The Irish Constitutional Convention: citizen-oriented political reform in action

Declaration of interest: I am one of the members of the academic team advising the constitutional convention on its work programme.

The Irish Constitutional Convention is most of the way through its work programme. Many journalists and other commentators were  critical of the Convention when it was launched. But among those who have witnessed its proceedings the sense is that it has been a success (see, for instance, Harry McGee’s piece).  The Convention’s first report (on voting age and the presidential term of office) was discussed in the Dáil in July, just before the summer recess (see the ministerial statement here) where the government committed to holding referendums on three of the four recommendations made by the Convention and for the fourth item (on giving citizens a say in the nomination of presidential candidates) to be referred to the Environment committee for further consideration — overall, then, a pretty positive reaction by government (so far).

At its launch, one of the main criticisms of the Convention was over its work programme, particularly over its quite restricted agenda and indeed the rather eclectic nature of the topics for consideration.  But just how restricted is the agenda? The table below tells quite a different story…

The outcomes of the Irish constitutional convention to date (as of August 2013)

Topics

Recommendations of the Constitutional Convention

Current state of play

1. Reduction of the Presidential term of office to five years and the alignment with local and European elections
  1. No change to length of the Presidential term of office
  2. Reduce the age of candidacy for Presidential candidates
  3. Give citizens a say in the nomination process for presidential candidates
Government has committed to holding a referendum on recommendations 1 and 2 & to refer recommendation 3 to the relevant Oireachtas committee for further consideration
2. Reduction of the voting age to 17
  1. Voting age should be reduced to 16
Government has committed to holding a referendum on this
3. Amendment to the clause on the role of women in the home & encouraging greater participation of women in public life
  1. Article 41.2 (on the role of women) should be made gender-neutral to include other carers both ‘in the home’ and ‘beyond the home’
  2. Re a.41.2.2 (the state’s support for carers) the state should provide ‘a reasonable level of support’
Report was lodged with the Oireachtas in May 2013, to be debated in the autumn
4. Increasing the participation of women in politics
  1. The Constitution should be amended to include an explicit provision on gender equality
  2. Apart from constitutional reform, there should be more government action to encourage greater participation of women in politics
  3. The Constitution should be amended to include ‘gender-inclusive’ language
Report was lodged with the Oireachtas in June 2013, to be debated in the autumn
5. Provisions for same-sex marriage
  1. The Constitution should be amended to allow for same-sex marriage (and this amendment should ‘directive’)
  2. If the amendment is carried then the state should enact laws incorporating necessary changed arrangements in regard to the parentage, guardianship and upbringing of children
Report was lodged with the Oireachtas in May 2013, to be debated in the autumn
6. Review of the Dáil electoral system
  1. The existing (STV) electoral system should be amended to ensure that the smallest constituency size is a 5-seater and to remove the alphabetical order of candidates on the ballot paper
  2. The state should establish an Electoral Commission
  3. Polling hours/days in should be extended
  4. There should be greater access to postal voting
  5. The accuracy of the electoral register should be improved
  6. Measures should be introduced to increase electoral turnout
  7. Education programmes should be introduced in schools
  8. There should be non-parliamentary ministers in government
  9. Members of the Dail should be required to resign their seats on being appointed to ministerial office
  10. Citizen-initiatives should be introduced (both for influencing the parliamentary agenda and for the calling of referendums)
Report being finalized
7. Irish citizens’ right to vote at Irish Embassies in Presidential elections n/a To be discussed at the Constitutional Convention in September
8. Removal of the offence of Blasphemy from the Constitution n/a To be discussed at the Constitutional Convention in November
9. Following completion of these topics the Convention may make other recommendations as it sees fit n/a To be discussed at the Constitutional Convention in December

The plain fact is that the Convention members have not let themselves be tied in too tightly to the agenda as set by the government. What started out as eight topics for consideration have so far morphed into no less than twenty specific recommendations.

What this experience shows is that engaging with citizens in the process of debating and deliberating over reform allows plenty of scope for consideration of additional, related items. Giving citizens some say in the process is proving to be a highly positive experience and one worth extending into the future.

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One thought on “The Irish Constitutional Convention: citizen-oriented political reform in action

  1. We all know that in Ireland voters we seem to suffer from systemic apathy, the voter turnout in recent referenda has been dismal, the idea prevails that it’s a waste of time as nothing will change. The dichotomy inherent in the concept that “nothing will change so I won’t bother to vote” is glaringly obvious, nevertheless, voter apathy is prevalent and needs to be addressed.
    I would like to suggest an amendment to the electoral system in Ireland, a way to give voters more choice and encourage a higher voter participation in the election process, a way to generate voter interest and enthusiasm.

    Our current system only allows us to express a preference for a candidate or candidates, now I do not intend to argue the merits of the PR-STV system. I only wish to suggest a change to the ballot paper. It’s really quite simple, each candidate has TWO boxes next to their name so voters can actively vote FOR or AGAINST a candidate. At the counting table, negative votes would be subtracted from positive votes so the winner would not simply be the most popular but also the one whose political ideals had alienated the least voters. This system would allow and encourage voters who were less than enthusiastic about the available candidates to still cast a vote, and by doing so express an opinion, and, more importantly know that their opinion would be reflected in the result.
    The current system of spoiling a ballot paper does not allow the voter to express an opinion. The disenchanted voter’s opinions are simply disregarded, the total of spoilt ballot papers is published but we have no knowledge of why they were spoilt. Being able to cast a negative vote would significantly empower voters and encourage greater participation in the electoral process.
    We are the electorate, the voters, and I think we deserve a more definitive way to express our opinion of political candidates.
    All in favour say aye.
    Anthony T Egan M.S.A.A.T.(Architecture), B.A. (Business Studies)

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