Ireland – Some brief reflections on the first meeting of the Constitutional Convention

Ireland has established a Constitutional Convention. I had the great pleasure and privilege of attending the first working meeting this weekend. I am taking the opportunity to describe very briefly how the Convention worked, what decisions it made and, in a strictly personal capacity, to reflect on the whole process.

Modelled on similar exercises, for example in Iceland as reported previously on this blog, the Convention comprises 100 members, 66 citizens, 33 politicians, and the chair. The Convention has been asked by the legislature to look at specific proposals for constitutional reform, but it also has the opportunity to raise other matters. The terms of reference are available here.

There was a plenary meeting last year, but the first working meeting was held this weekend. Two topics were open for discussion: whether or not the voting age should be reduced from 18 to 17 and whether or not the president’s term of office should be reduced from 7 years to 5 years and presidential elections aligned with local and European elections. I was asked to provide a briefing document to the members on reducing the president’s term and to make a presentation on the topic. The document is available here and the video of the presentation will be made available soon.

The discussion started on Saturday morning and ended on Sunday lunchtime with a vote on these two questions and other matters too. In the end, the Convention members voted 52-47 to reduce the voting age, with a slight preference for a reduction to 16 rather than 17. The members voted not to reduce the president’s term by 57-43.

While these were the questions that the legislature had required the members to debate, it was agreed over the course of the days that there could be a vote on a small number of other matters too. In relation to the presidency, there was very strong support (94-6) for allowing citizens to have the opportunity to nominate presidential candidates. (Ireland has a very restricted party-dominated nomination system at present). There was a complete split (44-44) on the issue of whether presidents should serve for only one 7-year term and strong opposition (78-14) to a proposal for one 5-year term.

The Convention will now write a report that will go to the legislature. Other topics will be debated over the coming year. There would have to be referendums on issues that the Convention approves, but whether or not these will take place and, if so, when will be decided, in practice, by the government/legislature.

It was a real honour to be a part of the discussions and interesting to be able observe the deliberations generally. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the weekend.

Above all, I thought there was real engagement with the process. In the roundtable discussions I was asked a lot of very serious, extremely challenging, and really insightful questions. People genuinely wanted to explore the issues involved. They wanted to know about the presidency. They wanted to know what happened in other countries. They wanted as much information as possible before coming to any conclusion.

Also, it was clear that members wanted to go beyond the rather narrow question that was on the agenda and explore issues a little more generally. I thought this was very welcome. Moreover, even though members wanted a slightly wider discussion, there was never any attempt to hijack the debate, or make it so broad that it lost meaning. So, I thought members were trying to discuss issues very responsibly.

In addition, there were very positive discussions about how the meeting should be organised, how votes should be taken, how questions should be worded. Again, without any attempt to try to exercise pure ‘people power’ for the sake of it, there was a real sense that the members had ownership of the procedures.

Finally, the meeting was handled really excellently by the chair, Tom Arnold. In particular, he was very keen to ensure that as many people as possible contributed to the plenary discussion. In addition, the meeting was facilitated extremely well by the administrative and academic support staff. I know that a lot of preparation went into the event and I am sure that everything went off so smoothly both because of the members’ attitude and because of the attention to detail by the administrative and academic team in advance.

If there were any slightly negative points, then perhaps two things come to mind.

Firstly, the tone was slightly more formal than I had expected. I wore a suit for both days. So, I’m in no position to criticise! But maybe a ‘dress-down-Friday’ rule might set a slightly more relaxed environment and encourage discussion.

Secondly, while it is important that parties are there to generate political buy-in, elected representatives did tend to dominate the plenary discussions. To be fair, there was very little party grandstanding and by no means all representatives felt the need to intervene. However, there was a sense that political figures were prominent. Over time, this changed a little, not least because of the efforts of the chair. But, maybe, in future the influence of representatives will be a little more understated.

Overall, I got the sense that people felt it was a worthwhile experience. Obviously, time will tell as to whether anything concrete comes of the Convention’s deliberations.

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