November 29, 2012 by John Buckley
Saturday sees Ireland trying ‘something a bit different’. Or is it? The program for government developed by Fine Gael and Labour in 2011 focuses on reform of the constitution and other political apparatus. Part of this involves a blend of citizens and public representatives working in the convention.
Is it really direct democracy? And is direct democracy even possible in Ireland. Are we too apathetic? Do we our care more about our own worlds then the collect one we inhabit?
I personally feel the constitutional convention in principal is a good idea, but unfortunately I feel that government has not put the due process of thought into how the convention will work. Why you may ask? Just look:
– Inclusion: only 66 citizens all of whom are over the age of 18 (excluding those of us who the decisions will really effect). And the citizen body is confined to those who are registered to vote. Maybe this makes sense, but what about those who aren’t registered and why, surely their input would be valuable. The convention is also looking at making a decision for those under, whether or not they should be allowed to vote. But they aren’t going to be included in the process. Does this not fly in the face of the governments recent promotion of “young peoples views being considered in matters that effect them”?
– Preparation: Iceland (http://www.opendemocracy.net/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action), which I will talk about later, worked on changing its entire constitution. They worked with a body they called their citizens assembly of over 1,000 people, then narrowing to 25. Note here Iceland’s population is just over 300,000. They received training and developed what they felt was key to include in revised constitution. I’ve seen and heard nothing of this here.
– Prescription: the government has prescribed a list of areas for the convention to look at. What these are based on, to me they seem like political party throwaway thoughts (many off which do not deserve to be thrown away). Yes some of the topics are important; I know we need action on many. But are some of them priorities? The presidential term of office? What about economic and social rights? The convention, it seems won’t have to scope to look at these. Amnesty (http://www.amnesty.ie/news/constitutional-convention-open-it) has an excellent outline of priorities in this regard.
– Piecemeal: Why are we looking at the constitution in such a narrow way? I was at a Trailblaze (http://www.facebook.com/TheTrailblazery) evening recently in Dublin. One of the speakers spoke of Ireland being a young nation, where when we were drawing up Bunreacht na hEireann in the 1930’s we hadn’t quiet yet established our shared set of values. We had borrowed then from Catholicism and from Britain. I feel that we need a full overhaul of the constitution to reflect our values today. This is a idealistic statement given our current economic situation, but I feel it would add to recovery, both economically and socially. A healing of sorts and exploration of where we are. But yes there are many parts of our constitution that do work well.
– Hidden: will all or just some of the citizen representative be anonymous? What does that say about us? Are we afraid of democracy and decision making? There would be outrage if the public representatives wanted to stay anonymous.
This brings me onto my second point. Direct democracy, the convention is thrown together idea. But what else is working around the world. What other model do we have? Or can we invent our own? Direct democracy for me is where citizens own the power they confer on public representative. Where they take part in decision-making processes other then down the parish hall or constituency clinic. ‘When we elect public officials and we feel they don’t exercise our conferred power in a way we feel is just, then we have a responsibility to call them to account’ said a speaker recently when talking about citizen involvement in democratic processes. This is where real direct democracy could really help
So what’s out there?
– New Zealand: Citizens have the power with a prescribed number of signatures of members of the electoral register (10%) to call a referendum http://www.elections.org.nz/elections/referendum/referendums.html
– Iceland: their citizens assembly met over a number of years, and contained 522 Icelanders http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/15/lessons-from-iceland-people-power
– Netherlands: Citizen’s assembly of 140 individuals that met over nine months. But unlikely that their recommendations will be acted on.
And there’s lots of other examples of innovative ways of including citizens in democracy that aren’t government lead. Look at ‘We the Citizen’s’ here in Ireland. But there’s one problem, there’s no point in direct democracy unless citizens are prepared and engaged. Obviously this comes with the caveat of elected representatives with the backbone to act on citizens input. This is where we may get a bit chicken and the egg ish!
My final point is that Ireland does not produce on a wide scale, engaged and connected citizens. It’s not something we teach very well. And when I say teach I don’t mean the department of education alone. I mean all of us. We don’t value our vote, many of us don’t value public office and inputting into decisions. This needs to change too. Connected democracy’s have lead to change on a revolutionary (not scary revolutionary) scale. Look at the changes to constitutions in some South American countries where even the rights of the natural environment are protected, rights around health, equality etc.
We need to work with children from an early age around civic engagement and responsibility. I got a tweet today after airing such an idea for a shadow young person’s cabinet. ‘The younger you are the less likely to have useful experience….’. Well we need to give our young people and wider society the experience of democracy and decision-making. Why? To ensure that our country can fulfil it’s innate potential, to ensure that we represent true justice and equality, that we connect to our nation our state for the benefit of us individually and collectively.
In conclusion I feel that convention will not serve a true democratic process, we can do better. I feel that we need to include citizens more purely in real democratic decision making outside of voting. We need find and try out those solutions while at the same time ensuring education around citizens involvement leaves us connected, empowered but also understanding our own responsibilities.