This article is part of a student-led project at the Central European University School of Public Policy on the Irish Citizens' Assembly.
The 2008 global financial crisis transformed the lives of billions around the world, exposing them to financial vulnerability. The crisis also produced a global wave of doubt, as citizens lost trust in their governments and political systems. In 2008, only 46 percent of the Irish public felt confident in their government. By 2009, the country had one of the lowest scores in public trust of political institutions of any EU country.
To respond to this critical political moment, political scientists from Ireland’s leading universities formed a working group. Together they sought to develop new and innovative strategies to "rebuild public trust in political institutions and engage citizens for debate on wider public life." In 2010, the working group was invited by Atlantic Philanthropies to submit a proposal for a project relating to participatory democracy that “would be transparent, and objective.” This proposal led to the creation of “We the Citizens,” a pilot project aimed at assessing whether a citizens’ assembly would work in the Irish political context. In June 2011, the project brought ordinary Irish citizens from all walks of life to debate and discuss important public issues. The findings of the project were overwhelmingly positive and recommended that the government adopt a citizens’ assembly mechanism to make Irish democracy more participatory.
The “We the Citizens’” pilot project later became the template for the “Convention on the Constitution,” which was established by the Houses of the Oireachtas (Parliament) in July 2012 to discuss proposed amendments to the constitution. The Constitutional Convention was comprised of 100 members, one-third of whom were politicians, and was mandated to discuss eight constitutional issues. According to Ken Carty of the University of British Columbia, the convention was an attempt to engage ordinary citizens in a debate and discussion about how the Irish constitution to change and that “this happened for the first time in the world that citizens were brought together to explicitly discuss the constitution.”
After the 2016 election, the Fine Gael-Independent minority government passed a parliamentary resolution to form the “Irish Citizens Assembly.” The Assembly “is an exercise in deliberative democracy, placing the citizens at the heart of important legal and policy issues facing Irish society today.” The Citizens Assembly, unlike its predecessor (the Convention), had a much broader mandate and no direct participation from politicians. Its purpose was to consider some of the pressing issues facing Ireland’s future, namely: abortion laws and the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution; fixed-term parliaments; referendums; challenges of an aging population; and how Ireland can take a leading role in tackling climate change.
The Assembly strives for “rational and reasoned discussion” during its meetings and uses a panel of experts drawn from across the political spectrum to guide the deliberations. The discussions aim to build consensus on contentious issues through informed debate. The Assembly engages the Irish public by live streaming its sessions and inviting submission of proposals. After a thorough conversation, issues are tabled for voting. Through the principle of majority vote, resolutions are passed by the assembly in the forms of reports and recommendations that are submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas for further debate.
The inaugural meeting of the Assembly started on 15 October 2016. The Eighth Amendment, on abortion, was a priority topic. One of the most contentious issues in Ireland, abortion laws protect the “right to life of the unborn.” Abortion is illegal in all but the most exceptional circumstances, where there is a “real and substantial risk” to the mother’s life. The Assembly discussed this topic for five consecutive sessions and came up with the vote in April 2017.
Participants voted to amend the current abortion laws rather than repeal them outright. Although pro-choice campaigners criticized the decision not to repeal the law, it still significantly showed the liberal interpretation of the issue as the assembly approved availability of abortion in all 13 circumstances they considered, and members recommended reforms to the current Eighth Amendment. An Oireachtas committee was established to consider the findings of the Citizens’ Assembly and led to the decision to hold a public referendum on the Amendment. The Prime Minister has since voiced his support to reform abortion laws. Thus, the May 2018 referendum will decide the fate of this issue that has lingered for decades and became one of the most contentious issues of Irish politics.
In many ways, the Irish Citizens Assembly has been successful in bringing concrete solutions to matters of public importance, for instance, by proposing a public referendum on the abortion laws and fulfilling its objective of engaging citizens on policy issues. However, new developments have raised questions about its credibility and impartiality. On February 21, 2018, the Irish Times reported that seven members of the Assembly were not, in fact, randomly selected but instead intentionally recruited on the basis of their personal connections. This created an uproar in the parliament by members of the center-right Fianna Fáil Party – the largest opposition party in the parliament – and asked the Prime Minister to postpone the referendum on the abortion laws because “the whole process is comprised.” This discovery has reawakened the same doubts about the institutional integrity of the Assembly that it was designed to address in the first place.
In April 2018, the Irish Citizens Assembly will complete its tenure, but this creative method of deliberative democracy has far-reaching impact beyond the Irish polity. David Farrell of University College Dublin believes that the main legacy of the constitutional convention is to give notice that this sort of thing can be done in other parts of the world.