Deliberative approaches to political reform: David Farrell on the Irish Constitutional Convention

Nitish Verma reports on Professor Farrell’s talk on The Irish Constitutional Convention, an initiative set up by the Irish government in 2012 to consider a number of potential constitutional reforms.

Image credit: The Constitution Unit

Speaking at the UCL Constitution Unit Seminar on 21 May, David Farrell, Professor of Politics at University College Dublin and Research Director to the Irish Constitutional Convention (ICC), provided an inside view of the origins, workings, and legacy of the Convention.  Established in June 2012, the ICC was tasked with proposing recommendations regarding a variety of constitutional and social issues facing Ireland, and relied upon the involvement and engagement of ordinary citizens as members.  This process was unique, according to Professor Farrell, as it represented a ‘third way’ of constitutional design, with representation achieved through random member selection, and legitimation via a combination of institutional ratification and popular vote.

According to Farrell, the establishment of the ICC was motivated by two factors: the severe economic crisis afflicting Ireland in 2011, and the subsequent general elections later that year. The timing of these elections was, in Farrell’s opinion, fortunate as it produced an incoming government that was committed to enacting substantial constitutional, political, and economic reforms. More importantly, this opened the door for Irish political scientists to play a crucial role in ‘steering’ public discussion in favour of a citizens’ assembly. As a result, in May 2011, a group of independent researchers and academics, including Professor Farrell, established We the Citizens, a national initiative aimed at illustrating the potential benefits of involving the public in political decision-making. In engaging citizens across the country, the initiative demonstrated ‘statistically significant’ results, proving that randomly selected citizens were not only interested, but also capable of deliberating on the complex political and constitutional issues facing Ireland.

Drawing upon the assembly design suggested by We the Citizens, the Irish Constitutional Convention was established in 2012 and consisted of 100 members: 66 citizens randomly selected from the overall population, and 33 politicians from Ireland and Northern Ireland chosen by their respective parties. The agenda was decided in advance – through what Farrell described as a  ‘painful and intense’ period of negotiation between the newly elected coalition government – and comprised eight broad topics of discussion, including same sex marriage and voting procedure. The convention operated through a system of ‘informed discussion’ and deliberation between citizen and politician members, with facilitators playing an important role in ensuring fair and equal speaking time amongst all participants. In addition, prominent political and constitutional experts were invited to provide testimony and answer member’s questions (including Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit), however they were not involved in any of the decision making proceedings. After more than one year of deliberation, the convention produced a set of 38 policy recommendations, out of which 18 would be determined by national referendums, as they involved potential changes to the constitution.

In his preliminary internal assessment of the convention’s success, Farrell revealed two main weaknesses in the proceedings. First, he was critical of the ‘poor’ levels of government accountability once deliberations had ceased – a failing he blamed on the lack of a feedback loop between government figures and citizen members. Second, Farrell admitted the convention had been weak in terms of the openness of its agenda; though he suggested that this was an unavoidable consequence of the ‘political desperation’ that preceded it. Nonetheless, Farrell painted an optimistic picture of the convention a whole, suggesting ‘quite a good record’ when it came to its internal legitimacy. In particular, the selection of citizen members by means of random selection (as opposed to public elections) was crucial in strengthening the legitimacy of the convention, according to Farrell, as it ensured that no citizen had an explicit mandate to pursue. Equally important, in Farrell’s view, was the fact that invited experts immediately left the convention upon giving their testimony, thus ensuring that they did not overshadow the views and opinions of citizen members during discussion.

In referring to external assessment, Farrell noted that the Convention was initially met with massive criticism from media and public commentators, who viewed the exercise as a waste of resources. Primarily, there was a considerable fear amongst many observers that politicians would dominate discussions at the expense of citizen members. In reality, however, Farrell highlighted both the success of facilitators in ensuring equitable minutes of speaking time, and the ‘consistently positive feedback’ received from members regarding the fairness of the deliberative process. Outside observers also critiqued the limited and quirky set of agenda items that were to be discussed, and questioned whether any substantial recommendations would emerge. In response, Farrell argued that members were extremely inventive in broadening and extending the scope of their discussions to include a wide variety of economic, social, and cultural issues that were not explicitly mentioned in the original set of topics.

Ultimately, the decision to implement the convention’s recommendations lies within the hands of the government. However, parliament is mandated to discuss the convention’s reports within four months of receiving them, and the government is obliged to provide an official response. Thus far, four reports have been discussed, and three national referendums promised. Considering these results, and the promise of more referendums in the near future, Farrell firmly proclaimed that the critics have ‘not been correct’ and went as far as to suggest that a second convention may be established in the near future.  Indeed, with increasing calls for the UK to adopt its own Constitutional Convention, it appears that the Irish model – balancing citizen engagement, elite involvement, and popular vote – could well be an attractive design to follow.

Deputy Director of The Constitution Unit Meg Russell contributed to the ICC. View her evidence here.

View David Farrell’s speech to The Constitution Unit in full:


2 thoughts on “Deliberative approaches to political reform: David Farrell on the Irish Constitutional Convention

  1. Pingback: Imagining a constitutional convention for the UK | The Constitution Unit Blog

  2. Pingback: Considering a constitutional convention for Scotland | Constitution Unit Blog

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