What happens if you get a collection of your fellow-citizens together for a sustained structured discussion over time about how to change the Constitution? That’s what the Convention on the Constitution is doing in Ireland at the moment. It’s an initiative by David Farrell and others, and their remit is set by a resolution of the Houses of the Oireachtas (the Irish Parliament), modelled on earlier such conventions in Canada and elsewhere. I was involved in a recent weekend’s deliberations about electoral reform. (My presentation is here and the Q&A is here).
So what can and can’t it do, and what might it amount to?
First of all, what it is meant to do.
The Constitutional Convention involves 100 people, one-third of them elected politicians, the rest ‘ordinary citizens’ who’ve come forward through a series of national meetings. They meet for a weekend at a time at intervals of some weeks throughout the year. The issues to be considered include these:
- Reduction of the Presidential term of office to five years and the alignment with local and European elections;
- Reduction of the voting age to 17;
- Review of the Dáil electoral system;
- Irish citizens’ right to vote at Irish Embassies in Presidential elections;
- Provisions for same-sex marriage;
- Amendment to the clause on the role of women in the home and encouraging greater participation of women in public life;
- Increasing the participation of women in politics; and
- Removal of the offence of Blasphemy from the Constitution
What’s just as interesting is what they are not asked, or permitted, to consider. For example, the government is already committed to holding a referendum to abolish the upper house of the Irish Parliament, the Seanad or Senate, so that’s off the agenda. The weekend I was involved, a leading Senator, David Norris, organized an intervention to ask the Convention to take up this case, since the alternative option of Seanad reform is nowhere under consideration. (The members of the Constitution voted against Senator Norris’s request, since it isn’t in their remit, and since the people will have their say on the Seanad soon through a referendum anyway).
They are not asked to discuss what I would consider some of the most urgent political reform issues that have a constitutional dimension to them, such as modes of recruitment to ministerial office, the excessive powers of the executive, and the powers of parliament, especially the investigative powers of parliamentary committees. (This latter issue was in fact put to referendum in 2011 and was rejected, but I don’t think the debate did justice to the issues at stake).
So what is coming out of all this? In the module on electoral reform, having heard presentations about different kinds of electoral system and engaged in group discussions, they voted in favour of exploring change to the existing system, so this is still a live issue for them.
Will the government pay a blind bit of attention to any of this?
They are not required to. Precedents in other countries are not hugely encouraging. However, that’s not to say that government isn’t watching what’s going on very closely. For example, a recent module concerned same-sex marriage, in which the Constitutional Convention heard the views of a whole range of groups and individuals. Then they voted decisively in favour. It is said that the government noted this with considerable interest as a barometer of public opinion.