On May 22, Ireland became the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality through a national referendum to change the country’s constitution.
The vote was a world first in one other sense: Never before has a country changed its constitution as a result of deliberation involving a random selection of ordinary citizens. The government’s decision to call the referendum came because of a recommendation from the Irish Constitutional Convention, which had been asked to consider a range of possible constitutional reform questions.
Origins of the Irish constitutional convention
The genesis of the ICC was Ireland’s economic meltdown in 2008-09, a crisis that the country is only now starting to emerge from. This economic calamity hit the political system hard. Citizens vented their anger in the 2011 general election, installing a new government – a coalition between the large center-right Fine Gael party and the smaller left-of-center Labor party.
Both parties had stressed constitutional and political reform. Both promised to place citizens at the heart of the process. The result was the 2011 Programme for Government, setting out the coalition’s agreed policy priorities, which proposed establishing a constitutional convention, but which was vague on the details.
Irish political scientists mobilized to influence the design and operation of the proposed constitutional convention. An organization known as We the Citizens was established under the auspices of the Political Studies Association of Ireland, funded by Atlantic Philanthropies. The principal mission of We the Citizens was to persuade Irish policymakers of the merits of “deliberation” – a process of decision-making involving a random selection or ordinary citizens, with carefully calibrated discussions informed by experts. To that end, it organized a pilot citizens’ assembly in June 2011. This experiment’s research findings were presented to senior government officials and all the political parties’ leaders in a series of face-to-face meetings.
The We the Citizens model became the template for the constitutional convention. Many on its academic team went on to support the work of the convention.
How the Irish constitutional convention operated
What marked the ICC as unique was how its membership was selected and how it operated. British Columbia had blazed a trail with its citizens’ assembly in 2004. The ICC similarly put ordinary citizens at the process’s heart. In the Irish case, the citizens were sitting cheek by jowl with politicians; citizens comprised two-thirds of the 100 members, with members of parliament the other one-third.
The ICC’s citizen members were selected randomly by an opinion poll company (ensuring a fair representation in terms of sex, regions and socio-economic sectors). They did not run for election, as had happened for the Icelandic Constitutional Council, nor were they selected to represent particular sectoral interests, as has happened often in the past in processes like this.
The reason for selecting citizens at random was to ensure that they were there in their own right as ordinary citizens; they didn’t feel mandated as a result of fighting for office, nor did they feel duty bound to represent vested interests. Rather than the norms of parliamentary grandstanding and debating from fixed positions that so often governs bodies of this type, the norm was deliberation, with detailed discussion after becoming informed on all sides of the issue, respecting differing views and being prepared to change one’s mind.
The ICC discussed marriage equality in depth
Marriage equality was without a doubt the most significant of the eight topics that the ICC was invited to discuss. Constitutional lawyers and child psychologists, who had provided briefings documents in advance, made brief presentations to the ICC members and fielded questions. Key advocates presented next, including a Catholic bishop, adult children of same-sex couples and a gay opponent of marriage equality.
There was huge mainstream and social media interest, far more so than for any of the other topics discussed by the ICC. More than 1,000 individuals and organizations uploaded submissions to the ICC Web site. After a weekend of deliberation and debate, the members voted on the matter in secret, as was the ICC practice. A full 79 percent voted in favor of recommending that marriage equality be put on the ballot.
This strong endorsement by the ICC members, followed by intense media attention, forced the hand of the socially conservative prime minister, Enda Kenny, who up to that point had resisted his junior coalition partner’s demands for a referendum on the issue. In all, the ICC made 40 separate recommendations; the government has acceded to just five of these so far. Among those, the referendum on marriage equality has been especially prominent.
‘Success has many fathers’
Many individuals and organizations have claimed credit for the marriage equality vote. Undoubtedly, the highly successful Yes campaign was key to securing the 62 percent vote in favor.
But the Irish Constitutional Convention played an important role too. Arguably, the question would not have been put to the Irish people during this government’s tenure if not for the ICC. Including representatives of all the parties in the ICC’s deliberations (its 33 political members came from all the parties) ensured a high degree of cross-party consensus in favor of marriage equality — both in favor of putting it on the ballot, and in favor of its success.
This Irish case demonstrates the real-world application of what political scientists refer to as “deliberation.” Deliberation produced a real-world constitutional change, the first time that that has happened — showing this method really can matter.
Professor David Farrell holds the chair of politics at University College Dublin.
Dr. Clodagh Harris is a senior lecturer in politics at University College Cork.
Dr. Jane Suiter is a lecturer in political communication at Dublin City University.
All three were members of the academic and legal team that supported the work of the Irish Constitutional Convention. This post is written in a personal capacity.