Delaying Tactics or Useful Deliberative Exercises? The Irish Citizens’ Assembly and the Convention on the Constitution


Laura Cahillane

University of Limerick

The Irish Citizens’ Assembly came off the back of another relatively successful experiment with deliberative democracy, in the form of the Convention on the Constitution. As fulfilment of election promises, the Convention was established in 2012 and charged with considering a list of potential reforms to the Irish Constitution. The 100 members comprised: a chairman; 29 members of the Oireachtas (parliament); four representatives of Northern Ireland political parties; and 66 randomly selected citizens of Ireland. The citizens, while chosen at random by a polling company, were also selected to reflect the age, regional, and gender balance of the electorate. The terms of reference given to the Convention were to consider the following issues:

  • Reducing the Presidential term of office to 5 years (from 7 at present) and aligning it with the local and European elections

  • Reducing the voting age to 17 (18 at present)

  • Review of the Dáil (lower house of parliament) electoral system

  • Giving Irish citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in Presidential elections at Irish embassies, or otherwise

  • Provision for same-sex marriage

  • Amending the clause on the role of women in the home and encouraging greater participation of women in public life

  • Increasing the participation of women in politics

  • Removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution

  • Additional issues of choice: Dáil reform and Economic, social and cultural rights.

Initially, the public reaction to the establishment of this body involved mostly scepticism, primarily related to the fact that the issues set for consideration were, in general, quite limited and many might even have been termed ‘non-issues’. Indeed presenting issues such as lowering the voting age, reducing the term of the presidency and removing the dead-letter reference to blasphemy from the Constitution as major reform questions was seen as ‘a joke’. Indeed same-sex marriage was seen as the only major issue and there was doubt as to the suitability of the Convention as a forum for deciding this issue and the fact that it was seen as a cop-out by political parties, many of which did not yet have a policy line on the issue.

Despite its rocky start however, the Convention is widely regarded to have been a success. Mostly due to the level of commitment and engagement from members but also, in a way due to the success of the same-sex marriage referendum which took place as a result of the Convention’s report. While some of the other issues were put to the people and others are scheduled, there is generally limited interest in these.

One interesting factor relates to the inclusion of politicians in this exercise; when reports from the Convention were presented to the Oireachtas (Parliament), the major advantage was that the politicians who had been involved in the process now felt a level of ownership over the reports which meant that there was also meaningful parliamentary engagement with the recommendations.

In the political horse-trading which took place following the 2016 general election in forming a government, it was agreed that a Citizens’ Assembly would be established, this time without politicians and ‘with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues over an extended time period.’ The issues given to the Assembly to consider were:

  • the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (guaranteeing the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn and limiting legal regulation of abortion);

  • how we best respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population;

  • fixed term parliaments;

  • the manner in which referenda are held; and

  • how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.

However, like the Convention, the only issue which gained any attention was the major social issue, this time on the eighth amendment and its relation to abortion regulation. The decision to exclude politicians this time did not receive much attention. However, it is an interesting difference between these two exercises. While the issue of the Eighth amendment was such a divisive issue that it was always going to attract a level of interest and engagement and ensure a parliamentary response, most people probably didn’t even realise that the Assembly also considered four other issues. One potential reason for the lack of attention was the fact that since politicians were not involved in the Assembly, there was less interest at the parliamentary stage when the reports came in and thus nobody to champion those issues.

Thus, while the Citizens’ Assembly has been widely lauded as a success, it is important to remember that the success pertains to the issue of the Eighth Amendment only. This exercise proved useful in that once the Assembly had made its recommendations, it then allowed the Government to proceed with a referendum on the basis that there was a solid basis for putting the question to the people and there was a reasonable expectation of support. In the past, Governments had often been seen as reluctant to proceed on divisive issues such as this for fear of a negative response from the electorate so the Assembly provided an impetus and the confidence needed to press ahead with the referendum question on abortion. The Convention’s report on same-sex marriage worked in a similar way.

However, the main fear with such exercises is that they can be used as a way for governments and parliamentarians to abdicate their law reform responsibilities and as a delaying tactic on sensitive issues. Also it is important to remember that ultimately, the Oireachtas is a citizen’s assembly and so it is not necessary to farm every question of constitutional or law reform out to such a body to deliberate on for inordinate lengths of time. If such exercises are resorted to too often, they will lose their effect and from a practical perspective it may even become difficult to recruit members. It may also become necessary to have a conversation on whether the model which involves politicians works better in terms of securing parliamentary attention and focus on the reports when published. One lesson which we could take away perhaps is that there is no point in establishing such bodies to consider issues which are not regarded as pressing, divisive, or in need of major debate. Indeed these exercises seem to work best for sensitive issues which otherwise might never be brought before the people due to politicians’ natural inclination towards self-preservation.

Dr Laura Cahillane is a Lecturer in Constitutional Law at the University of Limerick, Ireland.

Suggested Citation: Laura Cahillane, ‘Delaying Tactics or Useful Deliberative Exercises? The Irish Citizens’ Assembly and the Convention on the Constitution’ IACL-AIDC Blog (3 December 2018)