Citizens not afraid to row against Convention

Constitutional Convention has shown itself to be sophisticated in its recommendations

Ken Carthy, University Of British Columbia, Vancouver, at the Convention on the Constitution, held at Malahide, Co Dublin

Ken Carthy, University Of British Columbia, Vancouver, at the Convention on the Constitution, held at Malahide, Co Dublin


There was a fair deal of cynicism among commentators and politicians that a group of 66 ordinary citizens and 33 politicians could tackle big and small Constitutional issues at a series of weekend seminars.

But they have. The Convention has turned out to be something more than a testing laboratory for political scientists and has been impressive in the quality of its discussions and many of its conclusions.

There are two principal reasons for this. First, the members have reflected all strands and areas of Irish society, young and old, urban and rural, affluent and more humble. Second the level of commitment and engagement of the members is evident.

On the nicest weekend of the year, they turned up to be cocooned in a room for two days. When you get ordinary members quoting not from the 1937 constitution but from its 1922 predecessor, it leaves you in no doubt about their intent.

It’s not perfect. The agenda items, or narrative, has sometimes reflected the interests of the academics. Some more radical ideas have been left out. A weekend is still a short time.

The jury was out on whether the novel mix of politicians and citizens would work. And some of the items included under the terms have seemed more ancillary than central.

That could not be said of this weekend. It was the second session in which the Convention looked at the electoral system. In this one it examined the desirability of the one feasible alternative that had emerged during the first sessions: the mixed member proportional system (MMP).

In that system, there are two strands to an election. In the most prevalent model, half the seats are decided at constituency level in a first-past-the-post single-seat election. The remainder are filled by lists provided by the party.

Single-seat constituencies tend to favour the bigger parties. What MMP does is balance the parliament so that it more closely reflects the national percentage of vote. So if a party that wins 25 per cent of the vote only comes first in 10 per cent of the constituency elections, it will be given 40 per cent of the list seats to bring its overall percentage to 24.

The benefits of the system, it was argued, were that more national-minded politicians would be elected rather than parish pump TDs and that it would facilitate politicians with greater expertise in policy areas. But there were downsides.

Bigger parties tend to win more at constituency level and get fewer of its TDs from the list, giving a heavy constituency slant to their complement of parliamentarians (it’s the opposite for smaller parties).

Very small parties and independents would lose out badly. Party leaderships would control the list, making it more difficult for awkward or independent-minded candidates. It was clear the politicians were cool to the idea and the overwhelming majority voted against.

But so did most citizens, who perhaps didn’t like flaws like the emasculaton of smaller parties and independents; the central control of candidates by parties; and the odd split between constituency and list TDs. The Convention showed sophistication in other votes, not least its support for bigger constituencies.