Ireland – a world innovator in deliberative democracy?

In December 2012 with the creation of the Convention on the Constitution, Ireland became a world innovator in deliberative democracy.

Like similar international deliberative forums on constitutional reform (British Columbia, Ontario and the Netherlands) the Convention included randomly selected citizens. However unlike them it also included politicians from both parts of the island. Meeting over the course of 9 week-ends, the Convention concluded its work in March 2014 having made 38 recommendations, 18 of which, it is estimated, will require a constitutional referendum.

It is safe to say that the launch of the Irish Constitutional Convention attracted little by way of positive reaction. In fact it was met with strong criticism from some media commentators, academics, and civil society representatives, to name but a few. These complaints broadly related to its composition, remit, and powers.

From the start, there were concerns about: how the private citizen members were recruited; politician dominance of the discussions; and the exclusion of civil society organisations from the membership.

The Convention’s agenda which involved an eclectic mix of items, from the relatively mundane issues of the length of office of the Irish President and reducing the voting age to the potentially explosive issue of same-sex marriage also came under attack for failing to address more pressing issues of constitutional reform.

Finally, the Convention’s limited powers were also derided. The fact that the Convention’s recommendations were sent back to government for consideration rather than going directly to the people as referendum proposals meant that its role was merely advisory rather than declaratory, unlike the international examples mentioned earlier.

Were the early ‘nay-sayers’ correct? Was the Convention little more than a Government sponsored talking shop or has Ireland become the best little country in the world in which to do deliberative democracy?

Reflecting on the Convention’s work a year after it concluded its deliberations and drawing on early research findings, I argue that the answer lies somewhere in between. The presentation at the conference in Dublin on March 27th will reply to the various criticisms revealing that many of the fears were unfounded but that some were indeed relevant. For instance, preliminary research findings reveal that the majority of convention members felt free to express their opinion, that sufficient time was allocated to each issue, and that they changed their minds as a consequence of the deliberations. Also our research finds improved citizen attitudes towards politicians as a consequence of the Convention’s deliberations. However, the Government’s response to the Convention’s recommendations has proven disappointing. Getting off to a promising start, the Government responded to the first five reports roughly on schedule with either recommendations for a referendum or the setting up a further report into the area. Yet, a year after the Convention has finished its work the final four reports have yet to be debated.

Outlining some of the key lessons learned from the Irish Convention experience, the presentation on Friday 27th hopes that they will not only inform future Irish Conventions but that they will also be of use to those considering similar deliberative exercises elsewhere.

Dr Clodagh Harris is a senior lecturer in the Department of Government, University College Cork. She was a member of the Convention’s academic and legal advisory team.

On Friday 27 March the Institute for British Irish Studies (IBIS) at University College Dublin will host a conference on ‘Citizens and Constitutions: Engaging Citizens in Debates over Constitutional Reform on these Islands.’ The conference takes place in Dublin city centre at the Royal Irish Academy from 9.30 am to 3.00 pm.

The IBIS website describes the conference this way:

Debates over constitutional and institutional reform are much in the news in both parts of the island of Ireland and right across the UK.  The reports of the Irish Convention on the Constitution are working their way through to the Oireachtas and already two referendums are promised this May. The Stormont House Agreement has proposed new procedures to address controversies over flags and parades as efforts to progress the Good Friday Agreement continue. The outcome of last November’s Scottish independence referendum has resulted in intense debates in the UK over future constitutional arrangements.  The purpose of this event is to bring together leading researchers and practitioners in this area to review these debates and their likely outcomes with particular reference to the efforts (if any) to engage ordinary citizens as part of the process.

The conference features leading experts on constitutional reform from all parts of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Today on Slugger, Dr Clodagh Harris from University College Cork, who will be on a panel on ‘The Irish Constitutional Convention,’ writes on the background and aftermath of the Irish Constitutional Convention. The panel will be chaired by Tom Arnold, former chair of the Irish Convention on the Constitution, and other ICC members Senator Ivana Black, Deirdre Donaghy and Aideen Lynch.

The conference is free to attend, but you must register at: [email protected]

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