Ireland: a convention in order to modernize the political system

Fabien Aufrechter
27 Août 2013

Published in 1937 during the rise of fascism, the Irish Constitution is now offset with the Irish society. The government of Enda Kenny (Fine Gael – Centre Right) decided in July 2012 on the creation of a Convention in charge of its modernisation.

Meeting of the Constitutional Convention / Credits– Daniel English (Convention secretariat)
Meeting of the Constitutional Convention / Credits– Daniel English (Convention secretariat)
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Éamon de Valera (Fianna Fail –Right Nationalist), engaged the writing of what is now the Irish Constitution (Bunreacht Na nEireann). Hitherto progressist and still considered as one of the most protective constitutions of individual liberties, its text is no longer compatible with today's Irish society. Indeed, the Irish Constitution that encourages women to stay at home (art. 41.2.2) and which punished blasphemy (art. 40.6.1), is punctually deprived of substance even though it governs every state's institution. As an amendment to the Constitution must be approved directly by the people before being adopted (art. 46), the number of referenda has multiplied in recent years, resulting in a general lack of constitutional issues.

"We, the Irish people… "

Combining politicians and ordinary citizens, the Constitutional Convention was opened in December 2012 and expects to complete its work within a year. Before addressing issues as diverse as the gay marriage, the minimum voting age or gender balance in politics, it is however an advisory body, even if the Irish government has promised to meet the expectations expressed therein through referenda in the four months after its closure. Such an undertaking, inspired by an experience in Canada (British Columbia) and another one in Australia (1998), takes place in a favourable climate for deliberative democracy as shown by the similar experience of the G1000 conducted simultaneously in Belgium.

But if the Convention is supposed to reflect the image of Ireland in order to represent the totality of the Irish people, the issue of its manipulation arises since it is a governmental initiative. Is the government seeking to pass progressive legislation without hitting the opinion to avoid further social conflicts such as those that marked the abortion debate? How can we be sure that the citizens constituting the panel were really selected at random? Are the deputies of the panel of the Convention manipulating the other participants?

A Convention under influence?

The principle of the Convention is that all the views are presented to the participant through the intervention of all the specialists and lobbyists of all tendencies. The risk underlined since the establishment of the Convention was that the participants would be taken over by the lobbies. This threat is particularly important as the list of participants is distributed prior to the meeting of the Convention, in a spirit of transparency. However, most participants in the first meetings said they did not have the feeling of being manipulated.

"Although the majority of citizens participating in the Convention say they do not consider themselves as manipulated, it would be naive to believe them", notes Jonathan Moskovic, Belgian observator of the Convention. Indeed if the participants of the Convention were chosen by the marketing agency Behaviour & Attitudes on a methodology aimed at they would be representative of the Irish people, the list of topics studied had been decided by the government.

In addition, the holding by political parties of internal meetings in the Parliament, in order that common positions and arguments be decided, tends to undermine the principle of equality of knowledge between citizens, platform on which the very conception of the Convention is based. However, all the deputies, though recognizing and acknowledging their powers of persuasion towards citizens, consider themselves on an equal footing with them, or even disadvantaged because having to cope with their "anti-politicians” feelings.

Results and future of the Convention

It is too early to make an assessment of the Convention, its first results are almost entirely meeting the expectations of the government if one considers that it has only proposed amendments that it wished to see supported. The Convention thereby recommends the lowering of the voting age to 16, the gay marriage, the amendment to the article encouraging women to stay at home and the modification of an article in order to support the participation of women in public life. The proposed alignment of the term of public office on the European countries (five-year) was rejected by the Convention.

But the real problem is the Convention's scope. The government is not really bound by its proposals despite its promise to follow it up. Moreover, as the very idea of the constitutional convention is politicized, in the case where the current government would to be overthrown, a new government could wipe out all of its work. Such a scenario is especially conceivable as the current main opposition party is Fianna Fail.

Despite these risks inherent of the project of the Convention and the scepticism of media towards it, the project is still ongoing. The next meeting of the Convention will be held the last weekend of September and will raise the issue of the authorization of the right to vote to Irish citizens outside Ireland, in embassies and consulates.

In the long run, there is even talk of sustaining the activity of the Convention or to institutionalize it depending on its results: "The fact that several thousand recommendations have been mailed into the secretary for recommendations on topics of discussion turns the convention into a very valuable organ of state likely to be continued indefinitely for another year and possibly beyond”, said Colm Finlay facilitator at the Convention. But beyond its extension, can we imagine the generalization of its concept, for example at the European level? If it remains very uncertain, the very fact that the question arises shows that cynicism surrounding the Irish Constitutional Convention gradually gives way to some confidence.