Deliberative Democracy and Political Reform

By Dr Gemma Carney and Dr Clodagh Harris

For most voters a sense of déjà vu follows the publication of the Moriarty Report. It appears that relations between the then FG Minister for Communications Michael Lowry and the winner of Ireland’s second mobile phone licence were at best inappropriate. The question again arises: what can be done to clean up politics? Are there alternatives to a populist form of democracy where bad candidates get re-elected on the basis of local issues or lack of alternatives? The current recession has led to lack of legitimacy in a range of public institutions (banks, regulators, corporate sector and politicians). The idea that political reform is necessary is accepted. How reform is achieved is another matter. Deliberative processes may be one way through which this can be achieved.


It is argued that deliberative democratic approaches can overcome some of the most perennial problems of democratic theory, such as informing and educating the public, creating opportunities for citizens to shape policy and the restoration of citizen trust and engagement in politics. Moreover they can bring affected citizens into partnership as decision-makers through dialogue-based processes of policy-development that include agenda setting, policy design, and implementation.


Deliberative politics has moved to the forefront of political theory in recent decades, arguing that political decision making is or should be talk centric rather than vote-centric. Deliberative theorists such as Habermas, Barber, Elster, Fishkin, Young and Dryzek argue that democratic processes and institutions should be built around ‘reasonable’ political judgement where participants give reasons/justify their positions in a truthful and respectful manner from the perspective of the common good and where the force of the better argument prevails. The focus is on improving the quality of democracy by enhancing the nature and form of political participation, as opposed to just increasing it.


First articulated as theory of democratic legitimacy, theorists broadly agree that deliberative democracy emphasises inclusion, equality and reasonableness and that it is public. Its proponents believe that it encourages more informed rational decisions, fairer and more publicly oriented outcomes and improved civic skills.

The political party manifestos and policy documents published in advance of the recent general election included some interesting proposals which could encourage deliberative politics at the national and local level depending on their membership, remit and processes.


All parties made reference to diverse citizens’ forums, which in the case of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Greens was a Citizens’ assembly. However each party had differing views on what this should be. The Fine Gael  manifesto called for creation of a citizens assembly, composed of up to 100 members from the public and which would reflect ‘the demographic make-up’ of Irish society with a remit to make recommendations on electoral reform. The Green party called for a referendum to be held in advance to allow the Irish people to choose to put in place a Citizens Assembly to draw up a new draft constitution for the country.  Its membership would comprise of 40 directly elected members. This process was supported by town hall style gatherings to shape the debate of the Assembly and the ensuing draft constitution would be put to a referendum (Manifesto p.13). For its part Fianna Fail supported establishing a citizens’ assembly whose membership would be drawn from wider society but that would not exclude elected representatives. It would be charged with making specific proposals on the electoral system and Oireachtas and Government membership (Manifesto, p.31)


In their manifestos the Labour party and Sinn Fein speak of either a constitutional convention or constitutional forum. Labour’s constitutional convention would include 90 members, (one third coming from the Oireachtas, another third drawn from civil society organisations ‘people with relevant legal or academic expertise’ with the final third comprising 30 ordinary citizens chosen by lot) to rewrite the constitution (Manifesto, p.46).  The Sinn Fein manifesto proposed the creation of an all-Ireland constitutional forum to draft a constitution that would be put to the people in a referendum. It would include representatives from the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as from civic society, business and trade unions (Manifesto p. 9). Reference is made to providing ‘consultation at grassroots level’ and ‘participatory governance’ but no detail is provided on how this could be achieved (Manifesto p.33)


In their programme for government, Fine Gael and Labour have agreed to set up a constitutional convention to consider ‘comprehensive constitutional reform’ with a brief to consider and report within 12 months on a range of issues that includes: the Dail electoral system; provisions for same-sex marriage; reducing the voting age (p.18).  No details on its membership or processes are provided.


Some innovative approaches were proposed to enhance citizen participation and engagement in the processes of local government.  In its New Politics document, Fine Gael proposes to ‘roll-out’ participatory budgeting processes on a ‘pilot basis’, to give local residents an opportunity to express their views on local authority spending in their communities (p.12). Participatory Budgeting is also included in the Green party’s Better leadership and Democratic Communities policy documents (pages 4 and 6 respectively). Sinn Fein’s Towards a new Republic paper includes a role for increased participatory democracy in  local government arguing that citizens should be allowed ‘to set priorities for local budgets as well as setting social and planning objectives ‘(p. 3).  It also calls for ‘Town Hall’ meetings to become the norm. (p.14). Not one of these proposed innovations are found in the Programme for Government.


Yet it would be wrong present deliberation as something that should be sought and assessed in a single forum, such as a deliberative poll, citizen assembly, or through co-governance mechanisms like participatory budgeting. Instead deliberation should be found in a variety of locations such as legislatures, courts, social movements and so forth.


Thus in the case of the recent Programme for Government all is not lost for deliberative approaches. Some of the legislative reforms set out in the document offer possibilities for enhanced deliberation. Deliberative processes may be widened and deepened in the committees’ new pre-legislative scrutiny powers, the sittings given over exclusively to committee reports and to private members business and the proposed 10 minute rule to allow backbench TDs to introduce their own bills.


It is disappointing that Fine Gael’s plan to roll out participatory budgeting on a pilot basis in local authorities has been omitted from the Programme for Government. Also it is too early to judge the deliberative prospects of the Government’s proposed Constitutional Convention when it membership and modus operandi have yet to be clarified. Finally, the proposed legislative reforms have the potential to expand and strengthen deliberative processes in Dail Eireann. Their impact will depend not only on their implementation but also on the Government’s will to allow them become the norm rather than the exception.


Drs Gemma Carney (NUIG) and Clodagh Harris (UCC) convene the PSAI specialist group on participatory and deliberative democracy. Further information on this group can be found at


9 thoughts on “Deliberative Democracy and Political Reform

  1. All this is a useful contribution to the debate, but the conclusion, which suggests that nothing will happen unless it is at the initiative of the Government, almost concedes that nothing of any substance is likely to happen. The Government is of, and in, the Dail, but it is separate from it. The Dail, and its procedures, are in the control of TDs.

    It is simply not good enough for TDs to claim that are compelled, and expected, to act as glorified ombudspersons in their constituents’ dealings with public administration, to ensure an appropriate share of pork is allocated to their constituencies and, if in the governing factions, to provide uncritical support for anything proposed by the Government. Irrespective of their ombudsperson capabilities, or their success at snaffling pork for their constituencies, voters ejected TDs who had unquestionly supported serial misgovernance. This should have served as a salutary lesson to TDs in the governing factions. They would be foolish to assume that the good intentions expressed by the Government will ensure the consistent delivery of good governance. Having exacted punishment for misgoverance in a devastating and precise manner, it is possible that voters might develop a taste for this. Given the overwhelming majority of the governing factions one would expect it would be in the interests of backbench government-supporting TDs to reform and apply Dail and Cttee procedures to ensure a consistent delivery of good governance. Given the likely political unpalatability of many of the decisions the Government will be required to take, a number of government-supporting TDs will lose their seats at the next time of asking. Been seen to be active in seeking to ensure the delivery of good governance might help to save some of their skins.

    What will it take to get them to exercise their control of the Dail in the public interest – and in their own interest?

  2. to call for political reform is sometimes to evade the need for moral reform. politicians are chosen by us and represent us, and if ‘bad’ candidates get re elected, who is to decide who the bad candidates are ? and who is to decide who the ‘good’ candidates are and elect them, instead, in their place ?

    has it occurred to anyone that a dail of members engaged to the last man / woman on radical approaches to great national issues, might not work ?

    local constituency minder t ds are the mortar between national leader t ds and the general population. democracy is a flawed system, but who knows of a better one ?

    • I would never deny that the primary responsibility of TDs is to represent the interests of their constituents. I’m not arguing for a diminuition of this responsibility. I’m merely suggesting that the zeal with which they represent their constituents interests should be matched by the intensity with which they scrutinise government proposals and hold government to account. It’s not ‘either/or’; it should be ‘both/and’. And it would be not only in the public interestsm but in the interests of backbench TDs across all factions or none.

  3. The fastest and most cost effective way to reform how things are done in Ireland is for FOI to cover everything with zero exceptions and that way every single person in a position of trust to make decisions on our behalf can be held to account – holding politicians to account isn’t enough – all the faceless and nameless Sir Humpreys and their minions needs to be held to account too – they are certainly paid enough that they should be.

    • @Desmond that may be true, but there huge problems with FoI. First you have to know exactly what to FoI, it is often a matter of not asking the correct question. Second, much documentation is not released in machine readable format and has to be reinput. Even documents which are published have this problem. Just this week I was trying to do some work on the Estimates. This is available as a pdf on the Finance website but the Department said it could not give me a excel or other machine readable version. This means a very labour intensive and error prone job needs to be done. I believe that we need open government where this information is up on the web in datasets that can be properly utilised by interested citizens.

      • But you can buy equipment where you can literally feed in paper like you would on a copier and it scans it onto an openly accessible system as an A4 page be it PDF or Word and it doesn’t matter if the original is a flimsey yellowed manually typed page from 1930 or weird brain dead civil service speak from some file or a small scrap of paper.

        There is absolutely no reaso nwhy every single document used in the civil service can’t be made available except for the lack of will, so Jane is someone is telling to get the information you need requires a civil servant to literally scan something page by page and then type in details or manually update some IT issue then they are lying to you or being disingenuous at best.

  4. You can also get programmes that change one type of programme into another ie a word document into an excel file or vice versa or powerpoint to word etc and to change more more complex documents into readable data.

    It just needs the will to get the IT facilities.

  5. The Parliamentary Commission of the last parliament developed a strong e-democracy policy, building on the pilot e-consultation on a possible broadcasting bill in 2006.* Based on that, they advertised, before the election, for an Assistant Secretary to assist parliamentary committees, integrate ICT into the workings of parliament, and implement a permanent e-consultation system. If the TDs on the new Parliamentary Commission follow along those lines, we will soon see some changes.

    * Note that I was part of the cross-border team the evaluated the pilot e-consultation. Several of our recommendations made it in to the current policy. Now if only they go further to the ideal 21st century e-parliament I wrote about for the 2009 World E-Parliament Congress, including deliberation and voting procedures to find underlying consensus between rivals.

    • My understanding is that the Oireachtas Commission is specifically excluded from anything to do with parliamentary business or procedures. Perhaps what is being considered supports and supplements existing arrangements. It would be interesting to see an example of how an e-consultation process would improve the current Dail Cttee procedures.

      In general the process of public consultation by policy and regulatory bodeis in Ireland is almost beyond parody. The policy body/regulator sets out a very precisely defined scope of the consultation and its preferred position; solicits views on certain issues; acknowledges sumbsissions that accord with its intial views and simply rejects those that do not.

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