Paul Gillespie: Constitutional reform in Chile could inform United Ireland debate

One potential model of Irish unification could see a constitutional convention to decide the shape and values of a new Irish state following referendums favouring unity in principle

Ireland has pioneered deliberative democracy through citizens’ assemblies on constitutional and policy issues in recent years. There is a growing debate on using these methods to discuss Irish unity and neutrality, military alignment and security.

Constitutional issues loom relatively large in Irish politics, even though socio-economic rights are not prominent in the frequently amended 1937 Constitution. That could change if the next couple of years intensifies discussion of Irish unity in advance of general elections here and in the UK by 2024.

There will be increasing demand for an Irish Government plan or model of what unity would mean, including a possible convention to write a new constitution for a united Ireland if referendums on unity were carried north and south. That makes comparable examples such as Chile’s remarkable current convention on changing its 1980 constitution politically relevant here.

Nicola Sturgeon’s referral of a Scottish independence referendum to the UK supreme court and her pledge to fight the next UK general election on that issue will put constitutional questions in the foreground there. So will the Northern Ireland Protocol and its politics in the North. When Leo Varadkar takes over from Micheál Martin as Taoiseach in December he is likely to develop the Shared Island policy around Irish unity themes in anticipation of and in preparation for possible Border referendums and in competition with Sinn Féin as the election looms.

Constitutional issues do not, however, loom large in survey and deliberative rankings of politically salient issues. Citizens prefer to talk about living standards, health and social security, even if they are aware that rapid political change on both islands inescapably poses questions about new political structures. Academic studies bear this out, especially among more disadvantaged groups who say they feel excluded by institutional language, even if they are interested in a new united Ireland that could transform their lives. A more inclusive approach to constitutional issues will be needed to convince them to participate in the discussion.

Anticipating this, political actors for and against Irish unity argue that the emergent question posed in any referendums will ask whether citizens in Northern Ireland would be healthier, wealthier and overall better off and more secure in a united Ireland or in the UK’s union.

To make their minds up either way about that they would need a lot of information in advance of voting, especially after the discredited Brexit model of vote first, details later.

Academic research is accumulating rapidly on such questions, is better funded and available online. Researchers from Ireland and Britain who met in Dublin this week are anxious to communicate their findings and help clarify what is at stake with citizens and policymakers, so that a more convergent and less polarised debate might emerge.

One potential model of Irish unification could see a constitutional convention to decide the shape and values of a new Irish state following referendums favouring unity in principle. In that case, Chile’s current convention would be relevant here.

It was agreed in cross-party negotiations after the huge popular rebellion against poverty and austerity in October 2019, triggered by student refusals to pay increased metro fares in Santiago. The neoliberal constitution introduced in 1980 under the Pinochet dictatorship privatised social services, health, education and water.

This ideological “small state”, market-led approach created deep inequalities between rich and poor and settled and indigenous communities.

The inequalities were tackled piecemeal by reformist governments since the 1990s; they are targeted head on in strong socio-economic and ethnic rights clauses, and commitments to decentred popular government in the new constitutional draft just agreed by the convention elected last year. The draft will be put to a referendum on September 4th.

The convention’s 154 directly elected delegates are much more representative of these social divisions and more to the left than Chile’s parliamentary parties. They needed two-thirds majorities for each of the 388 clauses in the document.

The young left-wing president Gabriel Boric has pledged to support the new constitution, but he has to govern with a diverse coalition and is facing unpopularity over inflation and renewed social unrest. That spills over on to the constitution, which may not pass because of these problems and continuing strong right-wing opposition.

The fateful choice Chileans face is well worth close Irish attention.