Constitutional Convention (Ireland)
The Convention on the Constitution (Irish: An Coinbhinsiún ar an mBunreacht) was established in Ireland in 2012 to discuss proposed amendments to the Constitution of Ireland. More commonly called simply the Constitutional Convention, it met for the first time 1 December 2012 and sat until 31 March 2014. It has 100 members: a chairman; 29 members of the Oireachtas (parliament); 4 representatives of Northern Ireland political parties; and 66 randomly selected citizens of Ireland.
The Convention is mandated to consider eight specified issues, and may initiate more proposals if time permits. The government is not obliged to proceed with any amendment proposal, but has committed to respond formally to each recommendation and debate it in the Oireachtas.
- 1 Operation
- 2 Members
- 3 Background
- 4 Deliberations
- 5 Delayed response
- 6 Criticisms
- 7 References
- 8 External links
The Convention was established pursuant to resolutions in each house of the Oireachtas in June 2012. It was to meet on at least eight Saturdays over the course of a year. The inaugural meeting was on 1 December 2012 at Dublin Castle, and working sessions begin in late January 2013, with later sessions to be held elsewhere in the state and in Northern Ireland.
The plenary sessions are open to the public, and streamed live. The Convention's secretariat is called the Constitutional Convention Office, led by civil servants from the Department of the Taoiseach. The Secretary is Art O’Leary, previously Director of Committees, Information and Communications of the Oireachtas, who is on secondment to the Department of the Taoiseach.
The establishing resolution set the following agenda items:
- reducing the presidential term of office to five years and aligning it with the local and European elections;
- reducing the voting age to 17;
- review of the Dáil electoral system;
- giving 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; and
- following completion of the above reports, such other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by it
The first two items were to be considered first, with recommendations due for report to the Oireachtas within two months of the Convention's first meeting. The other specified issues were considered in turn until November 2013, and two other issues were then chosen, Dáil reform and Economic, social and cultural rights.
The chairman was appointed by the Government. Finding a suitable willing candidate took longer than expected. On 24 October 2012, it was announced that the chairman would be Tom Arnold, an economist who is chief executive of the charity Concern and chair of the trust which runs The Irish Times newspaper. Arnold is being paid for his work, and was to step down from his role at Concern in 2013 as the Convention's workload increases.
In January 2014, Arnold addressed the Seanad on the Convention's work to date. He listed the principles under which it operated as openness, fairness, equality of voice, efficiency, and collegiality.
Citizen-members are entitled to general anonymity. Only their names and general location (county or Dublin postal district) have been published. This was agreed after the polling company, Behaviour and Attitudes, reported that some of those selected were worried about being "bombarded" by lobbyists and pressure groups.
Thirty-three places were reserved for members of the legislatures of the Republic of Ireland (Oireachtas) and Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland Assembly). Six parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly were each invited to send to one representative. Four accepted, while the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party declined, regarding the Convention as internal to the Republic. The remaining places, 29 in the event, were divided between the Oireachtas groups so as to be "impartially representative of the Houses". Each Oireachtas group is represented, roughly proportional to their total numbers in both houses (Dáil and Seanad), including the Dáil technical group and the Seanad independent group. Sinn Féin has a joint delegation from both legislatures.
Manifestos and Programme for Government
Proposals for constitutional reform were in the main parties' manifestos for the February 2011 general election. Fine Gael proposed a "Constitution Day" series of referendums and a citizens' assembly on electoral reform. Fianna Fáil also proposed a citizen's assembly. The Labour Party, Sinn Féin, and the Green Party each proposed the drafting of new constitution, respectively by a 90-member "constitutional convention", an "all-Ireland Constitutional Forum", and a "Citizens Assembly". Fine Gael and Labour produced a Programme for Government in March and formed a coalition government. The coalition's Programme said:
We will establish a Constitutional Convention to consider comprehensive constitutional reform, with a brief to consider, as a whole or in sub-groups, and report within 12 months on the following:
- Review of our Dáil electoral system.
- Reducing the presidential term to five years and aligning it with the local and European elections
- Provision for same-sex marriage.
- Amending the clause on women in the home and encourage greater participation of women in public life.
- Removing blasphemy from the Constitution
- Possible reduction of the voting age.
- Other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by the Convention.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin commented "The Constitutional Convention appears to be Fine Gael's Citizen's Assembly but with Labour's preferred title". Noel Whelan wrote in The Irish Times in 2012, "The programme for government did not define what it meant by a constitutional convention, did not detail its likely composition and was silent on what would happen to any recommendations."
In February 2012, the government proposed that the convention would have 100 members, as follows:
- a chairperson "of exceptional ability with a high degree of public acceptability"
- 66 ordinary citizens selected at random from the electoral register (on the model of a citizens assembly)
- one member nominated by each political party in Northern Ireland. The precise number would depend on which parties accepted the offer: some Irish republican parties have practised abstentionism, while Ulster unionist parties did not accept invitatations to previous Dublin fora — the New Ireland Forum (1983–84) and the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation (1994–2002).
- the balance from members of the Oireachtas proportion to party strength.
The plan did not envisage direct participation by social partners or other interest groups, but they would be able to make written submissions. The government also proposed that the first two items for consideration would be lowering the voting age from 18 to 17, and reducing the President's term of office.
Issues upon which the government had already committed to holding a referendum would not be within the Convention's remit. The convention had a budget of €300,000 for 2012, which was included in the April estimates for the Department of the Taoiseach.
Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Dáil technical group discussed the proposals in March. They reported back to the government in April, and the government responded in June. In regard to acting on the Convention's recommendations, the response stated:
- The Government will commit to giving a public response, through the Oireachtas, to each recommendation from the Convention within four months. It will arrange for a debate in the Oireachtas on that response in each case. In the event the Government accepts a recommendation that the Constitution be amended, the Government's public response will include a timeframe for the holding of a referendum.
On 19 June 2012, the Seanad passed a Fianna Fáil motion that the government's proposal to abolish the Seanad should be referred to the Convention. Three Labour senators (John Kelly, James Heffernan, and Denis Landy) defied the party whip to support the motion.
A resolution establishing the Convention in the names of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste was passed in the Dáil on 10 July 2012: A similar resolution was passed by the Seanad on 12 July. Originally one hour was allocated for its debate; senators spent 90 minutes debating procedural motions about whether to extend the time to two hours, after which the resolution was passed without debate.
The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2012 was introduced to allow the electoral register to be used to provide the names of the citizen members of the Convention. While existing law allows the register to be used for any "statutory purpose", the Convention was not be established by statute. The bill passed all stages in the Dáil on 11 July and in the Seanad on 12 July, and signed by the President on 18 July.
Although in June the Taoiseach envisaged the Convention beginning work in September, he said in October there was a delay because of the difficulty of finding a chairperson. The initial resolution specified that the Convention would complete its business within 12 months of its first meeting, hence by 1 December 2013. In August 2013, the chairman asked for an extension, which was granted by the government and then retrospectively approved by a resolution on 29 January 2014, extending its term until 31 March 2014.
Tom Arnold summarised the Convention's working methods thus:
- The Convention met over 10 weekends of a day and a half. Each meeting had three components: presentation by experts of papers which had been circulated in advance; debate between groups advocating on either side of an issue; and roundtable discussions involving facilitators and notetakers. On Sunday morning the members considered again the discussions of the previous day and voted on a ballot paper which reflected the details of the debate.
|Issue||Convention recommendations||Government response|
|Reducing the President's term of office from seven to five years, and aligning with the European Parliament elections and local elections||No change to term of office; but supplementary recommendations were made:|
|Reducing the voting age from 18 to 17||Reduce to 16||Referendum by 2015|
|Amending the clause on the role of women in the home and encouraging greater participation of women in public life||Various:||Various:
|Provision for the legalisation of same-sex marriage||Add a statement requiring (rather than merely allowing) legalisation.||Referendum by May 2015.|
|Review Dáil electoral system||Various:
||Formal response TBD; agreed to establish an electoral commission.|
|Giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in Presidential elections||Recommended.||TBD|
|Removing the requirement to criminalise blasphemy||Replace with a ban on incitement to religious hatred.||TBD|
|Issues chosen by the Convention, no.1: Dáil Reform||Various:||TBD|
|Issues chosen by the Convention, no.2: Economic, social and cultural rights (ESC)||Insert provision that the State shall progressively realise ESC rights, subject to maximum available resources and that this duty is cognisable by the Courts.||TBD|
Presidential elections, voting age
The first plenary session took place over the weekend of 26 and 27 January 2013. The topics of deliberation of this first session included, among other things, lowering the voting age, reducing the length of the presidential term of office, and aligning presidential elections with those for local authorities and the European Parliament. The following are some of the more important results from the first plenary session. Of the delegates who were present and voted, 52% voted in favour of reducing the voting age, while 47% voted against any such reduction. 38% of delegates voted that, if the voting age were to be reduced, it should be reduced to 17; 48% voted in favour of it being reduced to 16. As for the issue of making changes related to the office of the president, 57% voted against and 43% voted in favour of a reduction in the presidential term. 80% of delegates cast their vote against aligning presidential with local and European elections. 94% of delegates voted in favour of giving citizens a greater say in the nomination of presidential candidates.
Role of women
The second plenary session took place over the weekend of 16 and 17 February 2013. The topics of deliberation of this second session included, among other things, amending the Constitution to place a duty on the Irish State to enhance women’s participation in politics and public life, and altering Article 41.2.1 of the Constitution related to women in the home. 50% of delegates voted against and 49% in favour of placing a positive duty on the State to take action to increase women’s participation in politics and public life. 97% of delegates voted in favour of the following statement: “Leaving aside the Constitution, would you like to see more government action to encourage greater participation of women in politics and public life?” 89% of delegates agreed that the Constitution should be amended to include “gender-inclusive” language. 62% of delegates supported and 37% were against the Constitution being amended to include an “explicit provision on gender equality”. 88% of delegates disagreed that Article 41.2.1 should be left unchanged. 98% of delegates voted that were Article 41.2.1 to be changed, it should be made “gender-neutral” to include other carers in the home.
Issues chosen by the Convention
The terms of reference allowed the Convention to consider "other issues, time permitting". These were originally scheduled for discussion on 30 November–1 December 2013, just before the anniversary of its inaugural ceremonial meeting. A May 2013 motion to consider the proposed abolition of the Seanad was defeated.
The Convention announced on 14 October 2013 a series of meetings at which the general public was invited to suggest topics for the Convention to consider. The meetings took place between 23 October and 25 November, in Cork, Galway, Waterford, Dublin, Sligo, Athlone, and Monaghan. These meetings supplement the pre-existing facility to submit online proposals, of which "a couple of thousand" had been received by the time of the announcement.
In February 2014, the convention recommended for inclusion in the Constitution the following ESC rights: right to housing; social security; essential health care; disability rights; linguistic and cultural rights; and rights covered in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Although the resolution required the government to respond officially within four months of receiving a report from the Convention, this deadline was missed for the fourth and subsequent reports, for which no formal response was made by the time the Dáil adjourned for its summer recess on 17 July 2014. The Taoiseach apologised and blamed the delay on the time taken by civil servants to analyse the reports prior to their being considered by the cabinet. He stated that "Obviously, the Government will not be able to hold all the referendums and must make a decision on what ones it should hold in conjunction with the marriage equality referendum next spring."
Noel Whelan described the February 2012 proposal as "something that is one part Oireachtas committee and two parts focus group, with an advisory role only and which will, at least initially, deal with what are essentially insignificant constitutional provisions".
Fintan O'Toole in June 2012 compared the Convention to the Citizens Union, a reformist political organisation which Tammany Hall did not bother suppressing so long as did not threaten its hegemony. Twenty NGOs produced an open letter calling for the Convention to examine human rights.
In the debate on the July Dáil resolution, opposition politicians criticised the composition, agenda, and limited power of the proposed Convention. Later in July, the Patrick MacGill summer school in Glenties had a seminar with academics and politicians discussing the Convention.
An Irish Times editorial called the Convention "all form and little substance". An editorial in the Irish Independent described it as "unelected and powerless". Stephen Collins wrote that the November 2012 referendum on children's rights, with low turnout and unexpectedly high No-vote, suggested "putting such relatively minor issues [as those of the Convention] to the people in a referendum could easily rebound".
An Irish Times editorial criticised the anonymity of the Convention's citizen-members as counter to "robust democracy", and suggested that members unwilling to appear in public should be replaced with others.
Matthew Wall of Swansea University wrote in July 2013 that he was impressed by the Convention's operation and the substance of its reports, and hopeful that the government would not simply reject any recommendations it found inconvenient.
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