2nd Republic – Designing A Citizen Assembly

By Oliver Moran

A surprising aspect of the debate on political reform over the past few months is that discussion has been not only on the question of what needs to change but also on how we are to answer that question. It is possibly a consequence of the seriousness of the situation that we found ourselves in that the need for reform appears to be accepted and so the question falls onto a) what reforms and b) who decides. Furthermore, the second question demonstrates a seriousness to answer the first and a determination to answer it correctly.

The editors of this website have long advocated a Citizen’s Assembly as a means to decide on reforms. The ‘We the Citizens’ initiative is in the act of demonstrating the value of these kind of deliberative processes. One of those benefits is the legitimacy that they give to decisions that arise from them. Do we really want to look back in a decade’s time and see the decisions made during this time of change through the lens of ‘cui bono’ (‘who benefits’)? For the less conspiratorial minded, do we want to look back and ask if the fullest possible discussion took place? Will we be satisfied to know that  decisions were arrived at through the intercourse of a (well-meaning) few? Who decides on reform is as central a question as which reforms.

Less practically, though just as importantly, if we are to demonstrate our much vaunted resilience to the current crisis, should we not, as a people, grasp the nettle of the failing of our state rather than shimmying that question off to somebody else? Should we not, as a people, take this time to reflect on and to develop ourselves as citizens and as a polity? Is the process of a Citizens’ Assembly and the grand dialog that would accompany one not a process through which we could turn crisis into opportunity? To reaffirm our commitment to ourselves and to the success of our state?

The political parties, at election time at least, bought into this. All of the parties represented in the last Dáil proposed some process of involving citizens in a meaningful way in deciding on political reforms.[1] The Programme for Government similarly contained strong (all be they vague) commitments to such a process.[2]

So where do we stand now, four months after the new government came into office? What is the process through which we will decide on reforms? In the Dáil, on the 3rd of May, the Taoiseach give the following description of the constitutional convention promised in the Programme for Government:[3]

“I have not decided on the nature of the make up of the composition yet. As Deputy Martin will recall from being a Minister from many years, one of the weaknesses of social partnership was that the last people to be informed of the decision were Oireachtas Members. I do not envisage this would be the case with the constitutional convention. It will have an inclusivity which will allow elected Members of the Dáil, Seanad and local authorities and ordinary citizens to have their say. This can be a fundamental platform for the future, leading a democratic drive to make politics transparent, accountable and relevant to the people. I have no fixed view on the fractions or percentages mentioned; I do not know from where they came. Suffice it to say I would like to see the convention being inclusive and representing an opportunity for Seán Citizen — to whom the Deputy referred — being represented and being able to play his part, and that it would move throughout the country in the same way as the Forum on Europe and give everybody an opportunity, physically at meetings and also by the use of new communication methods, to voice their opinions. The convention would report within 12 months on the range of topics given to it.”

The question would thus still appear to be an open one. Does anyone have firm proposals for what the process will look like?

Maybe the answer to that question lies with the citizens themselves.SecondRepublic, a pressure group of citizens formed last November[4] (with whom I am involved), recommends the following broad requirements for a deliberative process on reform:

  1. be independent of the Oireachtas in the exercise of its function,
  2. be open-ended in its remit and agenda,
  3. contain a representative cross-section of citizens,
  4. be citizen-led and not be dominated by political parties and interest groups,
  5. present its recommendations for a revised constitution, for political reform and for reform of public bodies pertaining to the proper democratic functioning of the State within 12 months of its formation,
  6. be binding insofar as these recommendations will be put to a referendum of the People within a further six months.

The group, which is country-wide in membership, have been working towards developing an explicit proposal for a process that would meet these requirements. A part of that effort has been to develop background material exploring the choices involved in arriving at that proposal. These make for interesting reading and can be downloaded from the group’s website.[6]

The purpose of these documents is to inform an ambitious open meeting that the group will host this Saturday inDublinto decide on their proposal. The meeting will take place at:

Venue:OdessaClub,13 Dame Court,Dublin2 (See: http://www.odessa.ie)

Time: 11:00—17:00, Saturday, June 11th

To help estimate numbers, the group ask that those planning to attend register in advance. However, pre-registration is not necessary and all are welcome.

ñ     https://www.eventelephant.com/generalmeetingofsecondrepbulic

The proposal that will come out of Second Republic will further add to the discussion that is taking place on the how citizens will be involved in reform that is being played out between commentators such as this website, initiatives like We the Citizen, the commitments of the political parties and ultimately the decision of the government.

Links:

[1] Election period manifesto commitments: http://www.2nd-republic.ie/site/?page_id=972

[2] Programme for Government: http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/eng/Publications/Publications_2011/Programme_for_Government_2011.pdf

[3] Dáil debates:  http://debates.oireachtas.ie/dail/2011/05/03/00004.asp

[4] ‘Citizen’s doing it for themselves’: https://politicalreform.ie/2010/12/06/citizens-doing-it-for-themselves-time-for-a-2nd-republic/

[5] Aims and Objectives of Second Republic: http://www.2nd-republic.ie/site/?page_id=943

[6] Discussion documents  from Second Republic : http://www.2nd-republic.ie/files/GeneralMeetingMembersPack.zip

*Oliver Moran is chair of the 2nd Republic Group

(Posted by Jane Suiter)

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9 thoughts on “2nd Republic – Designing A Citizen Assembly

  1. @Oliver Moran,

    I’ll let you into a secret that not many people seem to know. But I have no problem if you pass it on to others. On 25 Feb. last the irish people delegated their ultimate authority to 166 good people and true to address all these issues. If you’re not happy with how they are addressing these issues you’ll be able to deal them in the polling booth. And if you find more people who are not happy with how they are addressing these issues, you might be able to make a bit of noise and you might be able to persuade some of these 166 good people and true to address these issues – or they might get a nasty surprise the next time the votes are counted.

    • That’s not a very well-kept secret, Paul. 😉

      Yours is a common response, however.

      To put some context first, 147 of the 166 members of Dáil Éireann belong to political parties that have among their manifestos commitments to seeing deliberative processes (including citizen assemblies) on the question of political reform. From our contacts with the 19 independent members, there’s nothing that suggests to me that any of them would oppose such a thing. Particularly not among those who have expressed their support for us via personal contact!

      Indeed, the two government parties were the first to make commitments in this respect: Fine Gael to a citizens’ assembly to make recommendations on reform (in Spring 2010) and Labour to a constitutional convention with a 66% non-Oireachtas membership that would be entirely binding in its recommendations (in January 2011). As noted above, the Programme for Government includes commitments too but is vague about the actual process. (Which is understandable since it is a complex thing.)

      Citizen assemblies – or any other kind of deliberative process – are not subversive gatherings or attempts to undermine the Oireachtas. Certainly they have nothing to do with “unhappiness” with the those we have elected to represent it. These processes are about opening appropriate discussions to greater “inclusivity” (as the Taoisheach put it on May 3rd) so as to improve decision making through greater discussion, not to take power away from anyone.

      I will admit that I was surprised at election time to see one manifesto after another make commitments to a variety of processes of these kind. But it demonstrates the acknowledgment from all sides of the benefits of this way of doing things (or at least this thing).

      • @Oliver,

        I hope you’ll forgive me for being a tad cynical about the alacrity with which the main political parties made a commitment, in principle, to the concept of some form of CA. And, partially confirming this, what the government seems to envisage is some sort of peripatetic talking shop.

        Most people seem to confuse what passes for ‘debate’ and ‘deliberation’ with adversarial disputation based on principles, theory, evidence and analysis that generates a verdict within formal rules of procedure. This suits those who exercise power and influence perfectly. We have no end of reviews and public consultations where the views of ‘stakeholders’ and interested parties are solicited, but, if they conflict with any government or quango-sponsored proposals, are simply ignored.

        To find examples of this apparent promotion of debate which is employed with consumate skill to achieve the very opposite – to close down debate – we need look only at the process of economic regulation whose decision-making is conducted in the context of ‘public consultations. (Many people also seem to be unaware of the extent to which prices for most utility and basic services are decided by economic regulators in this country.)

        The ‘public consultations’ are really optical illusions to conceal the underlying negotiation between the regulated business and the regulator (which has either been captured by the regulated business or is implementing implicit government policy to advance the interests of the regulated business or both). Tame consultants are retained to examine tightly defined elements of the regulatory process in a way that supports the nonsense advanced by the regulators and regulated businesses. The underlying conflicts between providers of finance and the management and staff of these regulated businesses, on one side, and the interests of consumers, on the other, are totally suppressed – to the benefit of the former and the detriment of the latter. Every effort is made to ensure that consumers interests are not advocated in an effective, adversarial manner. There is no potential to contest and rebut, using theory and evidence, the woolly-thinking of the regulators and the special pleading of the regulated businesses. And anyone who has the temerity to critique this consumer- and economy-damaging charade is either ignored or villified.

        It is all a game with the consumer losing out at every turn. In the same way the set-piece posturing in the Dail is a game. The government always wins – unless it totally loses the run of itself. And you can be guaranteed that whatever form of CA the government comes up with it will just be another game.

        Until people realise that the problem is the exercise of excessive executive dominance by government which allows it to prevent the emergence of any procedures that might restrain this and has allowed it to delegate considerable executive power to unelected and largely unaccountable quangos, we are at nothing.

        Participating on one of these CA exercises might make for a great day out but it won’t modify the exercise of real power and influence one whit.

  2. I agree — and I expect most (if not all!) in Second Republic would share your concerns.

    Without teeth, and a commitment to implement its recommendations, a citizens’ assembly would inevitably (from past experience) become another talking shop. That would be a great opportunity squandered.

    The process needs to be committed to in a manner that I don’t believe we have not seen before in Irish politics. That is the challenge.

  3. Are there any examples of these Citizens’ Assembly’s actually working as my understanding is that the Canadian example is trotted out but I also understood that that Assembly failed as firstly the ultimate issue it led to a vote on failed due to poor turnout plus the result wasn’t even binding so what’s the point in having an Assembly if its result isn’t binding?

  4. @Desmond. Difficult to say whether it would work. Icelandic model is currently in process but looks promising. British columbia proposal was stymied by restrictive referedum rules. The crucial part is that ca can put it’s proposals directly to people for public vote. If Irish version can’t do that, you’ll know it will just be another talking shop.

  5. “it would move throughout the country in the same way as the Forum on Europe and give everybody an opportunity, physically at meetings and also by the use of new communication methods, to voice their opinions. The convention would report within 12 months on the range of topics given to it.”

    Anyone ever hear such waffle in all their lives? It is a total insult to anyone that has even two brain cells to rub together!

    I am with Paul Hunt on this one, as far as the futility of citizens assemblies is concerned. They are designed to sap energy and resolve. Big Phil will throw a few people, whom they regard as potential troublemakers a few quango posts or Forum posts and that will be the end of them.

    The only way ordinary citizens are going to be heard is mass protest or a new political party. Forget oblique inputs via citizen assemblies into a rotten corrupt dysfunctional system which will try and perpetuate itself to the bitter end.

    A new party would be much, more effective. A party that says “we want our country back”, this is what we stand for, this is what we believe in, end of story. Join our party or vote for us if you share our beliefs. Alternatively, keep voting the way you have been voting and maybe three or four miracles down the road things will change, and you will all live happily ever after!

    The mass protest will not happen. The 450,000 on the dole are too afraid or apathetic. The 400,000 government workers are fully behind the government and unions because they know the money has to be bled from some where or borrowed for their next pay cheque. Their unions believe they have a deal and in any event, are bereft of a plan. 300,000 people have already emigrated or will have by the end of the year. The rest are students who can be bullied and threatened at will.

    Maybe the old people will lead a revolution? I doubt it. Although, they certainly were the best organised foot soldiers to bloody Mr. Cowens nose.

    Gurdgiev, Morgan Kelly, McWilliams, Edward Walsh, Matt Cooper, Kiberd are the straight talkers no nonsense kind of people that inspire but there are many people who love this country and are willing to fight for it and who could unite to give people an alternative to the politics of failure and serial betrayal.

    • A new political party may well be what is required, but when the “straight talkers” had an opportuinty to do something before the last election their efforts failed miserably (Democracy Now anyone !). At least people involved in movements such as 2nd Republic, Claiming our Future, We the Citizens etc are getting off their butts and trying to do something.

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