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Day 5: Time for a Constitutional Convention?

Updated: Aug 28, 2019



We’ve had so many agreements over the last two decades that an outsider could be forgiven for thinking Northern Ireland politics are actually rather amicable.

After the 1998 Good Friday Agreement came St Andrews (2006), Hillsborough Castle (2010), Stormont House (2014) and, of course, the Fresh Start (2015). That’s not even including the almost-agreements of Leeds Castle (2004), the Haass-O’Sullivan talks (2013) and the Draft/Non-Draft Agreement (2018).

It’s a dizzying story of crisis after crisis, negotiation after negotiation, deal after deal (well, in some chapters of the story at least). No sooner is the ink dry on one agreement than its flaws become visible, challenged and exploited. It’s hardly a recipe for stable, effective democracy.

This is not to detract from the central achievement of the Good Friday Agreement itself: the promotion of peace. By establishing such a comprehensive political accommodation between Northern Ireland’s main parties, as well as between the British and Irish governments, the Agreement facilitated a new beginning for a society torn apart by violence. First and foremost it was a peace settlement, and, in that respect, it has been largely successful.

But when it comes to sustainable, day-to-day governance, its outworkings leave a lot to be desired. When the devolved institutions were restored in 2007, 45% of people were satisfied with the performance of MLAs; 26% were dissatisfied. By 2014 (the last time the question was asked in the Life and Times Survey) just 11% of people were satisfied and 66% were dissatisfied.

It’s easy to see the apparent flaws of Northern Ireland’s institutions through the prism of the present crisis, but a democratic deficit was in full swing well before the their most recent collapse. Divisions over an Irish Language Act might be the latest symptom of dysfunctional government, but the roots of the problem run much deeper.

Now, of course, we can’t change the course of history. We can’t pretend that Northern Ireland isn’t a deeply divided place and that it could be governed as easily as anywhere else if it weren’t for a few structural or procedural obstacles. Governing Northern Ireland is hard – whatever the institutional architecture. But some things are still within our control.

It all comes down to three fundamental questions.

First, is there room for improvement? Second, if so, what improvements could be made? Third, how should we go about making these improvements?

The first question might be laughed out of court – and there are already ample arguments from both supporters and critics of the Good Friday Agreement to suggest that a baseline consensus exists. To varying degrees of enthusiasm, there is general diagnosis that Northern Ireland’s system could do better.

Plenty has also been written about the potential prescriptions. Loosening the rules around government formation, moving away from community designation, and reforming the petition of concern are all popular contenders. There’s a lot of technical detail to be considered; each of these proposals deserve standalone articles of their own.

So let’s skip to the final question. If we accept that improvements could be made to the system, how could we go about making them? This is the sort of question that can easily crop up as a mere afterthought, or else be neglected altogether. But if people are to re-establish trust in Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions, citizens themselves need to be systematically involved in the process of restoring them to a sustainable footing.

Sometimes it can take a crisis to spark democratic renewal.

After the 2008 global financial crisis took hold, Iceland was particularly shaken. All three of its major banks collapsed, prompting economic depression and political instability. For such a small country, it was a testing moment, prompting deeper questions of political and economic organisation. A Constitutional Assembly was convened, in which ordinary citizens had extensive input.

Closer to home, the Republic of Ireland likewise saw economic crisis spiral into a deeper political crisis facing the Fianna Fáil-led government. Fine Gael promised a Constitutional Convention if it entered government, which it subsequently set up. 33 politicians plus 66 randomly-selected citizens spent over a year carefully considering issues of constitutional reform. It came up with nine proposals, some of which have since been implemented.

Around the world, similar conventions on different questions of constitutional reform have been held in Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands – to varying degrees of success. In each case, success depends on both the citizens and politicians buying into the process.

From the perspective of citizens, a constitutional convention involving ordinary citizens has a powerful claim to legitimacy. By virtue of random selection, each citizen has an equal chance of being chosen to serve, producing a membership that is highly representative of the population at large. The evidence from case studies around the world overwhelmingly suggests that ordinary citizens are perfectly capable of listening to complex procedural arguments, weighing them up carefully, and coming up with well considered proposals for constitutional reform.

From the perspective of politicians, these sorts of citizen-led initiatives can seem intimidating. They might set them up as a token form of citizen engagement and then casually neglect the outcome. Or, more wisely, they might come to see such an initiative as an opportunity for genuine democratic renewal, whereby ordinary citizens are helping elected politicians restore political stability at moments of constitutional uncertainty.

Back to Northern Ireland, there have already been calls for a citizens’ assembly to help politicians deal with contentious issues. Perhaps there is an opportunity for this kind of body to serve a deeper purpose: not just to adjudicate on a single policy issue, but to help re-establish the democratic legitimacy of the system itself.

In 1998, 81% of eligible voters took part in the referendum to ratify the Good Friday Agreement. We haven’t seen comparable levels of voter participation anytime since. Many weren’t voting on the detail of the Agreement; many were simply voting for peace. The result was decisive: 71% ‘Yes’.

In the two decades that have followed, democracy has too often been left in the hands of politicians. There have been too many negotiations behind closed doors and not enough meaningful deliberation involving citizens themselves. This elite-centric political culture is great for short-term media hype, but terrible for long-term democratic endurance.

As we step back and think about how Northern Ireland can be effectively and democratically governed for the next 20 years, the last thing we need is another round of talks featuring the political parties arguing amongst themselves. It’s time to open up the process and give ordinary citizens a much louder voice. The conditions are ripe for a Constitutional Convention.

Jamie is Deputy Editor of Northern Slant and is studying for a PhD in Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.

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