Ireland’s controlled and framed Constitutional Convention shows that democracy here is still a joke
Article by Niall Crowley
Three years ago a tiring joke was doing the rounds as to the difference between Iceland and Ireland. Ultimately it turned out to be no joke. Now to one letter and a half-year another difference has added itself – democracy. This one is not much of a joke either.
The government’s proposals for a Constitutional Convention highlight the difference. It is going for a politically-controlled and tightly-framed review of our Constitution. The Icelandic government went for a people-led and popularly-framed review of their Constitution.
The Act on a Constitutional Assembly, 2010, kick-started a process of Constitutional review in Iceland that was based on a framework of norms and values that were ‘crowd-sourced’ – that conducted by a Council of elected citizens, and that involved significant public scrutiny and participation.
The first step in the process was a government-convened national meeting in November 2010 of 1500 randomly selected citizens. This was modelled on a civil-society deliberative assembly previously convened by the Canadian ‘Anthill’ group in 2009.
Participants at the meeting were gathered in small discussion groups on a range of constitutional matters. They discussed and reached consensus on the values to govern how these matters should be addressed in the Constitutional review. This meeting ‘crowd-sourced’ values for the new Constitution.
Elections were held for a 25-member Constitutional Assembly in November 2010. The Assembly had to have a minimum of 40% of women and of men. Any citizen could stand, and Ministers or members of the Parliament were not precluded. 522 people stood for election on the basis of required sponsorship by between 30 and 50 citizens.
The turnout was low at 35.95%. Fifteen men and ten women were elected. Those elected included lawyers, political-science academics and journalists. They were largely recognisable public figures. Nevertheless the members were definitely chosen by the people on a non-partisan basis.
The election was challenged and ruled invalid by the Supreme Court based on technical faults in the process of the election rather than its outcome. The government decided to appoint those elected to a Constitutional Council on the grounds that their popular mandate was legitimate.
The Constitutional Council worked on a full-time basis for four months with the support of a legal council. It presented a draft Constitutional Bill to the Parliament in July 2011. This Bill will be subject to a referendum this year.
The Constitutional Council used social media to engage the public in their work. The proceedings of the Council were upstreamed to the internet. All drafts prepared by the Council were available on their website. A semi-formal collective of individuals formed a Constitutional Analysis Support Team which analysed the drafts and which convened an open meeting of citizens to stress-test the final draft for gaps.
The outcome of this process has not been radical. It does, however, reflect solid and significant progress towards a more equal, environmentally-sustainable and participative Iceland.
The preamble to the draft Constitution states that “We who inhabit Iceland want to create a fair society where everyone is equal” and that Iceland rests on the “cornerstones of freedom, equality democracy and human rights”.
A specific chapter makes provisions in relation to both human rights and nature. It includes a provision that “the utilisation of resources shall be guided by sustainable development and the public interest”.
Public participation derives from three provisions. Ten per cent of the electorate can petition for a referendum to be held on legislation that has been passed by the Parliament; two per cent of the electorate may submit an item of business for debate in the Parliament; and ten per cent of the electorate may submit a legislative Bill for consideration by the Parliament.
One letter, six months and a whole lot of democracy makes for a pretty fundamental difference. Apart altogether from the advantage shrewd policy-making has gained for Iceland economically, there is a whole democratic joke whose butt is not Iceland but Ireland.