It sometimes seems that Ireland is having referendums every week – and today voters there are once again heading to the polls, almost exactly five months since their historic vote to repeal the country’s constitutional ban on abortion.
The Irish Constitution can only be changed via a referendum after the amendment’s approval by both houses of Parliament. It also covers many areas that would normally be considered outside the scope of constitutional law, like treaties, the pay of judges, and many things that we take for granted, like divorce. So far, the document has been amended 30 times.
Currently, the Constitution outlaws blasphemy in article 40.6.1, which states that:
“The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
In today’s referendum, voters will be asked whether they approve the 37th constitutional amendment, which would remove the word ‘blasphemous’ from the above article.
Unlike the referendums on marriage equality and abortion – characterised by intense, international media hype – this referendum has received almost no coverage in the UK or internationally.
But while the subject matter may not be as grabbing, and the last conviction for blasphemy in Ireland occurred in 1855, this vote is just as important as those that have preceded it in one important respect: it has come about because of the work of ordinary citizens, who met – together with politicians – to discuss the constitutional and political set-up of their country.
The marriage equality and current blasphemy referendums were called as a result of the Convention on the Constitution, the precursor of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly which recommended the abortion referendum.
The Convention was Ireland’s first ever citizens’ forum, formed in the aftermath of the economic and financial crisis as a way of rebuilding trust in, and the legitimacy of, the country’s institutions.
It was composed of 100 members, who met over the course of 10 weekends between 2012 and 2014: 66 ordinary citizens randomly chosen to be representative of Irish society, 33 politicians (most were members of the Irish parliament, though four representatives of the Northern Ireland Assembly also took part), and an independent chair.
The Convention was tasked with deliberating and proposing recommendations on a specified list of constitutional reform proposals.
The Convention’s discussions were guided by five principles, as proposed by its chair: Openness, Fairness, Equality of voice amongst all members, Efficiency and Collegiality.
Unlike other forms of citizen participation, deliberative democracy requires free and equal discussion among participants, based on high-quality information and drawing upon a variety of perspectives.
The Convention was thus structured so that members would hear from independent experts and advocates on either side of the issue, and would have access to and consider the fullest range of perspectives. Members then discussed the issues in both small groups and plenary sessions, before making recommendations.
The Convention submitted a report on each of the 10 topics it considered and made 38 recommendations for reform. The government accepted six of these, but to date, only two (marriage equality and a proposal to reduce the age of presidential candidates) have gone to a referendum and only one has been successful.
Indeed, the marriage equality referendum in 2015 was one of the first times that a deliberative process resulted in a referendum worldwide – and it was the first to have succeeded. A further referendum on a topic discussed in the Convention – the constitutional clause on women’s role in the home – had been proposed for the October vote, but was subsequently postponed.
The fact that the recommendation to remove blasphemy from the Constitution has been put to a referendum shows that the work of the Convention continues to have a lasting impact.
It is unlikely that any of these referendums would have been called, had it not been for the Convention’s work. Through informed discussion and deliberation, the Convention removed the ‘Politics’ from the debate and allowed citizens and politicians to unite around key principles. What’s more, it emboldened politicians to pursue reform.
Ireland’s experience with deliberative democracy shows how this form of participation can work with, and successfully strengthen and refresh, our representative institutions.
Politicians in the UK should have a look: to recognise the benefits of ensuring people’s voices are heard in important decisions through deliberative democratic processes, and to consider how to integrate them in our democracy.
Sign our petition for a Constitutional Convention in the UK