Following the publication of the Committee on the Constitution’s report on Ireland’s legislative electoral system, there has been relatively little debate about the merits of its proposal to establish a Citizens’ Assembly (CA). Would establishing a CA be the first step in a process of public engagement and radical institutional reform, or would it simply be an expensive and time-consuming way of producing yet another report on institutional reform that would, once written, be consigned to gather dust alongside the numerous Seanad reform reports?
Noel Whelan’s Irish Times article on this topic was unambiguous – he characterises the CA proposal as ‘just another example of the convoluted way our politicians go about avoiding doing anything substantial about reforming our political institutions’. While Dr. Jimmy Devins, TD countered in a letter to the Irish Times that the Committee had, in fact, made an unambiguous recommendation with regard to whether PR-STV should be replaced with an alternative system (it argued that PR-STV should be retained); his reflections on what a CA would represent may provide some support to Whelan’s suspicions. According to Deputy Devins, ‘a citizens’ assembly is recommended as a means of ascertaining the views of the general public as to how the present electoral system can be improved’.
This is an absolutely key distinction – is a CA a public consultation mechanism (as Deptuy Devins’s comment implies) or is it an institution that facilitates the implementation of proposed reforms? If it is to be the latter, there has to be a mechanism that makes the CA’s proposals realisable. In British Columbia and Ontario, the recommendations of the CAs were put directly to the public via referendums. However, the status quo was privileged in both referendums by imposing super-majority requirements. In the Netherlands, the CA on electoral reform did not trigger a referendum – and its proposals were effectively ignored.
In order for an Irish CA on electoral reform or any other issue to be useful, I would suggest that it would have to be able to put its proposals directly to the people via a referendum. The whole idea of establishing CAs is to place political reform in the hands of citizens, rather than the holders of elected office. If we set up a CA that allows the government to simply shelve any proposals that it doesn’t like, then I would have to concur with Noel Whelan’s assessment that a CA will be little more than a politically savvy method of frustrating the reform agenda.