The legalisation of same-sex marriage in Ireland was a triumph for deliberative democracy, as well as equality

Ireland recently became a world leader in being not only the first country to legalise same-sex marriage via the route of a referendum, but also by incorporating the change into its constitution. The scene for the changes were set by the Irish constitutional referendum, which Clodagh Harris argues means that these developments are a triumph for the deliberative process that underpinned the convention.

Last week-end Ireland became a world leader, twice! Firstly, and most significantly, it became the first country in the world to support the introduction of marriage equality by popular vote (referendum). Secondly, for those of us with an interest in deliberative democracy, it was the first time a deliberative mini-public’s (Ireland’s Convention on the Constitution) recommendation resulted in Constitutional change.

Established in 2012 by a resolution of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Houses of Parliament), the Convention’s composition and agenda reflected compromises made by the parties forming the current coalition Government. It comprised 100 members, 33 politicians from parties across the island of Ireland (with the exception of the unionist parties), 66 randomly selected private citizens and a Chair, Tom Arnold, formerly CEO of a large charity.

It was charged with examining an eclectic array of issues ranging from relatively ‘cold’ institutional issues such as electoral system reform and reducing the voting age to more ‘hot’ values issues like same-sex marriage and the removal of the offense of blasphemy from the Constitution. Although presented with quite a prescribed agenda, it didn’t always strictly stick to the issue at hand, for example, when asked to consider the Presidential length of office the Convention recommended (by a significant majority) a role for citizens in the Presidential nomination process. Also the resolution that established it permitted it to consider ‘Any other amendments’, thereby giving the Convention specific agenda setting powers. After regional meetings and a detailed review of the public submissions the Convention chose two other items, Dáil (the lower house of parliament) reform and the inclusion of Economic, Social and Cultural rights in the Irish Constitution.

Meeting in a North county Dublin hotel over the course of 9 week-ends, from January 2013 to March 2014, the Convention strived to achieve the correct balance of information and small group deliberation. This involved a blend of expert presentations, plenary question and answer sessions, panel discussions and roundtable table deliberations. Each roundtable included 2/3 politicians and 6/7 private citizens as well as a trained facilitator and note-taker.

One of the unique and arguably more successful aspects of the Convention’s deliberative process was the inclusion of civil society/advocacy panels. These sessions included in some cases personal testimonies and stories, particularly the week-end where marriage equality was discussed, and gave context as well as the lived experience to the ‘drier’ legal and academic facts and arguments.

The Convention made recommendations by majority vote at the end of each meeting and sent a report to the Houses of the Oireachtas to which the government committed to respond within four months. In all, the Convention made 40 recommendations (see Farrell DM ‘The Government continues to slight the work of the Constitutional Convention’ for list) of which it is estimated that 18 would require a referendum. Despite getting off to a good start, the Government responded relatively promptly to the first 4 reports, a year after the Convention concluded its work we are still waiting for a response to the final two reports. Furthermore, the level of Government commitment to implementing Convention recommendations has been very disappointing. Having initially promised a ‘constitution day’ that would involve a series of referendums, the Government has to date only accepted 5 Convention recommendations, two of these were put to the Irish people in a referendum on Friday May 22nd.

One of these was the historic referendum on marriage equality, a significant achievement in a country that only decriminalised homosexuality in 1993, the other asked Irish citizens if they wished to reduce the age of candidacy for Presidential candidates from 35-21 (a recommendation that only received 50% support from the Convention).

The campaigns for each referendum could not have been more different. The marriage referendum was vibrant, lengthy and often heated. The proposition was supported by all political parties, although some campaigned much more actively than others. Long established and newly formed civil society organisations on both sides of the argument also played a crucial role in informing people and getting their voters out. In addition, social media was used to great effect to mobilise young people, in particular. Those of us following the #hometovote were often moved to tears as we followed young Irish emigrants’ journeys home to vote. In contrast the age of Presidential candidacy referendum received scant attention. Apart from occasional opinion pieces in national broadsheets, there was little discussion of it in the wider public sphere and few people, if any, actively campaigned for or against it. Many viewed that referendum as a cynical exercise by a Government who on coming to office had committed to a wide ranging programme of political reform.

The marriage referendum campaign was ‘full of juxtapositions’ (Suiter, 2015) involving both positive messages of equality and personal stories as well as negative campaigning and misinformation. In tenor, it often contrasted sharply with the Convention’s more respectful, informed deliberative process. Some early research findings on the work of the Convention reveal high levels of perceived deliberative quality during the ‘same-sex marriage week-end’. Survey respondents on average strongly agreed that their fellow participants respected what they had to say even when they didn’t agree. Also they either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement ‘I kept some of my thoughts to myself for fear of the reactions of others’. The same could not be said for some of the public debates. Interestingly as a result of the week-end’s deliberations we observe a statistically significant shift from 70% in favour of recommending a referendum at the start of the weekend to 88% at the end of the weekend. These figures are somewhat out of kilter with the final referendum result which saw a 62% Yes vote versus a 38% No vote on a high turnout of 60.5%. Yet both overwhelmingly endorse marriage equality.

Undoubtedly equality, particularly in terms of recognising and respecting the rights of our LGBT fellow citizens, was the clear victor last week-end. That said deliberative processes and the Convention in particular can also take a bow as its recommendation led to the referendum.

This post originally appeared on the PSA’s Deliberative Democracy Hub and is reposted with the permission of the author. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Clodagh HarrisClodagh Harris is a senior lecturer in the Department of Government, University College Cork and a member of the PSA participatory and deliberative democracy specialist group. She was a member of the academic and legal team that supported the Convention and is currently involved with Professor David M. Farrell (UCD) and Dr Jane Suiter (DCU) in conducting research on the Convention’s work.

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