The Convention on the Constitution in Ireland

by niamh on June 3, 2013

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.






Tomboktu 06.03.13 at 10:15 am

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

Are you sure the second bit is correct. That is the first mention I have heard of meetings, and the convention’s web site says at the ordinary citizens were selected by a polling company “using the electoral register and on the basis of groups representative of Irish society generally and balanced in terms of gender, age and region, etc.

The more detailed description of the recruitement process provided by the polling company makes no mention of a series of national meetings, but does refer to surveying electoral districts and calling to households. (PDF here:


Shelley 06.03.13 at 2:52 pm

As far as the U.S. goes, this would be a terrifying proposition, governed by something like Yeats’ “The Second Coming”….


MattF 06.03.13 at 3:04 pm

It all seems kind of bloodless. Isn’t it a little odd that ‘Constitutional Reform’ is being conducted in a rather apolitical fashion? If no political party cares enough to make an issue of any of it, then why bother?


ChrisM 06.03.13 at 7:11 pm

In light of the previous post on the dysfunctional architecture of Brasilia, it might at the very least be useful for increasing the number of people who can comments how amendments will affect their daily lives. Hopefully, this will reduce number of unknown unknowns.


mollymooly 06.03.13 at 8:15 pm

The putative randomness of the selection was called into question by claims that one recruit got her boyfriend recruited.

The government is in fact required to pay “a blind bit of attention”,to wit: “the Government will provide in the Oireachtas a response to each recommendation of the convention within four months and, if accepting the recommendation, will indicate the timeframe it envisages for the holding of any related referendum.” Of course, the response might be, “Nope.”


Barry Cotter 06.03.13 at 11:49 pm

The modes of recruitment to political office wasn’t covered in uoir SBP piece so I’m unsure what your concerns and proposals are. What can one do about ministerial appointments anyway? It is a political and partisan thing and there’s no constituency anywhere for something like confirmation hearings; among the joys of having ministers solely selected from members of the Oireachtas is a presumption that they are fit and proper persons to hold office.


Bruce Wilder 06.03.13 at 11:57 pm

The odds of being randomly picked for the convention are 50,000 to one. But odds of a couple both being randomly picked are 2.5 billion to one. Yet a couple and some neighbours were picked by a polling company as

This reflects a rather shocking innumeracy in a political editor. The odds of any one particular couple being picked may be 2.5 billion to one, but the odds of at least one couple — any couple in the country? No process is actually random, and the polling company seems to have deliberately stratified its selection, rather than figuratively assigning everyone a lotto ticket, and drawing from a hat, so it is hard to say what the odds of some couple being chosen were. The only thing that is a tiny bit surprising is that the couple wasn’t deliberately eliminated in the screening process of refining the selection, precisely to avoid the imputation following from such an “unlikely” occurrence (which might not be all that unlikely at all, depending on the procedure).


Ronan(rf) 06.04.13 at 12:04 am

The political reform ideas (parliament, policy making, public sector etc) are very interesting and definitely the way to go,( in my very limited laymans opinion), but is it something you can see realistically being done? (Where are the incentives, politically, going to come from?)
Also, the thing I’ve been wondering on and off for five years, (a long time to wonder I know), is, even with those reforms in place in the early 00s was there any possibility of preventing the bubble and the crash? I guess you could prevent the worst excesses, but the main outlines of what happened, was it preventable? (Which isn’t a cry to do nothing, but more a curiosity)


Main Street Muse 06.04.13 at 12:04 am

To Bruce wilder @6 – Ireland is, as a country, a small community. At least that has been my experience as one with strong Irish connections.

Also, as one who moved from a large city (Chicago) to a small community in western NC, I am no longer surprised about political odds. As you note, no process is random – especially when politics is involved…


niamh 06.04.13 at 7:09 am

On recruitment to the Convention, there was indeed a mechanism to select people from stratified samples. It was at the pilot project stage of ‘We The Citizens’ that a series of publicizing and mobilizing events were held that were were open to all.
No telling what a more actively engaged citizenry might have taken issue with. The leaders of the project were inspired not only by formal consultative democracy initiatives elsewhere but also by the Icelandic response to their crisis.
On appointments to ministerial office – Ireland has an exceptionally narrow practice whereby ministers are all selected from among elected members of parliament. Up to two may be appointed from the Seanad. But while in Britain ministers can be appointed following an appointment to the House of Lords, party political considerations tend to mean that Irish prime ministers almost never do this.
Other European democracies have a range of practices whereby people can be appointed to ministerial office on the basis of special expertise or skill, and different ways of ensuring greater independence of the legislature from domination by government party discipline.


novakant 06.04.13 at 7:29 am

What about abortion?


Z 06.04.13 at 9:21 am

This reflects a rather shocking innumeracy in a political editor.

Assuming the data provided and that a given individual has no more that 5 relations comparably close to the boyfriend/girlfriend one (parents, siblings…), there were approximately 20% chance that such a coincidence would happen in a purely random process. So nothing inherently suspicious in the story as far as I can tell.


mollymooly 06.04.13 at 11:25 am

Two bits are suspicious:

Sorcha O’Neill from Kildare was asked by a polling company to be a member of the convention and she said her partner Keith Burke would also be interested.

The couple’s relationship wasn’t notified to other members by the organisers and was only noticed after they went for a drink at one of the meetings.

When both ran for the organising committee of the convention it is understood some TDs expressed concerns to the chairman Tom Arnold.

In the end, Mr Burke didn’t get elected to the committee.

Sinn Fein is understood to have approached the chairman after Mr Burke criticised the party for issuing a press statement outlining its views on questions before the convention.

1. If Burke was recuited because O’Neill told the polling company about him, that’s bad. But maybe it was just a coincidence that she told them about him ad then he was picked.
2. If Burke was deselected because Sinn Féin objected to him, that’s worse. But maybe it was a coincidence that they complained and he wasn’t selected.


niamh 06.04.13 at 5:02 pm

11: ‘What about abortion?’ Indeed. This government is finally undertaking to introduce legislation to specify the (extremely limited) abortion rights arising from the 1992 ‘X’ and subsequent Supreme Court interpretations of our (in my view entirely misguided) 1983 amendment to the Constitution. It’s pretty clear that there are majorities in support of each of the items they plan to legislate on. But there’s also strong conservative lobbying of backbench government (especially Fine Gael) TDs or members of the legislature, and the opposition Fianna Fáil has conceded a free vote to its own TDs. Taoiseach or prime minister Enda Kenny (a practising Catholic) has been good on this, holding a firm line and insisting that the party whip will be used to get the legislation through. He’s stood down his Catholic critics on the grounds that ‘my book is the Constitution’.
So no, given what it’s taken even to get this far, there is no chance that they will propose repealing that 1983 amendment anytime soon. So the Constitutional Convention does not have it on its agenda.


john c. halasz 06.05.13 at 1:04 am

Have you looked at the Iceland attempt at constitutional reform, apparently currently blocked-off or in abeyance?


Mary Catherine 06.05.13 at 5:37 am

modelled on earlier such conventions in Canada and elsewhere.

Well, the Canadian experience was without violence, or bloodshed, or civil war, or anything dramatic like that. And it was all very civil, if not always polite. So there’s that.

But: I’m not sure what kind of model Canada might provide. Basically, the citizens of Canada were exhausted, and dispirited, and disillusioned, by the endless constitutional wrangling…’a bunch of navel-gazing elites up at Meech Lake’ was the general sentiment, and if the Magna Carta plus the Quebec Act of 1774 plus 1867 Conferation was good enough for our great-grandparents, well, then, by Jesus, I guess it should be good enough for me.

I believe that such disillusionment helped engender a certain sort of cynicism which gave rise to today’s conservative (we-used-t0-be-Tories-but-now-we’re-just-dumbass-yahoos) Canadian regime. So: good luck to you, but caveat emptor, and please beware of unintended consequences.


novakant 06.05.13 at 10:45 pm

Thanks niamh, very informative.

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