What is a Citizens’ Assembly?

Posted by Elaine Byrne

The editors of this website, Elaine Byrne, David Farrell, Eoin O’Malley, Jane Suiter and Matt Wall, published an opinion piece in the Irish Times today arguing that the path to rebuilding a Republic should start with a citizens’ assembly. So what is it?

A Citizens’ Assembly is a means of citizens recapturing trust in their political process by taking ownership of the decision making process. It is an experiment that has had terrific results in many parts of the world. The strengths and shortcomings of this deliberative process were discussed on this site here and the recent Icelandic case here. Prof Ken Carty gave a recent presentationin Trinity outlining a practical example of a citizens’ assembly in action.

It involves rational, reasoned discussion with a cross- section of an entire population and uses various methods of inquiry such as directly questioning experts. It is not adversarial, although disagreement is inevitable and is valued, not stifled. A Citizens’ Assembly values creativity and tends to build consensus rather than creating winning and losing sides – but there is no requirement of unanimity. Deliberative processes are not meant to replace representative or direct democracy, but to enhance and support it.

Examples/sources of information

The Center for the Study of Democracy in UC Irvine California

Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, British Columbia Canada 2004

The Center for Deliberative Democracy, Stanford University

Harvard Kennedy School

Icelandic National Assembly

UK Power Inquiry

UK Power2010 campaign

report for the Power Inquiry UK 2005 Smith G., Power beyond the ballot 57 democratic innovations from around the world

America Speaks

Australia Citizens Parliament

86 thoughts on “What is a Citizens’ Assembly?

  1. It’s exciting to find this new initiative. Check out http://www.teammovement.ie my own little effort to stimulate positive change in our society. As it is not yet recognised by the search engines, just type it in to the address bar at top of your screen and it will come up. I am a 72year young pensioner who still believes in our young people. Positive change is urgently needed. Well done.

  2. This collaborative initiative deserves fulsome praise and widespread support. There have been a number of us chipping away in the undergrowth for a number of years motivated by a gnawing feeling that the current political and economic car crash was inevitable – but I suspect none of us envisaged the scale of the carnage.

    And even still there is widespread denial about the extent of change required. Much is made of the appointment of two individuals with competence and integrity as Governor of the CB and as financial regulator. Every effort is made to convey the impression that the regulatory apparatus in every other sector is working perfectly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Will it require further car crashes to reveal the reality?

    And, come January, with a change of government, what will really change? We’ll have a new taoiseach and 14 ministers with their special advisers relying on the same mandarins and a different combination of factions in the Dail rubber-stamping the policy decisions and legislation they cook up behind closed doors. In the crisis economic situation they will inherit how will they be persuaded to relinquish one iota of the executive dominance they have been aching for the last 13 years to secure and exercise? And given that they will be subject to continuing quarterly oversight by the Troika (EC/ECB/IMF) they will be under huge pressure to convey the public impression that they are in charge and governing – even if it will be just another attempt to suspend disbelief. It will be a long time before Ireland will be left loose by the EU to manage its own affairs considering the risk of failure to which it has exposed the entire EU project.

    The current Government has no interest – for all the obvious reasons (unstated, but well known) – in doing anything. (Yes, of course, it is fighting an ‘economic war’ and can’t devote any resources to this fancy-dan academic stuff!) But the very least it could do is establish and resource a working group on political reform which would set out the requirements, research and options and report to Cttee in the next Dail established for this purpose. It would require, at least, the participation of the leading lights on this board as well as the backroom boys and girls from the political factions. (In passing, I would counsel against overburdening a citizens’ assembly with resonsibilities; there needs to be a division of labour between elected representatives and a CA.)

    And, yes, I have been counselled to desist – and for good reasons – from including the EU dimension, but the problems in the southern periphery are all rooted in poor governance – and the tardiness of the EU to respond to, and to address effectively, the continuing crisis is rooted in deficiencies in governance at the EU level. There is benefit in making common cause with other people throughout the EU who are keen to address these deficiencies. We are all in the one big boat.

    It’s time to build the moomentum.

  3. Read the piece, don’t disagree with the idea of a citizens assembly, although a genuinely democratic citizens assembly, would be one elected by the people under PRSTV!

    The path to rebuilding the republic is a general election. We all have a vote and can determine – do we go left and choose social democracy/democratic socialism or do we stay right and more of the same.

    • The purpose of a citizens assembly is that it is a citizens assembly, not an assembly elected for the purposes of establishing representatives.

      A Citizens Assembly complements politics which is why Labour, Fine Gael and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution have proposed it.

      • I am shocked, but not by as much as I should be I suppose, at the apparent inability of a TD to understand the basic issue that is being discussed here. This is not about left or right, it is not about the policies to be followed after the next election, but about changing the process under which those policy decisions are made. It is above politics, must be above political parties, and must be decided upon by the citizens of this country by referendum. My vote in the next election will go to the person who credibly promises the most in terms of starting a valid reform process. This is not about the next few years, but about the next 100 years. Will Joanna Tuffy promise to work towards this goal if re-elected? Will the Labour Party? They won’t be getting my vote if they don’t, and I will be doing all I can between now and the election trying to convince those I know to adopt a similar attitude.
        Reform or Repeat, Reform or Repeat, Reform or Repeat….

      • I think the idea of a citizen’s assembly is good but it might eventually be co-opted by special interests. I prefer more demonstrably direct democracy in the form of referenda to decide on all major policy matters akin to the Swiss model.
        Any major decision such as guaranteeing all bank liabilities or approving the IMF/ECB bailout would have to go to referendum.
        And equally importantly, a new broom of legislative change that sought to stop a future corrupt property bubble such as..
        an enactment of the Kenny Commission findings on compulspory state purchase of land and the reintroduction of Bacon Mark II that would penalise speculators who bought more than one property should go to referendum. If/ when passed, these could not be rescinded by an incoming dodgy government without referendum…in a society with such low levels of civic constraints, let us bring in more direct democracy. If future generations want to imperil their futures again by tolerating another corrupt credit fuelled bubble, let them explicitly vote for it – I don’t think they will.

    • @ Johanna Tuffy

      I do not see how Proposing PRSTV as the means of electing participants to the citizen’s assembly would increase the democratic nature of citizens assemblies. Some of the greatest political thinkers of our time have said that the alternation between command and obedience constitutes the excellence of citizens. Adopting randomly selected bodies within political systems provides us with a cross section of an entire population thereby enhancing the diversity of interests involved in debate and deliberation. The citizen’s assembly in British Columbia constituted a non- partisan group of men and WOMEN of all ages from across the province, chosen by random selection from the electoral register. The selection phase provided a BALANCED list of men and women. Under PR-STV we have a Parliament with just 13% female representation. In the 2007 election, women comprised merely 17% of all candidates. The candidate lists from the 2007 election show 60% of the constituencies being dominated by male candidates. Women are being excluded from our political decision making structures resulting in poorly developed policies on women’s equality. Why are you opposed to an initiative that can give women an equal voice in decision making processes?

    • I would agree that the most realistic “..path to rebuilding the republic is a general election”, but not for the same reasons as Joanna Tuffy TD.

      No different to Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour will not implement sufficient change because it is not in their interests to do so.

      The Citizens Assembly needs to have the legal powers to create change. This power can only be granted by the existing legislature. For this to happen, I am convinced that there must be sufficient TDs inside the Dail whose primary, or even sole, mission is to empower the Citizens Assembly.

      I suggest that like-minded individuals should stand in the upcoming general election, with their brief manifesto focused on this single issue.

      I further suggest that they have a party/group name of “None of the Above”.

  4. Deputy Tuffy,

    The issues being discussed here go far beyond factional objectives and programmes; we need to develop the structures and processes of governance so that the full authority of the people is brought to bear on the selection, scrutiny and implementation of these objectives and programmes. The US Founding Fathers were probably unique in being able to rise above the tyranny of faction and sought to establish a system of governance that endeavoured to minimise its baleful impact.

    We have no politicians of the calibre of the US Founding Fathers (who, incidentally, applied insights developed during the Enlightenment in these islands and France), nor can we reproduce the circumstances in which they developed the US Republic. So we have to rely on some mechanism such as a CA as a substitute. It does not absolve elected representatives of the responsibility to re-empower the Oireachtas and to restrain an over-mighty executive, but it does allow them to delegate some responsibility for devising appropriate and important institutional and procedural arrangements that they have continuously demonstarted no desire, aptitude or ability to discharge.

  5. Congrats on a good article! Hope you have some follow-up action planned for the weekend papers and a plan of campaign to reach the public and energise them to demand political reform as the longest GE campaign in Irish political hsitory begins to gather steam.

    One niggling concern I have about CA in an Irish context has been reawakened by Joanna Tuffy’s comment above: the main political parties, with their network of local contacts and representation at all levels of society, would seek to manipulate the composition of CAs for their own political end? Is there not a risk that the political establishment would seek to impose a CA model reminiscent of the unfortunate ‘Forum on Europe’ which toured around the country, providing a variety of party apparatchiks and hangers-on with additional expenses earning opportunities, but really didn’t do much else that was useful in the cause of advancing a model of deliberative democracy?

    • Now, now, Veronica. You’re being very cynical. But you’re right. Having spent years trying to counter the slipperiness of Irish politicians and civil servants I recognise one needs to try and close off every bolt-hole to which they will dash and knock down every ruse they will seek to employ.

      • Paul, as it happens I loathe cynicism, but that’s beside the point. The CA model works well elsewhere; but Ireland is a very ‘networked’ society to a shock-inducing extent, which may be partly the reason why there is such a drag factor on political reform even at the most basic level? It may also account for the ‘progressive mediocrity’ observable at the higher echelons of just about every elite section of our society, which is not confined to public bodies or institutions only. Something to do with size of society and levels of homogeneity? Time to look up a few anthropological studies, I think!

  6. The Scandinavians, New Zealanders and Singaporeans seem to do OK. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.”

  7. I would be more convinced about this if claims for the role of a CA were qualified with “it may be a way to achieve these outputs”. I may be wrong in this, but from reading the very helpful links it appears that CAs are still in the realm of a good but unproven idea. Certainly it does not seem that this approach has proven itself as a means of changing a political culture – the challenge here.

    It should certainly not be allowed to delay essential reforms in the working of parliament and government which could be implemented within months.

  8. @G Sullivan,

    I agree, but politicians everywhere will strain every sinew to avoid proper accountability and scrutiny – and to avoid establishing procedures that would enforce these. Ours are no different – unless there is an overwhelming public demand that leaves them no place to hide.

  9. Key phrase in the ITimes piece is
    “We need to radically re-engineer our institutions”

    “A Citizens’ Assembly is a means of citizens recapturing trust in their political process by taking ownership of the decision making process. It is an experiment that has had terrific results in many parts of the world.”

    I go further than “recapturing”. We, citizens of a republic with a written constitution, own the power of the state.

    “Article 6
    1. All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good.”

    Click to access Constitution%20of%20Ireland.pdf

    We delegate through the electoral process to smaller groups (TDs, Councillors who in turn elect elect the Taoiseach and Senators)

    I welcome any mechanism, including a Citizens’ Assembly, which will develop, clarify and implement options for a system of checks and balances that limit the scope for excess by the powerful (public and private, elected and appointed) so that we have a way of governing ourselves that emphasises moderation and competence.

    @Joanna Tuffy
    Regardless of whether we opt a left or right tendency after a general election, I put it that we need to design, built and operate new mechanisms of government. This means focusing on those articles of the Constitution which specify these mechanisms and on those alone!

    IMO a constitution is a simple frame of free government, in which the scope for the exercise of power in whimsical and arbitrary ways is limited. Or as Madison put it “In framing a government which is to be administered by me over men, the great difficulty lies in this; You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself”

    I am sure that a well structured citizens’ assembly can help clarifying options.

    But such assemblies seem to have one fatal weakness – they are set up by the powers-that-be and are completely dependent on those powers for their operation and implementation. see a link in the posting above indicates that a citizens’ assembly is a step, but not a silver bullet.
    “….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 challenging the existing mechanisms by which our power is limited, restrained and exercised through the political processes we have developed and used, we should also note Machiavelli’s observation
    ” There is nothing difficult to take in hand or more uncertain of success than to take a lead in the introduction of a new order to things, because the innovation has for its enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders those may do well under the new”

  10. In response to comments that responded to mine abov I was making point about PR STV not the Citizens assembly. Elaine is right, Labour has suggested something similar to the Citizens Assembly to look at our constitution. But we are not being prescriptive. Labour believes in PR STV and twice campaigned against referendums to move away from it. It was just a quip that I made above, because the one thing I hope a Citizens Assembly would insist on keeping, is our system of PR STV. In British Columbia that Citizens Assmebly proposed adopting PR STV. PRSTV is what is good about our democracy. Anything else gives the voter less say. In the upcoming election voters can hold not just parties, but individual TDs and Ministers accountable at the ballot box. That is a huge power to the voter that I hope Ireland still has in 100 years time, rather than abdicating that power to political or other elites via list systems.

    Those calling for political reform cross the political spectrum from left to right. It is that that makes me sure that political reform, as a response to the failures of free marketeerism, implemented by parties voted for by the voters and at least some of those that are now calling for political reform, is a great red herring. The majority of people voted for parties that espoused and had already been implementing right wing/ centre right policies in Government. That was the case especially in the last three general elections. Those policies have turned out to be a huge mistake. The reform that will make a difference is social democracy. People in countries where voters have voted and Governments have have delivered social democracy, live longer, have better mental health, less teenage pregnancies, less crime, better environmental protection, better social solidarity, better public services, smaller gaps between the rich and poor. This is evidence based:


    We don’t need to change our voting system to get a Government that will deliver social democracy. We just need to vote for it.

    • That assumes the absence of a left-wing government was the cause of our problems. Even those that do want a left wing government would acknowledge that it is possible for left-wing parties to make a mess of government. The current political system, with its executive dominance, means that policies are not thought through properly and don’t deliver what they are meant to, costing tax payers a fortune. A good example (chosen specifically to annoy you!) is free university fees which did nothing to increase access to university for those from the poorest sections of society. This was entirely predictable and has had disastrous consequences for our public finances and university finances, but was pushed through quickly because the then government/ minister feared an election, and needed to offer this as a sop to Labour’s middle class voters. On this see

      The evidence you point to for the superiority of equal societies is highly contested, with even those on the left criticising it for its naive methodology. It relies on bivariate analyses which show the connection between two things, such as equality and health, but not controlling for other factors that might be relevant. I have a dataset which shows a positive relationship between education and crime, i.e. the higher the levels of education in a district, the higher the crime rate! But when we control for whether the district is urban or not this falls away.They also leave in potentially biasing outliers, so the US has an inordinate impact on their analysis, which if dropped, the relationship falls away. For a reasonable critique of The Spirit Level see

      The citizens’ assembly is most useful for those issues where politicians have a vested interest, so the people who get elected using one elected system, are not best placed to decide which electoral system should be use (on this issue I’m on your side – I don’t see any reason to change the electoral system). Others areas such as abortion have seen politicians run and hide from (for obvious reasons), so it might be an issue that could be deliberated using CA. No one is arguing for the replacement of representative democracy, but sometimes when major issues need to be decided, a mechanism such as deliberative democracy might be useful. It might also be useful for small scale, local decisions.

    • @Joanna Tuffy
      So, in raising PR STV, you put up a straw man?
      Why the quip?
      Many academic political scientists have pointed out the merits of STV PR in mulitseat constituencies in terms of fairness of outcome of the voting process.

      IMO, there is no reason to change the voting system. There is every reason to split the Dáil(legislative-representative assembly from the Rialtas (Cabinet-Executive side of government, so that both can be improved to serve us better.

      What about talking about the mechanisms by which our power is exercised rather than talking about the aims to which that power is put?
      Social democracy may be the answer, but what question does it answer?

      The same may be said of Citizens’ Assemblies? What is the problem to which this is an solution, given that the results of such assemblies have not yet yielded any change where they have been used?
      Or, have I misunderstood something?

      • Eoin, and Donal,

        I actually agree with the proposal about the need to strengthen the Dail versus the Executive. In Britain great moves have been made to strengthen the role of the backbencher in particular in parliament.


        HEA studies show that the people for whom fees were a barrier (in particular low middle income group) have improved vastly since the abolition of third level fees.

        According to the HEA in its most recent study of all entrants to third level ‘Who Went to College in 2004′ groups that increased participation rates between 1998 and 2004 included “the Skilled Manual Group almost doubling to a range of 50-60% compared to 32% in 1998. The Semi and Unskilled Socio-Economic Group has improved from 23% to between 33-40% over the same period (Table 3.8).”

        (Who Went to College in 2004? A National Survey of New Entrants to Higher Education
        By Philip O’Connell (ESRI), David Clancy (Fitzpatrick Associates) and Selina McCoy (ESRI). Published by The Higher Education Authority.)

        It doesn’t annoy me a bit that you would use that example. As you will see from this link to a debate on third level fees that took place a while back on the Irish Economy Blog I quite like an opportunity to make the case for free college fees:


        Eoin, Fair point about the equality argument but if we had put the breaks on the rising inequality that went hand in hand with the property bubble, light touch regulation inspired financial speculatio, privatisation and so on, maybe we would not be in the mess we are in.

  11. Elaine, et al. –

    The ideas discussed here are very similar to an initiative that has started between members of the public under the name of “Second Republic”. We are seeking the establishment of a National Convention in pursuit of political reform.

    We began last week in response to a post in this forum. Since then, over 160 people have subscribed to our mailing list and we have had over 5,000 hits on our web site from nearly 2,000 unique visitors.

    We will be holding our first meeting in Dublin next Saturday.

    Our goal for the coming election is go run a “pledge campaign” whereby candidates and parties running in the election will be asked to pledge to the establishment of a National Convention on political reform.

    This Convention will be organised according to three guiding principles. Reform will:

    * Be directed and “owned” by the people.
    * Be radical enough to give a sense of a new beginning and fresh start.
    * Address the failings of governance and institutions that underlie to the current crisis

    For more information, see http://www.2nd-republic.ie.

  12. Having read the article on the Citizen’s Assembly in The Irish Times yesterday, I feel the idea of such an assembly is attractive…as far as it goes. It was noticeable, however, that the contributors to that article did not offer any practical suggestions as to when or how such an assembly could be convened; no practical ideas whatsoever.(Are the contributors perhaps part of the ‘Claiming our Future’ grouping that recently met in the RDS or is the assembly they advocate a separate entity to be convened some time in the future?)

    I would suggest that not enough information is provided here on how, say, citizens would be elected/apointed to such an assembly? Would it not likely end up as a forum for busy-bodies and cranks unless its members were chosen at random, much like jury selection? In addition, how could one ensure that the political parties would not merely politely acknowledge the thoughts and conclusions of such an assembly and then ignore each and every one?

    Joanna Tuffy TD states above that “the path to rebuilding the republic is a general election”. From this it is clear that at least one of the present political class believes that all that is wrong with the present political structures (clientelism, seat being treated as the gift of family dynasties, etc.) can be magicked away by the presence of different parties on the government benches! If only. The resistance to change is palpable from the comments of this TD, at least. Hers are the type of myopic comments that suggest there would be substantial resistance to any suggestions from such a Citizen’s Assembly. How then does one ensure that any suggestions from the Assembly are not just ignored and sidelined? All other ideas on electoral reform, lowering the voting age, etc. are surely dependent on whether the ideas of this putative assembly are even listened? Once safely ensconced in office, what incentive would Labour/Fine Gael have in listening to, let alone implementing, the ideas of an assembly? None whatsoever. One could cynically add that the aim of many of the present political class is not to produce some perfect Republic, it is rather to bestow patronage, and the perfect means of bestowing such patronage is in the present political structures…but perhaps I am being too unfair.

    One must ask, what is the eventual aim of the founders of this site? Is the intention to gain information for academic research (the academic credential of the site’s founders cannot be denied), to vaguely and circularly discuss various utopian political structures or is it to provide an actual Citizen’s Assembly and, through this, real political change? It all seems very woolly indeed, at least to this reader.

    There will be an election within four months, locking in the present political structures for another five years. Therefore, is there not an urgent need to put in place the practical structures of any such assembly now, now when it may still have some possibility of influencing anything. After an election, I would wager all talk of new political structures will be poo-pooed by the established parties, too busy as they will be with the onerous task of running a bankrupt country (or so they will assuredly claim).

    As a final point, I note that the response to the article published yesterday has been surprisingly muted, at least judging by the number of comments posted here. I would suggest that people are waiting for practical ways forward and not mere verbiage, no matter how well intentioned.

    • We aren’t engaging in merely an academic exercise -though I should emphasise I’m speaking only for myself here. We set it up in response to ill-informed commentary on this topic. Some of us could be accused of being conservative on the issues, but most contributors would like to see pretty radical and fundamental change to the institutional make-up of the state. This will involve changing the constitution, but other non-constitutional changes are also useful and may in fact be as effective. However, we do not feel it useful to be too prescriptive. While we have strong (and sometimes differing) opinions about the nature of the change, we feel it would be useful that there is a genuine public involvement in the debate about the nature and extent of the reforms. We do think that that debate should be well informed, and feel that experts in the various areas should set out the arguments and evidence for and against certain changes.

      As for the point Donal makes about the extent to which CAs have been used, and their success – they have not been widely used, but that should not deter us. Ireland could become a leader in this. In any case, these types of conventions do tend to be used for constitutional design, but are limited to politicians, lawyers etc. We feel that ordinary people are in a better position to choose the ‘best’ system because they will be impartial.

      The forum would not be for ‘busy-bodies’, but randomly selected citizens (and maybe some resident non-citizens). So it would be akin to juries, except they’d decide following open deliberation, and not following an adversarial process such as you see in court settings.

    • Eoghan,

      It was not constituents contacting their TDs that caused our economic crisis, it was the lobbyist with the word in the Minister’s ear seeking this or that tax break, it was the bankers calling on the Minister in the dark of night, it was the ideology of light touch regulation, lower taxes and privatisation, held by a party that does not do clinics nor clientelism. If there is one thing that keeps me grounded, and better informed as a legislator, it is the fact that my constituents, the so called “clients”, in otherwords the voters, think they have a right to contact me as their local TD about the issues (mainly ones that are a matter for national government by the way) that concern them. The expectation of that right, is a worldwide phenomenon, and exists too in countries where members of parliament are elected on lists or in single seat constituencies.

      • Ms Tuffy, I appreciate your reply.

        You mention that it was not constituents contacting theirs TDs that caused the economic crisis. I would argue otherwise. While it may not have directly led to the present chaotic and shameful situation, it is and has been an important factor in allowing the present situation to unfold (over years, decades). That is, it is an integral part of the general sclerotic system that has failed in its oversight function in relation to the economy, the fiscal situation, etc. It part of the system that did not see the direction that country was headed over the past ten years , e.g. in relation to the large structural deficits that built up over years with no alarm bells ringing in any Dail committee or party grouping.

        There is a clear lack of Dail oversight, and this lack of oversight is due, to a large measure, to the frequent absences of TDs, busy continually as they are on constituency business.

        Clientelism is a full part of the same failed system that allowed a micro-party, the PDs, with 2-3% of the vote, to dictate national policy for more than a decade. Indeed, it is a full part of the same system where , as you mention, a lobbyist can have the Minister’s ear seeking this or that tax break or where bankers can call on a Minister in the dark of night. That is, the system, in general, is at fault and must be amended. An election, on its own, will clearly not bring this amendment, but will merely change the faces in those ministerial cars and on the government benches.

        Nobody is denying that individual TDs can be conscientious and hardworking. What is at issue is the amount of time TDs must spend on constituency work; time that keeps them from acting as national legislators (their main role, after all!). If a TD is endlessly distracted with answering constituents’ concerns, how may they devote the time, say, to examining legislation such as the NAMA bill, etc. How is the Dail to be sovereign, to act in the interests of all citizens, if a TD is more loyal, as it were, to their local voters/constituents than to the broader national interest (must we mention examples such as Jackie Healy Rae and others?)? What I suggest is that the broader system is at fault, not individual TDs forced to act within the present constraints of the present system, e.g. forced on many occasions to defend their seats from party colleagues in the same constituency. I do not understand why this is an issue as I believe this is widely considered to be the case (outside of Leinster House, at least!). And, the lack of time that can be devoted to national issues is even more important for a TD that is part of a governing party; this lack of oversight leading to the ever more frequent guillotining of important legislation with little or no Dail debate.

        Constituents, of course, have a right to contact their local representative, which as you say is common in many systems worldwide. What is different here is that multi-seat constituencies forces a TD to act as a super county councillor, being possible as it is to be elected from as little as 7500-8000 votes (if I remember correctly). I believe, as do many others, that this situation is unsustainable and weakens the Dail with respect to the executive. If one does not even see that the system is failing, does not even perceive there to be a problem, how then can one expect that change can come about? I must say that it is disappointing that an opposition TD does not recognise any failings in the present system, everything apparently being okay in the present arrangements, even in a situation where the country has been driven to ruin. This is a situation that can and will re-occur in the future unless change is made in governmental and oversight structures. This much is clear.

  13. @Joanna
    “I actually agree with the proposal about the need to strengthen the Dail versus the Executive. ”

    Can this be done without separating the Rialtas/Executive/Cabinet from the Dáil completely?

    Dr. Niamh Hardiman pointed out that
    “The manner of appointing government Ministers is quite varied across democratic countries”

    ‘The Impact of the Crisis on the Irish Political System’ Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland Symposium on Resolving Ireland’s Fiscal Crisis 26 November 2009 p. 9

    Click to access Hardiman26-11-09.pdf

    Ireland and the UK represent one extreme with the insistence that all Cabinet members must be elected to the legislature.

    IMO, without a formal separation, enshrined in the constitution, very little effective improvement can be made in the functioning of the Dáil.

    • Donal,

      Then individual Ministers would not be accountable to the people at the ballot box. In my book it is a good thing that Ministers have to be elected to the Dail as opposed to being appointed by some elite or other. The movers and shakers that would have been appointed to cabinet in recent years would have most likely have been the very “movers and shakers” whose policies and actions and ideology caused our economic crisis.

      • Joanna,
        I do not agree with you that it is a good thing that Ministers have to be elected to the Dail.
        I do think that Ministers have to answer to the Dáil.
        Given that General Election campaigns are becoming as much a question of who will be Taoieach, what about electing the Taoiseach directly and letting the Taoiseach select people for the Cabinet from those with experience other than political experience?

        This issue was raised in this forum earlier this years

        during the 1980s crisis, I set out my reason as follows

        “Our basis of government

        In our system we, the people, elect a group (Dáil deputies) which in turn, elects a Taoiseach who then picks a smaller group (Cabinet) to govern for a period not greater than five years. We, who as citizens own the authority to govern, pass this authority to successively smaller groups.

        There is only one path to government power in our system. This path must act as a route for the transfer of our democratic power which authorises the government to act. At the same time, this path must also serve to gather the actual know-how needed to carry out the tasks of government. These two aspects may be equated with the distinction between the words “may” and “can”, ie the ability to do something and permission to do it.

        Dual aspects of power — politics and governing
        Any democratic political system must be able to marshal and control both elements. Our current system cannot handle the complexity of the modern world because it cannot acquire sufficient authority and know-how at the same time.

        A hypothetical example shows why this “single pathway” causes trouble. Suppose that Denis Brosnan wanted to become a Minister in the normal way. He would join a political party, attend a convention, be selected as a candidate, get well-known in his future constituency, begin a round of canvassing and clinics and then, perhaps, be elected to the Dáil. If his party forms the government (in whole or in part), if he has the right relationship with his party and its leader, if he represents part of the country that “requires ministerial representation” and several others ifs, he will become a Minister!
        This series of steps does not quite fit our idea of a man like Denis Brosnan or any other high achiever. Why? Is it because, deep down, we regard the process of getting into the Dáil as mismatched to the skills we now require in Ministers?
        A recent Irish Times/MRBI poll (The Irish Times, February 5 1987) shed some light on this aspect of our political culture. This found that, of the key factors which voters said would “influence them a lot” in deciding how to vote
        • 75% opted for “Choosing a TD who will look after the local needs of the constituency”;
        • 53% said choosing a candidate who will perform effectively on national issues in the Dáil:
        • 45% said that party policies were important;
        • 27% identified choice of Taoiseach as a key factor.
        We use our system to select people who are good repre¬sentatives — in other words, we select people to carry out the delegated authorising function. Our system is not properly shaped to select individuals who will provide the know-how which is the basis for effective and efficient government.
        As Jim Hacker said, “Here I am attempting to function as a sort of managing director of a very large and important business and I have no experience of the Department’s work or in fact of management of any kind. A career in politics is no preparation for government.” (Yes Minister, Vol- I. BBC Publications. London. 1981. p28.)

        The full article is available here

        Click to access Need%20Government%20Fail%20Business&Finance%2021May1987.pdf

        A more detailed argument is available here

        Click to access design-for-democracy.pdf

  14. TRANSPARENCY, EQUALITY, ACCOUNTABILITY in all areas of public life are civil rights we are entitled to and are essential for a healthy society. Candidates for election could and should be required to sign an agreement with their constituency to vote in the Dail according to their mandate and conscience, not the party whip, to account on a quarterly basis in their local media for their work, be subject to recall by their electorate to account for themselves, and, to being replaced if needs be. The party whip system is contrary to Article 28 of our Constitution which declares that “The Government shall be responsible to Dail Eireann” It will make no difference which party or coalition is in power unless the people can retain their democratic power and minimise the power given to politicians. Power corrupts. The level of corruption relates to the level of power.

  15. @Deputy Tuffy,

    I believe you deserve great credit for your willingness to engage in the cut and thrust of debate on this board. Would that more of your fellow elected representatives were similarly disposed!

    Just two points. Capitalism is a behavioural construct among humans that is akin to, and is driven by, the same forces and impulses that characterise those governing all living organisms on this planet – evolution. Capitalism is inherently unstable, is capable of causing enormous destruction and constantly mutates. But it is also capable of generating prosperity and the expansion of opportunity. For centuries liberals and social democrats (as opposed to communists who sought to supplant it) have sought to shackle the beast – to encourage and incentivise it to generate economically and socially useful outcomes and to restrain its ability to cause damage. It is a never-ending struggle – and it has been an unequal battle since the initial bonfire of banking supervision and financial regulation that began in the US in 1998 and spread throughout the developed economies. Ireland, via the IFSC and the banking-policy-developer nexus, and in its own inimitable fashion, ventured towards the wilder fringes of this lunacy. What we are seeing now are efforts by responsible governments in the major economies to get the genie back into the bottle. But the beast has been unshackled for so long, and has infected political governance to such an extent, that it will be a long battle – and ordinary citizens everywhere are being punished. But the underlying problem is rooted in serious deficiencies in political governance – which leads to:

    You mention that your contact with your constituents makes you better informed as a legislator. But, with all due respect, when did you last participate in making a law? And, I’m afraid, arguing forcefully and cogently against a piece of Government legislation whipped through the Oireachtas doesn’t count. Please do not take this personally. I would ask the same question of all opposition TDs – and indeed would ask it of Government backbench TDs who rubberstamp legislation crafted in almost final form by a coterie comprised of a minister, special advisers and senior department officials. What passes for ‘debate’ in the Oireachtas is a travesty and is an insult to the people in whom ultimate political authority resides.

    When TDS can say we enacted this legislation having considered all the relevant evidence and analysis, listened to arguments for and and against and to rebuttals and to counter-rebuttals in an open and transparent manner, then we can say we have made some progress. It won’t stop stupid decisions being made; but it will reduce their incidence and severity.

    This, I believe, goes to the heart of what we are about here.

    • Paul,

      One of the most recent times I participated in making law (which believe it or not happens on a regular basis), was at the second stage debate on the 10 November of the Property Services Regulatory Authority Bill which regulates amongst other things Managing Agents in apartment blocks. If you view the video of my contribution at the link below you will note how my speech is informed by my contact with constituents that live in apartments and the problems they face:


      • Deputy Tuffy,

        Thank you for your response. Unfortunately I could not find any content at the link you provided. However, if your intervention resulted in amendment of the proposed legislation that was based on objective evidence, ran counter to the expressed desire of the Government and was unambiguously in the interests of people in rented accommodation throughout the land while avoiding unintended consequences, all I can say is “congratulations”. It would be an event that, in my experience, is vanishingly rare.

        Wouldn’t be wonderful if all proposed legislation could be subject to similar scrutiny, to amendment based on objective analysis and research and to full consideration of all relevant issues in the public interest – irrespective of the party-line being enforced by the whips.

        The narrow focus of your response suggests that you are not unhappy with the current arrangements. I expect the new government, despite its best intentions, will pursue the ‘tyranny of faction’ as assiduously as its predecessor – and we can see where that has gotten us.

      • @Deputy Tuffy
        Excellent that your contact with constituents gave you the insight you need to make law – which is the primary purpose of members of the Dáil as legislature.

        The resources available to you (and other members of the Dáil) should be such that you can propose and implement law, without waiting for an initiative by Government.
        However, I do not believe that this will happen without separating the Dáil from the Rialtas as Government.

  16. For an example of how a CA can work in a country (and context) quite close to our own, here’s an article on the Icelandic CA to draft a new constitution that’s currently being elected:


    I’m just worried that our Constitution stipulates that consstitutional change needs to be instituted in, and supported by, the houses of the Oireachtas.

    Also, Article 6, which states that all powers of government derive from the people, seems to suggest that, once the powers have been ‘derived’ from the people, they can only be ‘exercised’ by the government:

    ‘Article 6
    1. All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good.
    2. These powers of government are exercisable only by or on the authority of the organs of State established by this Constitution.’

    By my (limited) understanding Article 6.2 could be used as an impediment to any form of direct democracy that might be suggested in the spirit of Article 6.1. Is this overly pessimistic? And if it is the case, is there a way around it? Does ‘on the authority of’ mean that the government could, in theory return authority for consstitutional reform to the people?

    • @Ellen
      To ensure that there is no ambiguity about direct democaracy, I proposed ( in a 1996 submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution) that this be added to Article 6, as separation sub-article 6.3

      “The people may initiate proposals for changes to, or complete replacement of, this Constitution and
      ordinary legislation.”

      As part of my view that we should have a Swiss-style direct democracy here, I also proposed changes to Article 27 and 47 of the 1937 Constitution.

  17. @Ellen
    Yes, a Swiss-style citizens’ initiative does mean that a law or Constitutional amendment can be put to a referendum without the Dáil or Government initiating the process, priovided enough valid signatures are collected within a specific time.

    re my 1987 piece on Ireland’s Second Republic, it is not too late to work towards it now:-). In my first reponse to this thread, I support Elaine, David, Jane and Matt’s statement that “we need to radically re-engineer our institutions…”.

    No need to repeat my argument again.

    A note on that Second Republic article. To this day, I resent that the editor of Seirbhís Phoilblí removed a few sentences on Citizens’ Initiative from that article, without either asking me or letting me know. First I knew of it was when I read the printed version.

  18. The concept of a CA now seems a tad utopian and other-wordly now that I suspect the reality of Ireland’s surrender of its fiscal and economic sovereignty (on top of the monetary and financial sovereignty previously ‘pooled’) is beginning to dawn.

    What stands revealed is the Government’s gameplan to sell the future of its economy by placating its favoured vested interests and conceding much of the public sector and social welfare recepient vote to Labour in the vague hope of forming a governing combination down the road.

    What also stands revealed is the fundamental democratic deficit at the heart of the EU and Euro project. For the last 15 years Pres. Mitterand and Chncellor Kohl and their successors have compelled EU voters to suspend disbelief. A currency union without effective fiscal governance, banking supervision and resolution and financial regulation – with an empowered central bank – is unsustainable – and Ireland is being sacrificed in a vain attempt to support this fantasy.

    EU voters – and particularly those in the major Eurozone countries – have been sold a pup. German voters were never asked to consent to the folding of their beloved Deutschmark in to the Euro. EU politicians now live in dread of confronting their voters with the reality of the nightmare they have created without their consent. There is no way the savings pots of voters in German, French (and UK) megabanks and pension funds can be cut. Better to impose the losses on the small fry.

    It’s amazing that, similar to the Irish goverment for the last 2 years, the EU seems determined to seek to suspend disbelief at almost any cost. It’s steady as she goes as the ship heads for the rocks.

    Still, I suppose, it makes sense to reform our governance while we are a protectorate of the EU. We might be in better shape for the storm to come.

  19. Congratulations on an excellent article and set of proposals. A few months ago I read Paul Ginsborg’s book on democracy, published by Profile Books, and he set out some good examples of how citizens’ assemblies worked. He underlined the importance of the process in connecting citizens to the political community and broadening participation.
    Interestingly his examples centred on budgetary politics.
    I have two short questions related to the mechanics and legitimacy of the proposal.
    First is there a provision in the Irish Constitution that enables citizens to propose amendments and compel a referendum?
    Second when citizens’ assemblies meet, is the assembly provided with a range of options by ‘experts’ or do the participants discuss the issues and then seek to come up with suggestions?

  20. Willian Mulligan

    Answer to Q1.
    No there is no provision in our 1937 Constitution that “enables citizens to propose amendments and compel a referendum”

    Article 46 covers Amendment of the Constitution, part of which is as follows:

    “1. Any provision of this Constitution may be amended, whether by way of variation, addition, or repeal, in the manner provided by this Article.
    2. Every proposal for an amendment of this Constitution shall be initiated in Dáil Éireann as a Bill, and shall upon having been passed or deemed to have been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, be submitted by Referendum to the decision of the people in accordance with the law for the time being in force relating to the Referendum.”

    The full text of the Constitution is available on-line here

    Click to access Constitution%20of%20Ireland.pdf

    You may be interested in my 1987 and 1996 proposals to add provisions to the existing Constitution to enable citizens to compel a referendum. These were based on what I understood to be Swiss direct democracy.

    “Art. 6.3.1 The people may initiate proposals for changes to, or complete replacement of, this Constitution and ordinary legislation.

    Art. 27. This article specifies the form of citizens initiative provided for in Article 6.3

    1. Such initiatives consist of a request to introduce or set aside or modify this constitution or national legislation or generally binding
    administrative measures or specific sections of such legislation.
    2. An initiative may consist of a general proposal or a complete draft legislative text.
    3. Such requests shall be supported by the signatures of not less than two and half percent of those entitled to vote in the last general
    election, of which not more than fifteen thousand shall be voters in any one constituency.
    4.1 If a majority of the Dáil agrees with an initiative, it must, within ninety days of the request being submitted, pass legislation to
    bring the proposal into force forthwith.
    4.2 If a majority of the Dáil disagrees with an initiative, it may prepare its own proposal for decision by the people in a referendum along with the original proposal
    5. Each such petition shall be in writing and shall be signed by the petitioners whose signatures shall be verified in the manner prescribed by law.
    6. The Oireachtas shall set up a body to oversee the operation of measures introduced to give effect to Article 6.3.

    Art. 47.2.1 Any proposal submitted to the people under the provisions of Articles 6 and 27 of this Constitution shall enter into force within ninety days if it has been approved by a majority of citizens casting a vote. ”

    More is available on pages 28-30 and p.88-111 on the following web-site

    Click to access 1.pdf

  21. Pingback: Citizen’s Assembly December 8th | Stephen Kinsella

  22. @Donal
    I’ve previously read some of your articles and found them interesting and informative. I’m a fan of this site too. It’s great for a layperson like myself to see the opinions of academics and others interested in the political reform area.

    I agree with other posters here that it’s a great pity we don’t have a citizens’ initiative mechanism to modify our constitution. Reform could then come from the ground up.

    I do agree that the main problem with our political setup is excessive concentration of power in the Taoiseach/cabinet. There’s really no effective alternative source of political power to counterbalance this. I very much buy into the notion of separating the executive and legislature. And I don’t think that simply tinkering with the Dáil committee system or just altering the constituency voting system is going change this very much.

    But as they say “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”. This may sound defeatist but I wonder if there are avenues of political reform that would be meaningful but might still be palatable to the average TD?

    The following is an idea for separating executive/legislature along those lines. Firstly I’d personally prefer if the executive was directly elected. But an alternative which isn’t might be modeled after the Swiss Federal Council structure. Rather than a single person the Swiss have a seven person collective executive, essentially an elected cabinet. Various ministerial positions may be allocated amongst themselves, but they still all have collective responsibility for their decisions. These executive councils also occur at the cantonal level and are often directly elected. But the Federal Council is elected by the parliament. If we had a similar setup in Ireland, basically what would happen, is that, at the start of a parliamentary term, all TDs and Senators would together elect a cabinet/executive via a secret PR ballot. Once the cabinet is elected it cannot afterwards be changed or impeached. This would allow fixed parliamentary terms (for the Swiss it is 4 years). Obeying a whip becomes far less important. The parliament won’t be dissolved if the parliament votes against the executive. Plus the secret PR nature of the voting means that the cabinet will be composed of hopefully able and prominent members of *all* major parties. A parliamentary majority will mean a majority in the executive, but at least other capable TDs from other parties would also serve as ministers. The Swiss don’t actually require that members of the executive be members of parliament. Usually they are, but any eligible Swiss citizen can be voted onto the executive by the members of parliament. The secret nature of the vote would also weaken party control. TDs might make some surprising choices in whom they vote into this executive/cabinet. There would be far more tension between parliament and executive. Not a setup that would cause our TDs to feel threatened. Indeed there would be the opportunity to serve as a minister even if not in government. This might also work quite well in conjunction with a reformed Seanad. I’d prefer a Seanad directly elected on a nationwide basis with increased powers. If the 60 Seanad members were also involved in the vote for such a cabinet, with PR voting one could expect a presence of Seanad members on such a cabinet/exective, hopefully increasing the pool of talent available.

    • Finbar
      Interesting idea for a Swiss style Cabinet.
      The allocation of Ministerial positions on a PR basis is also done in the Northern Ireland Assembly, if I have understood it properly. Perhaps this is desirable and workable in societies which have deep divisions of culture and/or language and/or religion?

      In our political culture (and in the UK), the Cabinet is drawn from the majority grouping in the Dáil and effectively can only form the Government, as long it has the support of that majority.

      As you may recall, I favour splitting the Cabinet/Rialtas from the DáilSeanad/Legislature so that both can be improved, as part of the checks and balances. It is not simply a question of drawing Ministers from a wider group than those who are elected to the Dáil. Different but similar considerations apply to TDs, who would be working in a very different way if/when not being confined to either fully supporting or opposing the Government.

      I still feel that the effort needed to explore options, design and develop them, implement is better focused on a complete separation of powers between the Representative (Dáil) and Executive (Government Rialtas) branches.

      You probably realise that our present Constitution
      specifies that the Cabinet consist of no less than 7 and not more than 15 members. Of these, the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Finance must be TDs. No more than two Cabinet members can be drawn from the Seanad.

      • In an ideal world I’d have full executive/legislative separation with the executive branch directly elected also. But I’m approaching this from a fairly pessimistic viewpoint, trying to think of reforms that might be worthwhile, yet also easy enough for the typical TD to stomach.

        The political culture manifested in this Swiss style cabinet structure is certainly fairly alien to what’s here and in the UK. It is supposed to be collegial and consensual, with strict cabinet confidentiality to try to protect this. And most of the time (if not quite always) this works fairly well. And members of the executive would generally maintain something of a distance from their own political parties.

        It is true that it would be able to draw on a greater pool of talent. But that’s not the only reason I find this set up interesting. There would be a greater, if not complete, separation between legislature and executive. The executive is no longer dependent on parliament for support. There’d be no problem if parties realigned themselves half way through a term or coalitions broke up and reformed. No dissolution of the Dáil would happen if the executive lost a vote in parliament (there’d be a fixed term). Parliamentary discipline and the whip system become far less relevant. TD rebellions would be far more likely if their seats weren’t immediately at stake if a majority wasn’t reached. But while separation of powers is greater, it certainly isn’t complete. Yes, better a full separation and overhaul of both executive and legislative branches. But I suppose what I’m trying to do here is come up a Christmas that turkeys would actually vote for! 😉

  23. Congratulations to Elaine Byrne on her appearance on Prime Time tonight and the positive way in which she presented the case for political reform. Inspiring! I’m up for it,folks. So what do you plan to do next?

    • Saw the programme. Was definitely inspiring. I’m disappointed that prominent citizens like Eamon Dunphy or Fintan O’Toole won’t put themselves forward for election if they really want political reform. But I guess expecting this is unreasonable unless there first exists a coherent and well thought out plan for how reform might proceed. I would love to put my number 1 on a ballot paper for a political reform candidate. But we’re only a short few months before an election and that unfortunately doesn’t seem likely. I hope citizens’ assemblies and other interested groups can put together a workable vision and plan well in time for the election after next, certainly in time for the 1916 anniversary.

      What would be the one single thing that would be most conducive to political reform in this country? IMO it would be the existence of a simple citizens’ initiative mechanism in our constitution. Perhaps something along the lines of a petition of 100,000 signatures sufficing to trigger a constitutional referendum, with a 2/3 majority required to pass the proposal. Even if we had that and nothing else it would be enough to kick off radical political reform from the bottom up. I’d love to see a political party that, even if it did nothing else, tried at least to bring in such a mechanism. Maybe a political party that tried to do only that? It would likely have the shortest manifesto ever! 🙂 Its only goal would be to call a referendum to add a single new article to the constitution, an article allowing citizens’ initiatives, and to pass a single bill giving practical effect to this mechanism. After that the political party, mission fulfilled, could vote itself out of existence and its members resign from Dáil Éireann. All that’s needed are a political expert and lawyer or two to draw up a simple and sensible citzens’ initiative bill/proposal, along with 166 prominent and trusted Irish citizens to put themselves up for election on such a basis. Really it’s a bit mad to expect something like this could ever happen! Simple but also probably incredibly naive.

  24. I echo Veronicas comments above. I, like most citizens of this country, am sickened by the utter disregard and contempt this Govt has for us and for what they have allowed happen. What I do not understand is how come 18-20% of people would put them back into office tomorrow if there was an election…to those people, I say wake up. Make no mistake, unless we are given undeniable assurances (how can we do this?) that the whole corrupt political system in this country will be vanquished and replaced by one which represents us properly and which we deserve (we do not have what we deserve), then we need to send a message to the other parties; go to hell. Whats next?

  25. The problem with an unelected cabinet is that if an unelected cabinet was in place right now, and what has come to pass, had come to pass, the voters would never get the chance to hold the individual Ministers accountable for their actions at the ballot box. With our present system Ministers will have to go before the people and the people will decide.

    • If you are referring to the Swiss cabinet system, whilst Swiss ministers don’t necessarily have to be members of parliament they almost invariably are (except in a few rare cases were politicians from the Cantons were appointed). So really no effective difference to here. The Taoiseach can also appoint up to two ministers from the Senate who might also not be elected (a rarely used provision admittedly).

      In our system the Dáil doesn’t really seem to hold the executive (Taoiseach/ministers) to account very effectively. The legislature is very weak. And, like in Switzerland, ministers do generally have to put themselves before the people. But having a minister in a constituency usually means lots of perks, grants, and things built in the area. The minister might be useless and incompetent from a national perspective. But the voters may still give that person their vote in the interests of the local area. The kind of parish pump politics that has our country in the state it is. But that’s how things work here.

      So in terms of accountability before the ballot box, the Swiss cabinet system would be similar enough to ourselves, it’s just that I feel their legislature is a stronger check on their cabinet and far more independent from it. Ideally I’d like if our executive/cabinet was directly elected as a separate entity in itself to act as a counter to the Oireachtas. But that would be an even more radical step.

    • We do not elect Ministers – we elect TDs and Councillors, while some of us have a right to take part in elections to some members of the Senate.

      We, citizens, own the power of the state. We delegate that to smaller groups, TDs and councillors, from time to time. Our power is concentrated in successively smaller groups.

      TDs nominate the Taoiseach who is appointed by the President. The Taoiseach then nominates people to be Ministers, who are approved by the Dáil and appointed by the President.

      There are other ways of holding the Taoiseach, Ministers and TDs to account eg.
      – much stronger FoI (see https://politicalreform.ie/2010/06/21/freedom-of-information-and-corruption/) I fully acknowledge that Eithne FitzGerald, then a Labour TD and Minister for State took the lead in bringing in the 1997 FoI;

      – a Swiss-style citizens’ initiative covering both the Constitution and ordinary legislation.

      The current crisis shows that we need far more checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful – elected and appointed, public or private.

      • Donal,

        The Ministers can be held accountable by the voters at the ballot box. You seem to assume Minsters that were appointed would be benign. That’s not the experience of Ireland and many other countries. Think of the Banks, various boards. Think of who the movers and shakers were considered to be before all went belly up. Many of those “movers and shakers” are the self same people that in unelected capacity contributed to our downfall, but they don’t get to be held accountable at the ballot box. Its that wise thing that Churchill said that needs to be said and said again and again ‘Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried’

  26. It seems naieve to expect an assembly to be non confrontational and to build consesus. This could only happen if people do not have courage of their convictions are are willing to bend their opinions too quickly and therefore lose any legitimacy of what part of society they are there to represent.

    An adverserial assembly that represents the sovereignty of the people is the best way to go with committee systems to address specific issues. This way all side of the arguement can be heard and all sides appropriately assessed with those of merit being retained with a genuine consensus, not an artificial “cave-in” politic.

    Anything less is a talking shop no better than rounding up contributors from the Joe Duffy show.

    It is naieve in the least and speaks of the insularity af academia that the rainbow option is considered the “Way”.

    It is crucial to any process to change our society that the process should be robust

  27. @Thomas Frayne. Why is this such a ‘naive and insular’ idea? I guess you’ve not come across the (now pretty vast) international academic literature on deliberative processes of which citizens’ assemblies are one type. If others can use these devices, and successfully, then why can’t we?

  28. @Joanna
    “You seem to assume Minsters that were appointed would be benign. ”

    Well, if I thought that, would I be calling for checks and balances on the powerful?
    Would I have spent some of my time over the past 25 years researching and writing about how our power is used, controlled and balanced?
    see http://www.2nd-republic.ie/files/1.pdf

    As the Arab proverb put it “Trust in god, but tie your camel”.

    • Donal,

      Labour has done quite a lot on checks and balances when in Government, one of the reforms of which you highlight yourself above. But the most superior check and balance of all is that exercised by the voter at the ballot box.

      • Joanna
        “But the most superior check and balance of all is that exercised by the voter at the ballot box.”

        If by this, you mean to
        1) exclude thinking about, designing and implementing other checks and balances;
        2) imply that everybody to whom we delegate our power as citizens has to be directly elected,
        I disagree with you.

        There are many ways in which democratic government can exist, based on people voting at the ballot box.

        An example is the NIreland Government, something that does not exist anywhere else in Ireland or the UK.

        Another example is Portugal, where most Ministers are not members of the Legislature, even if they report to it and can be dismissed by it.

        The outcomes of the voter at the ballot box do not always lead to moderate and competent government.

    • Donal, Sorry this may be a duplicate post, but I just wanted to add that, to paraphrase another poster whose comment I noticed on another blog, when it comes to democracy the means is actually more important than the end (or the outcome as you refer to it above). You might not like the outcome, you may prefer to engineer it to your criteria, but the beauty of democracy, warts and all is that it is the voter and not you (in your capacity as political engineer) that decides.

      • Firstly, I agree entirely that the citizen voting is the source of power and authority in a Republic.

        Ministers can be held accountable by a stronger parliament. Simply put, I do not think that the Westminister model is adequate for us.

        I just happen to believe that we citizens are poorly served by the current system whereby Ministers must be chosen from the Dail or Seanad. As I pointed out in my posting above
        “We use our system to select people who are good representatives — in other words, we select people to carry out the delegated authorising function. Our system is not properly shaped to select individuals who will provide the know-how which is the basis for effective and efficient government.”

        I will continue to advocate a different process by which our power is delegated, controlled and used, regardless of the outcome in terms of policies.

        Our government system has failed us, badly three times in my lifetime. I remember
        – the 1950s crisis (a newspaper headline asking Would the last person to leave Ireland please turn out the lights?) ;
        – the 1970s/80s crisis;
        and now this.
        I certainly do not like these outcomes.

        I believe that the separation of the Dáil and the Rialtas (government) is necessary so that both can be improved. Our present system is like a see-saw, whereby any improvement in one side means a loss to the other. By separating the two, we can develop checks and balances.

        If we want to change the results, we have to change the approach.

    • What difference does it make if Brian Lenihan was elected initially or not. He was not elected to be minister of finance. People voted for FF, FF appointed him as Minister of Finance. The people are now not going to elect FF and Brian is going to loose his job.

      What difference does it make if the people of Dublin west get to judge him personally, assuming he runs.
      The people as a whole are judging FF and the cabinet they choose.

  29. Donal,

    We have never had a democratic socialist/social democratic party in the majority in our parliament and leading the Government. Maybe that is the problem and not the fact that our Ministers are elected as TDs.

    • Joanna,
      At this stage, I prefer to have checks and balances written into legislation, some in the Constitution and other in ordinary legislation rather than rely on the belief system of any majority grouping in the Dáil.
      I refer you to the Madison quote in my posting of 27th November last.

      • Donal,

        I don’t disagree with you view that there needs to be checks and balances. I just strongly believe that those in the Cabinet should be elected TDS and should just like every other TD be accountable for their actions to voters at the ballot box.

  30. Joanna,

    You, ’…strongly believe Ministers should be elected parliamentarians…’

    The problem with this statement is use of the word “elected” as it is the existing electoral process (among other matters) that has brought us to this current national crisis.

    Our parliament has many people on both sides of the house who are proven electioneers. However electoral success is no measure of ministerial capability or success in office. It is normally the case in democratic elections, that electors vote for populist candidates and to be popular, a given candidate has to appeal to a wide constituency. This inevitably leads to “an all things to all people scenario”, particularly in a country such as Ireland where centrist politics dominates.

    Furthermore sitting TD’s are in a constant battle with local councillors to retain electoral advantage. This view is vindicated by the number of TD’s and councillors regularly attending funeral removals and competing in local media to announce good news.

    Our national parliamentarians are therefore, once elected, in a continuous war to stay elected and as we know the best way to secure re-election, is to remain popular… It is difficult for populist politicians to make hard choices, which is why so few hard choices were made during the so called boom years and why populist politicians from all sides of the house advocated lower taxes and higher public spending.

    So when our government ministers are drawn from the ranks of poll topping TD’s, (ie: the most popular of the popular) their natural instinct (borne out on countless occasions, irrespective of party) is to use this position to secure their populist survival.

    It is for this reason and many more too countless to mention, that in certain circumstances some of our government ministers, though always answerable to parliament, should and need not be elected parliamentarians.

    • Leah,

      I do not agree it is the electoral process that brought us to where we are, rather it is how people voted. Those are different things. My task is to persuade voters to vote differently as opposed to taking voters out of the equation as some of the political reformists want to do. Who exactly would you replace the voters with when it comes to filling your cabinet? I doubt very much that you can prove that your “selectors” would be better at choosing than the electors, because the “selectors” to the best of my knowledge are just as flawed as human beings as the human beings that make up the voters.

  31. Fianna Gael (sic), their supporters and cheerleaders are saying we can’t tax our way out of recession.

    Whatever about that kind of statement considering Ireland’s position as a one of the more unequal countries in the EU, we simply cannot vote our way out of a political crisis.

    Neither of the two parties at the moment that are predicting their own future coalition success advocate a new stronger social contract in exchange for support.

    Politics is in crisis – in Britain people voted for (neo-) Liberal Democrats on the basis of a pledge now assigned to the dustbin. Last year many voted for an EU treaty “for jobs”. These types of betrayals undoubtedly have a corrosive effect on trust so what will happen when the next government bring more unequal austerity after promising “fairness”….

    • Labour’s proposals are aimed at tackling inequality, including through tax changes and salary caps, that is our new stronger social contract:

      Britain after the second world war voted itself out of a crisis, knowing that Labour at the time would tackle inequality. That Government stuck to its promises including the establishment of the NHS.

      It is all about taking that leap of faith and choosing social democracy/democratic socialism, that is what Labour is asking voters to do.

      • In 1945 UK Labour had a very clear multi-annual programme and an overall majority. Irish Labour today has and will have neither.

        Today’s budget launch was more of the same short-termism. Give us figures for next year based on an amount of money which no one will lend us and say nothing at all about the rest of a prospective term. This was electoral politics above all.

        The key thing is that this is an entirely reasonable approach within the political culture we have. RTE asked no probing questions on the main bulletins and blithely stated that the huge differences between FG and Labour will be worked out after an election.

        Wouldn’t it be a great signal of change to tell us before the election what you’ll do with the people you know 100% that you will be governing with?

  32. G Sullivan,

    It’s not like we are promising tax cuts and freebies. We were proposing are savings could be made for the exchequer, via tax increases and cuts, with about a 10th of those savings to be reinvested in trying to achieve economic growth through job creation measures.

    Its only healthy that we have different ideas to Fine Gael because that is what politics in a democracy is about – competing ideas.

    Our job is not to say what other parties will do, but rather to set out our own stall, and then to ensure that we don’t go into Government unless we achieve something that would not be achieved unless we were in that Government, something that would stand the test of time, and leave a social democratic stamp on how our society is organised, which is one reason why the example of Labour in 1945 is apt.

  33. I enjoy following the suggestions/discussions on Citizens Assembly. It seems to me that with a general election coming soon positive action is required. Otherwise nothing will change as none of the political parties as they now stand, can/will make positive change. We have to change attitudes … ours … and theirs. I will only vote for a candidate who will sign an agreement to vote according to their electoral mandate and their conscience, not according to a party whip. Who will give a public quarterly account of their work. And who will agree to be subject to recall by their electorate if found not to be up to standard. Transparency, Equality and Accountability are essential to a healthy society. We can initiate positive change if local citizens combine together and collectively demand these principles of candidates for election. Talk is fine but nothing can be achieved without active effort by us all. Otherwise the next election will result in the same old corruption.

  34. @Deputy Tuffy,

    I am fully in favour of the apparent re-alignment that is taking place of Ireland’s anachronistic and dysfunctional political factions. Ireland is long overdue the emergence of something similar to that in most other mature and developed democracies. The key questions are the role of the state, the responsibilities of citizens, both individually and collectively, and the regulation of capitalism to ensure it generates economcially and socially useful outcomes. These are the big questions around which debate should revolve – and about which political choices should be made.

    And I also agree that some form of social democratic governance that secures an equitable allocation of power and responsibilities among the state, individual citizens and citizens acting collectively is probably better than most; but the political legitimacy of opposing arguments should be neither dismissed nor negated. And this is why reform of political governance goes beyond the political stance of those providing governance.

    • But Paul, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater –
      1) Any other electoral system gives the voter less say than PR STV, which is why there are civic campaigns all over the world to bring in PR STV.
      2) A Dail with TDs that thought themselves too important to listen to the concerns of voters/constituents, or that looked down their noses on the issues considered important in local communities, would not be a better Dail, nor would it lead to better governance. Whats more the engagement with voters that will happen through PR STV about politics at the next election, it being so intensely one to one, and with the very people that the decisions of the Dail will impact on over the next few years, the voters, is what is good about our democracy. It far better than the debate being excluded to the national airwaves and our newspapers, because it is on the ground with the grass roots, namely the people.
      3) The accountability of individual TDs and Ministers at the ballot box, that PR STV ensures, beats hands down, the lack of individual accountability that prevails in countries where parliaments are elected by List systems.

      • Deputy Tuffy,

        Many thanks for your prompt response. We seem to be a tad at cross purposes. Perhaps I’m not being as clear as I should be. The intention of my engagement on this board is to preserve as much as possible of what we have and focus just on those reforms that will make it work better. I’m perfectly happy with PR-STV – as, it seems, are most voters. Twice (1959 on the back of Dev’s elevation to the Park and 1968 at the high point of Jack Lynch’s popularity) FF tried to change it and was rejected. As many others have said here, it’s not how TDs are elected; it’s what they do when they’re in the Dail. And I have no desire to reduce TDs’ contact with their constituents – though reform, increased self-financing and re-empowering of local government would reduce their caseloads.

        The Dail represents the ultimate authority of the people delegated to TDs between general elections. People elect TDs to represent their interests and to advance or curtail their individual or selected group interests, at difereent times and in different circumstances, in the public interest. I quite like the US approach of citizens ‘hiring’ a politician – similar to any other tradesperson – to make the laws that govern them. That’s why my focus is on the powers and proecedures of the Dail and on its relationship with the executive – and with the ‘permanent’ government behind it.

        In this way my focus abstracts from different political agendas; let the people decide the political complexion of those who represent them and let the arguments be trashed out in Dail. It also abstracts from specific policies or additional reforms that are seen as ‘good things’; if they are that good they will find their way onto the legislative programme and be enacted – but only if the Dail is empowered and resourced to ensure they are as good as they appear.

        Let’s keep this simple and focused and reform will be possible; a list of proposals that is too expansive will lead to stasis. What I fear though is that a new government – of whatever complexion (and out of power for a long time) – will seek to maintain the exercise of executive dominance that is a principal contributor to the current debacle. And this is likely to occur despite its best intentions.

  35. Paul,

    It is a pity that Fianna Fail don’t do what the British Labour Party did when they saw the writing on the wall and foreseeing a period in opposition, the British Labour Government agreed to strenghen the role of the backbencher in Westminster, and parliament generally, vis a vis, the Executive.

    • The reforms proposed by Tony Wright’s Cttee (“The HoC Reform Cttee”) were tepid and limited and watered down even more by Jack Straw and Hariet Harman. The only substantive reform enacted and implemented is the election of Cttee chairs by secret ballot. Useful, but far short of what is required. Tony Wright and a number of other pro-reform Cttee members did not stand for re-election (though, unfortunately, Jack Straw did, as did other die-hards, and was re-elected). The Lib Dems, whom one would expect to be pro-reform, but, having been excluded from power for so long, are relishing fingering the levers of power and have no interest in curtailing the exercise of executive dominance. Interestingly some Tories are keen to push for more reform, but the government whips have allowed them a glimpse of the knuckledusters and they’ve fallen silent.

      And why put the obligation on FF? Surely you don’t want them to use the requirement to pass more legislation to delay their departure – or to ram something inadequate through in the ‘wash-up’?

      This should be part of the statement of intent of an incoming government to restore the authority of parliament so that it fully represents the delegated authority of the people.

      • Paul,

        Obviously I hope that Labour in Government will implement long promised reforms to Standing Orders of the Dail. It will be our policy to do so and I hope it is part of the agreed Programme.

        Whatever about the watering down, it will have made the role of the backbencher in Westminster more meaningful.

        One Professor Michael Gallagher has made the point, not often made by political scientist, that our role representing our constituents in the Dail, is actually something that should be enhanced rather than looked down upon. Party leaders and the media don’t necessarily see it this way preferring everything to revolve around what Party leaders do in the Dail. This is a more recent phenomenon, as I am told that Leaders Questions is a more recent invention, whereas in the past the Leaders looked for their time in the Dail just like every other TD.

      • Just wanted to add Paul, reform of Dail proecudures is ideally something that is done by the Dail as opposed to the Government, that is why I gave the example of the UK. There as here it was the party leaderships that watered down. I hope that does not happen here and in that respect the denigration of the role of the backbench TD by some commentators is not helpful.

  36. Wow. We must be going for the record on a politicalreform.ie thread! I think we’ve reached some useful common ground which may be of some interest to other readers -and hasn’t driven them to distraction. Without trying to extend this unnecessarily you raise a valid point about the media percetion of backbench TDs. The flip-side of this is the media’s preference for a presidential style of governance without recognising the extent to which the US President is hemmed in by the Constitution, the Supreme Court and the Houses of Congress or the French President is hemmed in by the ‘street’. This, of course, suits the exercise of executive dominance. (I blame John Healy and his “Face on the Poster” test when Jack Lynch’s cocker spaniel eyes allegedly set some female hearts aflutter – in contrast to the effect of Liam Cosgrave’s stern visage.)

    Again it is for TDs to assert the primacy of the Dail and to enforce the role of the Taoiseach as ‘primus inter pares’.

    And finally, returning to the initial post re CAs, it is for TDs to decide what reforms they can implement within the curent constitutional arrangements and what reforms might need constitutional amendment and could be devolved quite usefully to a CA.

  37. I note that my call for debate on Mass Immigration has been censored on your site. Seems like some citizens are more equal than others with regard to your “Citizens’ Assembly”.
    G Dillon

  38. The focus must be on reforming the power of the oireachtas to hold the government to account. The problem isn’t parochialism, PR or the way we vote in our TDs, the problem is that once elected they have no real role on the national stage and local issues are all that is available for them to do.

    The problem is -our Dáil is neutered by the whips system. We need to liberate deputies from this system to effectively evaluate government actions.

    I’d recommend a mandatory coalition, similar to Northern Ireland which assures that the Government never has unanimous support from its backbenchers. Better still, I’d like to see the government elected directly by the Dáil rather than appointed by the Taoiseach.

  39. “During two days of deliberation with their fellow citizens, during which expert witnesses gave the pros and cons of issues, 52 percent of participants also supported the introduction of mandatory voting. They were also strongly in favour of retaining our PR-STV method of voting (74%).” We the Citizens
    By definition there is no such thing as an independent “expert witness” in political matters. Everybody lives in society and forms political views in that context. Neither is there such a thing as an “independent” editor of politicalreform.ie.
    That is the fundamental flaw in the “We the Citizens” process.
    If unelected ministers were allowed Sean Fitzpatrick would have been minister for finance!
    Johannah Tuffy is right to argue that democratic election is the only safeguard.
    The lifetime of parliaments should be reduced to 3 years and there should be a mechanism to recall TDs by popular initiative at any time. As soon as politicians reneged on election promises they could be removed by “we” the REAL citizens!

  40. Look at what happens when you get a well funded movement. More taxes. If they really wanted meaningful change they would have followed the citizens’ assembly model from British Columbia which put its proposals to a referendum and not to government.
    People who want change should support grassroots groups such as Occupy, Second Republic, Claiming our Future, etc. They are all pushing for meaningful change in different.

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