Carolan: Ireland’s Constitutional Convention: Behind the hype about citizen-led constitutional change

A 2015 paper by Eoin Carolan, Professor and Director of the Centre for Constitutional Studies at University College Dublin, takes a skeptical look at the conventional claims around Ireland’s Constitutional Convention which led to the legalization of same-sex marriage. (Note that later there was also a different allotted body constituted in 2016 which was called a “Citizens’ Assembly” and which led to the legalization of abortion.)

The article suffers from the standard pro-status-quo bias of showing no recognition of the urgency of the need to address the problems with the existing system. As usual, recognition of problems with the established system is phrased in terms of “public perception”, “disenchantment”, “disillusionment” and a “crisis of confidence”, rather than in terms of the facts of ongoing consistent systemic atrocious policy. Thus, while the paper rightly subjects the Convention process to a series of critical examinations, it seems to assume that the status quo is a legitimate default alternative. That said, I find that the article asks good questions, makes good observations and is generally very useful.


Ireland’s Constitutional Convention is one of a number of recent examples of ordinary citizens becoming involved in constitution-making processes. These participatory experiments are often praised by democratic scholars. That has been the case with the Convention, which has already been cited as an example for any future process of constitutional change in Britain. This article argues that the Irish experience has been oversold. The process in fact suffered from a number of serious limitations that undermine its claims to either representative or deliberative legitimacy. The approach taken to its composition, agenda, expert advice and evidence was problematic in several respects: opaque, apparently ad hoc and with inadequate attention to the risks of bias and manipulation by elite actors. The Irish experience provides a warning about how the symbolic value of the ordinary citizen can be exploited for political purposes.