Inside the Convention on the Constitution

Opinion: A world first for constitutional change proposals

‘On each of the 10 Sunday mornings the members considered again the discussions of the previous day and voted on a ballot paper which reflected the details of the debate.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

‘On each of the 10 Sunday mornings the members considered again the discussions of the previous day and voted on a ballot paper which reflected the details of the debate.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

Tue, Apr 1, 2014, 00:01

With the publication of its ninth and final report, the Convention on the Constitution has finished its work. Established and provided with terms of reference by an Oireachtas Resolution in July 2012, it consisted of 100 members, 66 citizens chosen to be representative of the population, 33 politicians including four from Northern Ireland, and an independent chairman.

The Convention represented a significant innovation: this is the first time anywhere in the world randomly selected citizens have worked side by side with elected representatives to propose constitutional change. When it started its work in December 2012, it did so against a background of scepticism from a number of politicians and commentators.

Now that the work is completed, it is appropriate to examine how the Convention has operated, what it has produced and what lessons can be drawn for our wider democracy.

The Convention met over 10 weekends of a day and a half. Each meeting had three components: presentation by experts of papers which had been circulated in advance; debate between groups advocating on either side of an issue; and roundtable discussions involving facilitators and notetakers. On Sunday morning the members considered again the discussions of the previous day and voted on a ballot paper which reflected the details of the debate.

The group chemistry within the Convention was crucial to its effective operation. At the first working meeting in January 2013, I proposed that we should operate according to a number of principles: openness, fairness, equality of voice, efficiency and collegiality. Adherence to these principles has been central to our work.

At the outset there was concern that the politicians, with their greater experience in public speaking and their knowledge of the political and legal system, might dominate the debate. These fears did not turn out to be justified. On the contrary, both politicians and citizens learned from each other and the level of mutual respect grew throughout the process.

The Oireachtas Resolution of July 2012 specified eight issues the Convention would examine, make recommendations and produce reports on, and following completion of these reports “such other relevant constitutional amendments” considered appropriate. We were given one year to complete our task. An extension of our timeframe by two months allowed us to deal with the additional issues of Dail reform and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which were discussed during the final two meetings last February.

The Resolution also stated that the Government would provide a response to each recommendation within four months and, if accepting the recommendation, would indicate the timeframe for the holding of any related referendum. This commitment was an important feature of the initiative and it is important that the special Oireachtas debates on the reports take place within a reasonable timeframe.

The Convention took a flexible interpretation of its mandate and made additional recommendations beyond the strictly constitutional aspects of the issues discussed. Thus the nine reports, covering 10 issues, make 38 recommendations for change, at least 18 of which would require constitutional change.

The Government has provided a response to the first three Convention reports. It has committed to referendums on changing the voting age to 16, reducing the age of candidacy for Presidential elections, and same sex marriage.

Taken as a whole, the Convention recommendations represent a substantial agenda for constitutional and political reform. Decisions will be required on which issues are brought to referendum and when. In referendums of recent years public engagement and voter turnout has been low. Should the Government decide to hold a number of referendums during 2015, the political system, in association with our wider society, need to improve arrangements for public information and participation.

If the deliberations and recommendations of the Convention accurately represent the opinions of our wider society, there is a significant appetite for further reform. The Convention has recommended a range of reforms which do not require constitutional change and could form part of a political and legislative reform programme for the remainder of this Government’s term — and possibly beyond.

The political reality is that “to govern is to choose”. The Government already has its priorities as set out in the Programme for Government. How it prioritises the Convention’s recommendations, some of which require detailed examination to understand their legal and financial implications, and integrates them within the Programme for Government, will determine the outcome and impact of our work.

During the past year, many members of the public and interest groups asked the Convention to consider different issues not included by the original Oireachtas Resolution. In their final report, members took the opportunity to recommend those constitutional issues they felt merited further attention, either by the Oireachtas or a future Convention.

Finally, some positives can be drawn from this innovation in ‘deliberative democracy’. The quality of engagement over the past 16 months shows that citizens care about what is written in our Constitution.

The 100 Convention members, citizens and politicians, carried out their task with a seriousness of purpose and a deep sense of their responsibility as citizens. The wider public engagement was reflected in the 2,500 submissions, in the interest taken in our proceedings by the public at home and abroad, and in the vigorous debates at nine public meetings around the country.

The Convention experience shows that, when people feel they are having a meaningful input into decisions about their future, they will respond. That they were contributing ideas about the future of the Constitution, the people’s document, made it all the more significant. The Convention has contributed its ideas to how this document should be adapted for the 21st century: it will be for the people to decide.

Tom Arnold is Chairman of the Convention on the Constitution. He is also Chairman of the Irish Times Trust.

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