I have to say I was sceptical about the notion of a citizens’ assembly becoming part of official political discourse in Ireland. The idea is that rather than getting politicians to decide on new political direction, you get a representative group of people drawn from all strands of society – getting the demographics and geographics right, as Bertie Ahern kept on saying.
To me it seemed like an indulgence to political scientists – telling them all their Christmases had come as one. Here’s 100 citizens who can be educated and steered and enlightened about better alternatives (that we ourselves just happen to be fond of). My instinct was there was potential for manipulation, conscious and subconscious.
I must say I have revised my view somewhat. The Constitutional Convention has, on the whole, been a good idea. I have been at three or four of the sessions, some looking at relatively trivial constitutional change, others grappling with big ideas like Constitutional Change.
Overall, I think it’s been a worthwhile exercise and a really good example of democracy being more embracing and inclusive.
Of course, there are a couple of variations to the Irish model from others, which will give ground for debate. The first was the fact that its membership is not comprised only of citizens. Some 33 of the 99 ordinary members (chairman Tom Arnold has a neutral role) are politicians. In effect, a majority of the politicians can theoretically act as brake on some more of the radical ideas, especially the ones that might impinge on their status.
Having said that, on another level, the mix of politician and citizens has worked surprisingly. On many issue they weren’t really two opposing camps but worked together and fed off each other. In the round-table discussions the citizens were able to rely on the experience and expertise of TDs and Senators (plus a number of Assembly members from the North) to explain how things are done, or should be done, or could be done. The converse was that the politicians were able to hear first-hand the considered view of ordinary people about what works and what doesn’t work.
The result of the Convention isn’t binding on Government, but I hope the Government does take its reports seriously. The thing that impressed me most was how seriously the 66 citizens (and their alternates) who took part in the Convention took their roles and responsibilities. I was there for the very first session where many of them were tentative and nervous and seemed a bit overwhelmed by the experience and all the media attention.
But by this weekend, the sixth session, all had long overcome this. The quality of question and contribution from ordinary members was very impressive. When you hear a guy quoting not just from the 1937 Constitution but also from its 1922 predecessor you know that guy is engaged. The level of commitment was also evident from the weather. For the first weekend in living memory, the sun shone continuously – yet here were ordinary citizens happy to be holed up in a darkish room for the entire weekend on a voluntary basis.
We’ll briefly touch on the thinking behind such conventions before looking at the format. The citizens are selected by a polling company and come form every corner of the country. They are from cities, from the countryside, rich and poor, men and women, old and young, well educated or with minimal education. There was a matronly grandmother there last weekend who objected to any criticism by speakers of Charlie Haughey. There was also a tattooed biker, with a good line in humour.
The idea is that this is a mini-population and if given sufficient information and briefing in a balanced manner they will make recommendations that will mirror that of the larger population if there was a referendum (but without the kind of emotion and extremes and shouting of a campaign). There are lots of people who are sceptical about this idea having any substance. It’s kind of like an extended opinion poll they say, a very rough indication of what the population might think at a moment of time but is it really representative?
The format is simple. Political academics give briefings on the issue that is under discussion. They will outline the history, describe the pros and cons of the current situation, and then explain all the alternatives that will be available. Usually, two people will also be invited in to vote for and against the proposed change. It is obvious there are pitfalls. By no fault of their own the academics might put too much emphasis on their own preferences. If one speaker is a more compelling speaker, it might sway the citizens towards him or her. However, people aren’t fools and one of the things that emerged from this and other assemblies is that when they went away to discuss things amongst themselves is that they didn’t always agree with the new orthodoxy being suggested to replace the old orthodoxy.
Some of the Constitutional areas that was included by the Government in the terms of reference for the Convention were relatively trivial – not least reducing the voting age and reducing the President’s term of office. These could have been decided without any recourse to a convention.
However, last weekend’s Convention was a different kettle of fish, when it came to substance. It was the second session in a row looking at Ireland’s almost unique electoral system (Malta has something similar) and looking at alternatives. What we have here in Ireland is a proportional representation using the single transferable vote in multi-seat constituencies (PR-STV).
What happens in first-past-the-post systems like in Britain is that you have single seat constituencies and the winner takes all. Only the biggest parties get a look-in. In Britain, it is not unusual for either the Labour Party or the Conservatives to have a huge parliamentary majority based on only 35 per cent of the vote. A party like the Liberal Democrats might get 20 per cent of the vote but may end up with less than 10 per cent of the seats in parliament. Our system is fairer in that the parties end up with a seat share in parliament that (very roughly) equates with their share of the national vote.
The main alternative being looked at over the weekend was Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). There have been some members of the non-political elite in Ireland who have said that under our system we have far too many parish pump politicians and not enough of the very clever people with degrees and financial and business expertise to run the country. The MMP system would give these guys (who are focused on national policy rather than constituency matters) a chance to participate in the vital decision-making process.
Under this system half of the seats would be chosen in constituencies (under a first past the post) and the remaining half would be distributed to candidates on lists supplied by the parties. This would be done in a way that would result in the final outcome reflecting the national support for each party.
Thus a party with 30 per cent national support who got 40 per cent of the constituency seats would only get 20 per cent of the list seats to bring its overall total to 30. Conversely a party that did poorly at constituency level would get more seats.
MMP was never a runner. The politicians hated it. The citizens were not gone on it either. It favoured the biggest parties. Small parties and independents would be completely shut out. Nobody like the idea of a party controlling the list, opening up the possibility of cronies becoming parliamentarians. Nor was there much appetite for a parliament made up of ‘national’ and ‘constituency’ politicians and the tensions that might cause. There was a strong defence from politicians of how local and constituency politics is really important and it keeps them in touch with what’s happening on the ground.
The limits of the convention were obvious in that only the very simple German model of MMP was discussed. On reflection, MMP could be adjusted to the Irish situation allowing multi-seat constituencies, a place for independents, and much smaller lists – maybe 20 to 25 out of 158.
The other thing that was interesting was the citizens were prepared to disagree with the politicians. I’m sure few of the politicians there voted for TDs having to resign their Dail seats upon becoming Ministers (that was carried by the Convention).
The other two interesting findings was that the citizens strongly agreed (after a full discussion) that the size of the Dáil should not be reduced and that constituencies be larger.
Overall, it shows you how committed ordinary people can be to the society and I, for one, have become a convert to this form of participatory politics.