experience?

The Convention on the Constitution in Ireland was established by the Oireachtas (parliament) in late 2012 at the request of the government, a coalition between the centre-right Fine Gael party and the Labour Party. The body started work in 2013 to discuss possible changes to the country’s democratic and political system, in a series of public and webcast sessions up to April 2014.

It had 100 members: a former Oireachtas official as chairman; 33 politicians and party officers; and 66 citizens invited at random but with gender, age and geographical balance. No-one was compelled to take part, so the invitation process continued until 66 people had agreed, plus 66 alternates to cover in case of sickness or absence.

The convention was asked initially to consider eight issues, including reducing the presidential term of office from seven to five years; lowering the voting age to 17; changing the electoral system to the Dáil (lower house of Parliament); deciding whether to allow same-sex marriage; and moves to increase the participation of women in politics.

The government was not obliged to act on any of the body’s proposals, but committed to respond formally to each and debate them in the Oireachtas: where it then did decide to move ahead, a referendum was (or will be) often required as well.

So how did the political conditions in Ireland come to be suited to the establishment of a convention, and what useful lessons can be learned for the UK from the way it has been run?

“The real starting point in Ireland was the economic meltdown in 2008 and the growing sense of public anger over the mess that it was felt the political classes had led us into”, says David Farrell, Professor of Politics at University College Dublin who became research director for the convention.

“We had an election in 2011 and all the political parties put large scale institutional and constitutional reform in their manifestoes, something which had never been seen before. There was a lot of reference to bottom up, citizen-oriented approaches, so when the new [coalition] government was established, the parties agreed they would have a constitutional convention and agreed certain things it would look at.”

The convention’s agenda was arrived at by combining issues Fine Gael was keen to reform – such as the presidential term of office – with issues of importance to the Labour Party such as same sex marriage. In fact, deciding the agenda was the relatively easy part, says Farrell: more tricky was discussion over the body’s composition, a matter it would take two years to resolve.

Following earlier models used to set up citizen’s assemblies to examine electoral reform in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, and after running pilot trials of their own in Ireland under the title “We the Citizens”, a group of political scientists including Farrell recommended setting up a body composed entirely of randomly selected citizens, for facilitated debate.

When in 2012 the Irish government finally set up the convention, however, though influenced by this work they decided to include one-third politicians, a move Farrell says he and colleagues disagreed with at the time, but has “turned out to be a good formula”.

“If you had interviewed me in 2012 I would have said I thought it was unfortunate to include politicians,” he says. “But because they were part of it, the politicians became strong advocates and supporters of the convention. This was different from what happened in Ontario where the political class had been excluded, so they refused to engage in the debate afterwards and sucked out all the oxygen.”

In areas of debate relating to more technical issues such as parliamentary reform, political members did tend to dominate, Farrell says: “They could not help themselves because they are so expert in those topics.” But for more emotive social topics such as same-sex marriage, the citizens’ voices came to the fore, he says.

With this in mind, a convention led by citizens but including politicians could suit the proposed UK context, Farrell says. “When there is a strongly held ideological view, such as how much power should be given to the English nation, it should work well.”

The Irish experience has shown that citizen convention members engage actively with the process, he says. “Of course there is self-selection because people are asked if they are willing to be a part of it, so you start with people with an interest in politics. But we showed that even though members of our pilot assembly had higher levels of interest to begin with, they finished with even greater levels of interest. We were getting 90-95% approval rates.”

As for any effect on wider public views on the political process, this was limited by low awareness, Farrell admitted. “We had no money to spend on public relations, so there was very low awareness of the project. One exception was the weekend when they were discussing same sex marriage: all the lobby groups on both sides were engaged heavily, and there was huge social media traffic and media coverage. But it was very short-term.”

Although the process is still ongoing, and deadlines to respond to all the convention’s reports has slipped, the Irish government’s response to the initiative has been positive. It has already committed to three referendums and could well commit to at least three more; and the Taoiseach has signalled he would like to hold another convention in the future.

Ultimately, the role of such a body might be to effect change in area where governments or political parties struggle to bring a majority with them – or find themselves out of step with public views.

“Our country is going very slowly down a road of social modernisation, and politicians struggle to keep up with public opinion”, he says. “You are dealing in our Prime Minister with a small ‘c’ conservative individual leading a small ‘c’ party – so it is inconceivable that this government would have agreed to hold a referendum on same sex marriage without a convention, for example. He is able to hide behind that.”

At other times, a citizens’ body is able to take ideas further and faster than politicians might be able to do on their own, he says. With the proposal to lower the voting age to 17, for example, the convention ended up proposing it should be lowered even further to 16, and the government has agreed to put the idea to a referendum.

“So this shows the potential for a convention to develop an agenda, to take things a bit further than originally proposed, and it helps to have one-third members as politicians, because their voice is quite persuasive.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.



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