000aa181-942It’s a glorious morning for democrats and equal rights campaigners everywhere:  the Irish have voted nearly 2 to 1 to allow equal marriage rights regardless of sex.

However, this is a big day for deliberative democrats too, because in all the coverage about the referendum, what keeps getting forgotten is that this all started with a big, deliberative, citizens’ assembly: the Irish Constitutional Convention of January 2013.

The Constitutional Convention assembled 66 randomly selected citizens and 33 parliamentarians, including representatives of Northern Irish parties, to consider a range of issues put to them by the Houses of the Oireachtas including the electoral system, the voting age, the role of the president, participation of women in politics and public life more generally, removal of the offence of blasphemy, and equal marriage rights. The Convention refused to be tied to that brief, and made further recommendations about the presidency and the voting age, and social and cultural rights. The results are still being worked out, but almost immediately three referendums were initiated – equal marriage rights, reducing the age of presidential candidates, and reducing the voting age to 16. The presidential candidacy vote happened yesterday too, and lost by a margin of 3 to 1; the voting age referendum was initially promised but the government has back-tracked since.

I’ll encourage colleagues in Ireland to fill out the details, but for me the highlights of the whole process were:

  • the Convention was not just an exercise in shouting from the sidelines, but was plugged directly into the power socket of Irish politics — political engagement combined with good deliberative design was key;
  • it was provoked by a real sense of crisis following the financial crash of 2008-09 and the subsequent electoral earthquake of 2011 — it did not happen in a vacuum, but rode the wave of wider public debate and discontent;
  • academic specialists and political parties worked on procedures and responses together over several years, with the academics maintaining a separate advisory status throughout that had a real influence on the quality and impact of the outcomes.

In other words, this was a fantastic example of a deliberative system which, for obvious reasons, warms the cockles of my heart.

That, and the fact that we have an example of how given good process, focusing events and political will, the people can vote for justice! A marvellous day indeed.

There is a small amount of academic work on the convention and the pilots and behind-the-scenes work by colleagues in the Irish Political Science Association, including by PDD member Clodagh Harris.  Access requires library help, but if your library does subscribe, check out:

  • Farrell, David, Eoin O’Malley and Jane Suiter. 2013. Deliberative democracy in action Irish-style: the 2011 We the Citizens pilot Citizens’ Assembly. Irish Political Studies 28(1): 99-113

There’s also a forthcoming chapter by Suiter, Farrell, Harris and O’Malley on the Convention’s background, processes and outcomes in Suiter and Reuchamps (eds). Constititutional Deliberative Democracy in Europe. Colchester: ECPR Press – should be out later this year.

This post was edited at 1150 GMT 24 May to correct statements about a referendum on lowering the voting age – thanks to David Farrell of University College Dublin for the update. 

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