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Constitutional Reform, Irish Style

10 February 2014


One common frustration of political debate and commentary in the UK is its often highly insular nature. Relevant experience from elsewhere in the world, even on many occasions the experiences of near neighbours, seem to be almost wilfully ignored. Indeed, we are not even that good at learning lessons from within our own country! Recall, for example, the ‘five days in May’ after the 2010 general election – and how much commentary by journalists and politicians seemed to find coalition negotiations totally new and unfamiliar. Even leaving aside the fact that coalition and/or minority government is the normal state of affairs in most democracies across the planet, there was obviously relevant recent experience from Scotland and Wales to draw upon. Yet most of those commentating (as well as some of those involved in the negotiations) seemed wholly unaware of, and/or wholly uninterested in learning from, this experience.

Given this general frustration, it was a particular pleasure to be able to welcome Prof David Farrell of University College Dublin to Cardiff last week. David is an old friend; rather more importantly he is also perhaps the world’s leading expert on electoral systems; and he has been heavily involved in recent constitutional debates in Ireland, as Research Director of the Irish Constitutional Convention. The Convention is a very important, and extremely interesting, development happening in our next-door neighbour. Yet awareness of it in Britain, even among the ‘political class’, is somewhere between low and verging on the non-existent. It was therefore very enjoyable to be able to attend a seminar David led at the National Assembly (see his presentation slides) where he described and assessed the Convention.

The Irish Convention was one response to the traumatic events Ireland experienced from 2008-2011. Not only did the hitherto booming Celtic Tiger economy undergo a precipitous collapse; so also did public faith in much of the Irish political elite. It is in these sorts of extreme circumstances that fundamental political reforms are often most likely to be seriously considered and even adopted. Readers can examine David’s slides, and the website of the Convention, for far more details of quite how the Convention came to be established, its agenda, and its progress thus far. What I thought might be useful is to compare the Convention as a model to what has become the established Welsh model of how major political reform is considered.

I think it is fair to talk of a Welsh model. That model, essentially, is that of the expert commission of enquiry: tasked with exploring some major question(s) of political reform, developing a report encompassing recommendations, and then submitting it to political leaders for their further consideration. Examples of the Welsh model certainly include the Richard Commission, and the current Silk Commission. I would also, with minor qualifications, include the All-Wales Convention (the main qualification would be the slightly greater efforts made with the All-Wales Convention to expand the membership beyond the ‘great and good’). These three enquiries have all examined the broad constitutional structures of Welsh government and devolution. Other examples of the Welsh model have been the Sunderland Commission (on local government elections); the Holtham Commission (on the funding of Wales); and the recent Williams Commission (on public service delivery, including local government structures).

There are certainly positive aspects to the Welsh model. The enquiries have been used to address politically sensitive and complex topics, and arguably have all been able to remove some heat from the issues while generating a fair amount of light. The commissions have normally been inclusive on a party basis (at least among the major parties represented in the National Assembly); this is in stark contrast to the Calman Commission process, in which the SNP – the governing party in the Scottish Parliament – was not involved. And the calibre of people involved in these commissions has generally been high, with the membership sometimes extending well beyond just the ‘usual Welsh suspects’ (e.g. Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth in the Richard Commission), and also encompassing significant elements of civil society. Nearly all of these enquiries have also made serious efforts to encourage the public to air their views, submit evidence, and propose items for consideration, as well as trying to measure public attitudes to possible proposals. Finally, the reports produced by these commissions have generally been coherent, well-argued documents drawing on a very solid evidence base.

The model adopted by the Irish Convention is rather different. This is a model that brings in ordinary members of the public to the very centre of the process right from the start. Drawing on previous examples in Canadian provinces and the Netherlands, as well as pilot projects in Ireland, the Convention is based on a model where the majority of its membership comprises randomly selected members of the public. (Although within random selection there is some ‘stratification’ to ensure appropriate diversity and balance on criteria like gender, age, social class and region). These individuals are not elected, or given some sort of mandate to represent particular interests or opinions; they are there precisely because they are ordinary people. They are then included in a deliberative process. This means that issues are explored in a way that tries to emphasise learning, consideration, and the careful thinking through of possible options, rather than rhetoric and the defence of defined positions. Politicians are also involved in the Convention process; however, they are outnumbered two-to-one by the public (the membership of the Convention includes 66 members of the public and 33 politicians), while proceedings at each Convention are structured in a manner to try to avoid the politicians dominating.

The Convention is still in progress – it is not due to finish its work until next month. As a process, it appears to have worked rather well. Many of the politicians involved have come to be supporters of it, and a significant number of substantive proposals have already been developed by the Convention. Whether it will ultimately prove to be effective in producing political reform – never mind reforms ultimately adjudged to be successful – is not something we will be able to know for some time. I would not claim – and nor would David Farrell – that this Irish model is perfect, or a panacea for public discontent with politics. And I suspect that it would instinctively raise suspicions and doubts among some in the major Welsh parties, not least because the Convention model means the political elite surrendering significant control of the political process. Nonetheless, this model does, I think, represent a very interesting way of trying to address public alienation from the political process – a problem that is common to pretty much all established democracies around the world.

At an absolute minimum, I think that there really ought to be greater awareness in Wales and Britain that a process of profound constitutional debate and potential change is going on in one of our closest neighbours. I would hope that David Farrell’s visit might also encourage at least some people to think about the manner in which Ireland is approaching this debate – a manner that is very different to what has become the established Welsh way of doing things. Maybe, just maybe, Wales could have some valuable lessons to learn from Ireland.


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