Constitutional Convention: No TDs Need Apply

This week the Constitutional Convention was discussed in the Dail. I’m broadly in favour of what the convention aims to do, but I have serious doubts about its ability to provide reform that reflects the values of the Irish people rather than the views of Oireachtas members. As TDs, we have our own forum for discussing the issues facing the country – we don’t need another talking shop.

Plus there is a conflict of interest for any politicians who are involved. I appreciate that politicians are able to bring a view as to how the system works today that nobody else can bring, which is valuable. However, best international practice does not include elected representatives in constitutional conventions. Two of the best recognised speakers in the world on this matter are Archon Fung from the Harvard Kennedy School, under whom I had the privilege to study, and Ken Carty from the University of British Columbia in Canada. In their work in this field, they acknowledge that the presence of partisan influence can lead to distorted deliberations and outcomes. Professor Fung says that in deliberative democracy “powerful participants may seek to improperly and unreasonably exclude issues that threaten their interests from the scope of deliberation”. In other words, one could have a bunch of politicians there who see suggested change as threatening their incumbency, funding and jobs. They may move – the academics have seen this happen in other places – to have those topics sidelined.

As regards funding the convention, I appreciate that we are in an extremely cash-poor environment. However, when the Netherlands did this it spent €6 million on it, while British Columbia spent $6 million. We are putting in €300,000 which is one twentieth of the Dutch figure. My concern is that there will not be sufficient funding or time for people within the convention to absorb the kind of expert knowledge they will need to tackle the constitutional issues.

There is also a question on whether the convention will have any real muscle. I am concerned that the Government will only take these things as recommendations. If one compares the Dutch and Canadian experiences, in British Columbia the people got to vote and the convention decided what there was going to be a referendum on. The Netherlands, however, used a process quite similar to the one proposed here. In the Netherlands most of the issues raised and agreed by the convention never made it through the government or parliament. It was seen as a failure largely for this reason.

To find out more on the Constitutional Convention click here.