Constitutional Assembly – TCD student submission

Posted by Elaine Byrne

As part of a class project on deliberative democracy and the Constitutional Assembly, these are the views of the Comparative Political Reform, Senior Sophister Class, Department of Political Science, Trinity College Dublin

Brief Background Statement
A renewed focus on the nature of the democracy in the aftermath of the Arab spring and similar uprisings means our own western liberal democracies have grown increasingly conscious of democratic deficits closer to home. The sense that existing democratic institutions are failing us can be said to be manifested in increasing levels of alternative participatory movements, not to mention much diminished trust in traditional governments. In Ireland, the most recent Eurobarometer survey shows trust in government at an all-time low of 15%. This sense of disconnect between popular opinion and public policy poses a threat to the legitimacy of Irish democracy. In a time of economic uncertainty, such concerns become all the more pressing. This is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon. Other countries grappling with similar disaffection in their political mechanisms have sought to address these issues in innovative ways. Notable among these is the establishment of deliberative processes such as Citizens’ Assemblies

The value of such a forum has already been acknowledged across the board in the 2011 election manifestoes of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, The Green Party and Sinn Féin, not to mention President Higgins’ allusion to such commitments in his pledge to “support those initiatives where citizens are again actively imagining and debating our shared vision as a nation” (Higgins, 2011). We are not advocating a Citizens’ Assembly as a catch-all solution, but its potential, as outlined below, has been demonstrated on numerous occasions. Where used effectively, deliberative processes, whether in the form of a Constitutional Convention or a Citizens’ Assembly, have the unparalleled capacity to restore trust, confidence and legitimacy to democratic institutions in Ireland.


An Explanation of Deliberative Democracy

“… a form of government in which free and equal citizens (and their representatives), justify decisions in a process in which they give one another reasons that are mutually acceptable and generally accessible, with the aim of reaching conclusions that are binding in the present on all citizens but open to challenge in the future.” (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004, p. 7)

but also in principle, with respect to what it can offer as a complementary avenue through which citizens can participate in civil society.

·     Incorporating the context of President Higgins’ inauguration speech so as to provide a degree of relevance to our target audience:

“We must seek to build together an active, inclusive citizenship; based on participation, equality, respect for all and the flowering of creativity in all its forms. A confident people is our hope, a people at ease with itself, a people that grasps the deep meaning of the proverb ‘ní neart go cur le chéile’ – our strength lies in our common weal – our social solidarity.”

·     Defining deliberative democracy in principle must also incorporate a definition of the method by which it could complement the current political system, and thus be properly incorporated into the socio-political mentality of Irish citizens. In penetrating the mindset of individuals, we must be aware that the concept is not a utopian idealisation of how democracy should work, but is rather a realistic supplement to current participative methods that might restore confidence in the political system gradually subsume, albeit to a point, the way politics works in Ireland.


Proposed Topics for Constitutional Convention

The following is a list of all possible topics which we could think of. We think there should be some debate over these before we elaborate on them.

  • New Constitution OR
  • Seanad reform/abolishment – General dissatisfaction with the Seanad and the cost of it. Referendum not sufficient because it does not involve learning process. There needs to be knowledge of the potential consequences of any decision to abolish or reform the Seanad. Therefore, we believe that any referendum question should be derived from a citizen’s initiative which involves a learning phase. This would ensure that any potential decision is framed by knowledge of the consequences.
  • Electoral reform – There is a perceived problem of localism and falling voting numbers. These problems could be potentially dealt with by electoral reform.
  • Participation in politics – Reform to include greater number of young people, women, different socio-economic backgrounds and the Irish Diaspora. Potential reforms could include lowering the voting age, gender quotas, compulsory voting, postal voting for 1st generation emigrants etc.
  • Local Government Reform – The current system of local government is ineffective and should be reformed to be more transparent, accessible and accountable and provide an avenue for citizen participation. This could include participatory budgeting or town hall meetings.
  • Role of the President – While we are satisfied with the current role of the President we believe a number of smaller reforms should be looked at such as the length of each presidential term and/or the number of terms they can be in office, the process of candidate nomination and the minimum age barrier.
  • The use of referenda – Belief that some referenda should come from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Potential for use of petition in initiating referenda at a national and local level.
  • Link between Church and State in constitution – A review of the link between the church and the state in the constitution.
  • Control/use of natural resources; Civil Marriage reform.


Potential problems

  • Representativeness: If the Citizens’ Assembly is to offer a voice to the people of Ireland then its membership must be representative of the country’s population. The biggest obstacle to true representativeness is self-selection, as certain types of citizen are more likely to be interested in taking part than others. While a certain amount of self-selection is unavoidable with a voluntary body, efforts must be made to ensure that the assembly is representative in terms of gender, region and socioeconomic background and that minority voices are not excluded from the process. It is also necessary to ensure that the Assembly is organised in a way that allows all member voices to be heard.
  • Agenda setting: If there is no agenda set for the Citizens’ Assembly then the discussion will be unfocused and little is likely to be accomplished. However if the agenda is set by the organisers then they can be accused of controlling the discussion and preventing other issues from being raised. A balance must be struck and the issues on the agenda for discussion must be seen as coming from the people.
  • Legitimacy: Why should the people of Ireland see a small group of citizens as legitimate representatives of the entire population? It is imperative that the process of choosing Assembly members and setting the agenda for discussion is transparent so that the public can see that its goal is to give them a voice in the most effective way possible. It is also necessary that the public is aware of the Assembly and its work
  • Government Mandate: If the Citizens Assembly is to be more than a talking shop then it must have some kind of government mandate. Whether this means that the government commits to an Oireachtas debate on its recommendations or whether these recommendations are put to referendum, the Assembly members and the public must see that the Assembly has the potential to effect real change.



  • Although it may be desirable to make a deliberative method as representative as possible, it is unfeasible to suggest that one can necessarily force people into participation. Thus, one would recommend a method of self-selection by virtue of presence at local assemblies followed by subsequent random selection based on the electoral register from this group of people. The population from which selection would be drawn is comparable with that of jury service, validating this methodology in the context of duties to the state generally. When speaking of a disenfranchised electorate, it would be contradictory to incorporate an electorally based style of representation (Iceland) into a citizens’ assembly, for instance, given that a basis for recommending more deliberative forms of democracy in the first place stems from a belief that electoral politics is not necessarily representative of the population at large.
  • Oblige the findings of deliberation with a referendum in the absence of no additional thresholds, based on the fact that no additional thresholds have ever been required for previous referenda. Legislative politics is overly transient to be indulged with the entire responsibility of recognising the output of deliberation when it is under no obligation to do so (Netherlands), there. When looking at the example of the British Columbia, the eventual referendum can be interpreted as a result that would be seen as a resounding success in an Irish context.
  • CSPE: Incorporate civic participation in secondary education as a precedent for later involvement in deliberative politics.

Deliberative Democracy in the World


  1. 1.       Icelandic National Forum- Iceland
  2. 2.       The Citizens Parliament- Australia
  3. 3.       Electoral System Civic Forum”- The Netherlands
  4. 4.       Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform -British Columbia          

The Icelandic National Forum took place over the course of one day in 2010, with 950 elected participants taking part in this process. Their goal was to produce a set of values that would be kept in focus while looking at future constitutional reform. The forum made 8 separate constitutional recommendations that they wanted to see implemented into constitutional reform. These included: morality, human rights, justice well being and equality.

The Citizens Parliament in Australia took place over 4 days in 2009. 150 randomly selected citizens that took part in the Parliament. Their aim was to recommend a structure and operation of government with regard to the question: “How can Australia’s political system be strengthened to serve us better?”  They submitted their ideas to the prime minister’s office and received a short letter back acknowledging their contribution. Despite being praised by the prime minister many of the participants were disappointed with the lack of real results, however the exercise was quite vague, which would make it quite difficult for the government to work on any of the suggested reforms, especially without a clear mandate.

The Electoral System Civic Forum took place in the Netherlands over the course of 9 months in 2006. 140 people participated in this process with the aim of electoral reform. The citizen’s forum was conducted in a well organized manner and was commended for its inclusive structure. However the Parliament did not accept the reform ideas and essentially ignored the results of the Forum, something that understandably frustrated citizens.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia took place over a series of weekends in 2009 and lasted for over one year. 160 randomly selected citizens from every district in the province took part in this process, with the goal of making recommendations on the electoral system in British Columbia, as politicians were seen as having too vested an interest in this outcome to be objective.  Their final report included the recommendation that British Columbia would change from a “First Past the Post System” to Proportional Representation by the single transferable vote (STV). Although their recommendation was ultimately rejected – partly due to a high voting threshold (60%) –this process was regarded as very successful, and the participants largely satisfied with the way that the process had been conducted.


Helpful Links:

Video produced by the BC Citizens’ Assembly describing the process

Citizens’ Assembly website in British Columbia

Netherlands Example:

Case of Iceland:


Daragh Hamilton, Shane Jackson, Daniel O’Callaghan, Evan McDermott, Elly Friel, Caitlin Sherry, Tom Hoyer-Miller, Ailbhe Durkin, David Barrett, Rachel Sneyd, Grainne Jordan, Orna Lyons, Jack William Farrell, Emily Rose Johnson, Lauren Taylor, Laura Bove, Harriet Lille, Peter Schwartzstein.

11 thoughts on “Constitutional Assembly – TCD student submission

  1. It’s wonderful to see these students engaged in an exercise of this nature, but I suspect they are sharp enough to recognise which way the academic wind that affects them directly is blowing and, having sniffed it, are being suitably dutiful and compliant.

    And, of course, there’s no explicit reference to the fundamental requirement to enhance the powers and resources, and to change the procedures, of the Oireachtas and its Cttees. The death was recorded last Friday of Norman St. John Stevas (latterly Lord St. John of Fawsley or, to the less charitable, Lord Crawls on all Foursley). During a relatively short period from 1979 to 1981, as Leader of the House of Commons (and not enjoying particular favour from Margaret Hilda), he revolutionis ed the selection, powers and duties of HoC Select Cttees. The more recent work of Tony Wright’s HoC Reform Cttee built on and extended the changes he initiated.

    In this respect and, so far I can see, the Oireachtas is going backwards – and very few seem to have the slightest interest.

    All we seem to get is displacement activity to avoid any real consideration of the existing power relations. And that, of course, suits many, many people. Those who rock the boat rarely get prizes.

    • Thanks for that. St John-Stevas seemed like an interesting and rather unique character! The article also brings home the fact that the Tony Wright reforms didn’t suddenly appear in a vacuum. The existing select committee system was already reasonably good, well resourced, well structured with memberships not completely sewn up by the various party whips beforehand, and actually managed to impose a certain degree of accountability on ministers.

      • In passing, the St. John is from Irish stock on his mother’s side and the Stevas from Greek stock on his father’s. Despite this, his intense and lengthy scholarly work on Bagehot encouraged ‘Official England’ to accept him and his reforms of some of their sacred insitutions. It puts the timid reforms of Tony Wright’s Cttee in context – given the path he had beaten 30 years previously. But it also highlights the spoiling done by Labour reactionary recidivists such as Jack Straw and Harriet Harmon.

        It is interesting that in polities with long-established institutions and procedures it seems that it is only those who might be viewed as somewhat exotic ‘outsiders’ but who secure some measure of popular or official acceptance who are able to effect meaningful reforms.

        The ‘club’ may be reformed only from the inside. An insight that might give some pause for thought to those who strenuously advocate direct citizen participation, perhaps?

  2. Aristotle observed that the aim of education is to create a sense of wonder.
    In this spirit, I do wonder how this presentation helps us manage the issues that face us here in this Republic.

    1. Compare
    “….We are not advocating a Citizens’ Assembly as a catch-all solution, but its potential, as outlined below, has been demonstrated on numerous occasions…..”
    “Legislative politics is overly transient to be indulged with the entire responsibility of recognising the output of deliberation when it is under no obligation to do so (Netherlands), there. When looking at the example of the British Columbia, the eventual referendum can be interpreted as a result that would be seen as a resounding success in an Irish context.”

    The outcome of the Dutch and British Columbia citizens assemblies(CA)did not lead to any change. What is the basis for the authors’ trust that the Irish political/governing classes would not try to fix any CA-type convention so that they would not be bound by the results?

    The Government has promised a do-minimum response to the outcome of the proposed Constitutional Convention

    “Implementation of Recommendations
    It is for the Government to decide whether or not to bring forward legislation proposing Constitutional change, and for the Oireachtas to decide on whether the matter should be put to the people in a Referendum.
    It is proposed, therefore, that the relevant Ministers will consider recommendations from the Convention and report to Government as appropriate. “

    So why focus on CAs as a mechanism for enhancing democracy, when
    their success – measured by political and institutional reform being implemented (regardless of the merits of the reforms being considered) – is yet to be demonstrated despite efforts made and resources employed? I gather that the total cost of the British Columbia cost over CAN$5m;

    2. To what extent do Citizens’ Assemblies lead to change?
    “This is an absolutely key distinction – is a CA a public consultation mechanism (as Deputy 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.”

    I imagine that a well structured citizens’ assembly can help clarifying options, particularly for those who are chosen to take part and who can afford the time to do so. 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.

    This government’s agenda for the Constitutional Convention reflects the do-minimum approach of this government to political and institutional reform. As examples,
    – there is no date for the referendum on the Senate;
    – in trying to enhance the investigatory powers of the Oireachtas, the Government ignored the wording recommended by an Oireachtas Committee – a subset of an assembly consisting of and elected by citizens;
    – the Government is delaying carrying out the Programme for Government promise to simply repeal the 2003 Freedom of Information Act.

    With this record, what basis is for thinking that Government will pay any more attention to the outcomes of the Convention than the political and governing classes have to, say, the numerous reports on reforming the Senate?

  3. @Elaine,
    cc TCD political science students
    PSAI members

    Given that your students were focused on issues of governance in democracies and addressing the democratic deficits closer to home than the Arab uprisings, are there any class projects covering possible responses to

    1) Madison’s specification (Federalist Paper No 51) for the design of government
    “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men the great difficulty lies in this: first you must enable the government to control the governed and in the next place, you
    must oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

    2) Edmund Burke’s focus on the public interest
    “The public interest requires doing today those things that men (and women) of intelligence and good will would wish five or ten years hence had been done.”

    3) Institutions which would enable us citizens – who are the sources of power in this state – to be in line with Pericles of Athens comment
    “Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it.”

    4) introducing checks and balances – into our 1937 Constitution – to limit the scope for excess by the powerful, be they public or private, elected or appointed?

  4. As a member of Elaine’s political reform class, I would like to point out that the submission above was produced before the Irish constitutional convention was announced. It is interesting that a number of the recommendations which we made are in fact the criticisms which could now be levelled at the governments plan.

    1. Agenda Setting – With the topics of the proposed constitution convention to be formulated by the government, are the citizens actually discussing the issues which they feel are important? How will the questions be posed? Will the way the questions are asked lead to an unfair bias towards one side of the debate?

    2. Representation – While an attempt to involve citizens in decision making is, in my opinion, a positive step towards inclusive reform the representativeness of this initiative is a real concern. With 33 politicians in attendance will citizens inevitably feel intimidated? By involving partisan issues will this not be conducive to excessive partisan argument rather than independent deliberation?

    3. Government Mandate – What will be the outcome of this process? Will the government be able to ignore any recommendation which it does not agree with? If so, what is the point in asking for citizen’s views?

    While I welcome the constitutional convention in general, I have a number of problems with the way it has been formulated (including those listed above). I am interested to ask those of you who have read the article what your opinion on these issues are?

  5. I presume I am correct in thinking that the term ‘democracy’ and its properties have been defined adequately enough before this submission was written. Is it posted anywhere online?

    If the purpose of the Constitutional Convention is to actually achieve any posiive effect on our political system then, in that case I am confused with the submission. Thinking inside the box has led us to this dysfunctional and failed political system and I would consider the submission as thinking INSIDE the box.

    Also, if you did quantify and qualify democracy, and this Nation’s attempt at enacting one, you would be acutely aware that the system in place at present needs much more than tinkering by a Citizens’ Assembly who have no power nor authority.

    ‘We are not advocating a Citizens’ Assembly as a catch-all solution’… I would state that it is NOT any solution at all, for any worthwhile proposal to improve our political system would automatically entail ‘controlling the politicians’, and that will be thoroughtly rejected by those very same politicians who also happen to hold the power and authority in this Nation. They will perhaps allow some ineffectual proposal through eg abolishing the senate, but that will just be concentrating the political power even more so in their hands.

    The democratic system as enacted in Nations like Ireland, the USA, Britain etc, is so obviously NOT democratic that in fact the Citizens’ Assembly, though not realistic anyway, would nevertheless be a similar process to a Citizens’ Assembly taking place in North Korea.

    Verdict: Unfortunately, Poor to Fair. Could do a lot better. (MUST do a lot better).

    Please point me to your definition of democracy, if you have one. I would be extremely interested in reading it.

    If you want to understand some of the problems with our present political system go to the web site and read – especially chapter 4 and 5. You will begin to understand the difficulties in improving this version of democracy.

Leave a Reply to Daniel O'Callaghan Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s