The Irish Citizens' Assembly

The Irish Citizens' Assembly

A case study in deliberative democracy

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School of Public Policy.

 

 

Whatever conclusions the people came to, it was the process that was fascinating: the way in which participants, thoughtfully, were able to sit down and tease through implications and the magnificent amount of information that was made available to the general public
Noeline Blackwell, activist and Chief Executive of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

On May 25, 2018, the Republic of Ireland will hold a referendum on the question of abortion - a direct result of the Irish Citizens' Assembly.

The Citizens' Assembly places Irish citizens at the heart of the decision-making process on constitutional and policy issue. It brings together 99 randomly-selected citizens to debate the issues of the day. Members debate topics from the role of referenda in Irish politics to making Ireland a leader in the fight against climate change. The issue of abortion, which the Irish Constitution's Eight Amendment explicitly bans, is the most controversial issue that the assembly has tackled to date.

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A Timeline of Irish Deliberative Democracy

Abortion: An Irish Hot-Button Issue

Before the Citizens' Assembly, there was the Constitutional Convention.

This earlier version of deliberative democracy was not exclusively comprised of members of the public but also included elected officials. Its 100 members were composed of 29 representatives from Ireland’s legislature, four representatives of political parties, and 66 randomly-selected citizens. It met from 2010 - 2014 to discuss a series of constitutional issues.

 

The most challenging issue for the Convention was abortion - which as also reflected in Irish party politics.

Mainstream parties had long steered clear of the abortion debate. After dominating the political arena for three consecutive terms in government, Fianna Fáil initiated the controversial Eight Amendment to the Irish Constitution 1983,  which effectively banned abortion. But by 2011, the party saw major political losses, and its mainstream rival Fine Gael gained a record 45% of seats in the Parliament.

 

Fine Gael had traditionally taken an ambivalent position on abortion despite historically being the more socially progressive mainstream party. In the aftermath of the popular vote on same-sex marriage in 2015, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil realized a need to address the abortion debate head-on - “the hot potato” of Irish politics.

Public opinion on abortion visibly shifted, demanding a political response.

By 2016, 55% of the Irish public agreed that expanding access to abortion should be a priority of the next government. Influenced by shifting public opinion, mainstream parties realized the need to tackle the issue. Expecting to be part of a government coalition, Fine Gael, in particular, realized it could not avoid discussing abortion any longer.

The Citizens' Assembly offered Fine Gael a way to address abortion without taking a position.

Fine Gael committed to creating a Citizens’ Assembly “to examine issues relating to the Eighth Amendment." A priority since its first meeting, the Assembly discussed abortion for five consecutive sessions. In April 2017, 87% of Assembly members voted to amend the Eighth Amendment in some way, and two-thirds (64%) of members supported zero restrictions on abortion under any term limits.

The Assembly's recommendations laid the groundwork for the referendum on the abortion.

 

An Imperfect Instrument

In February 2018, people's trust in the Irish Citizen’s Assembly was shaken

Irish pollsters Red C were to recruit participants through random-selection. But it emerged that seven participants were instead friends of an employee of the company. The revelation caused an uproar among pro-life groups, leading conservative TDs (Teachta Dála, Irish for: Member of Parliament) to call for the postponement of the forthcoming abortion referendum amid claims that “the whole process is compromised.” 

Like any democratic instrument, citizens' assemblies are imperfect. They require procedural caution and oversight to earn the trust of citizens.

Lesson 1: Park the Anger at the Door

The process was powerful in that participants were able to set aside personal feelings on a topic in order to discuss the issues at hand. While people came into the assembly holding very different perspectives on a topic - such as the issue of abortion - participants understood that there was only limited time to discuss these important issues. By creating a space for collaboration, participants tried to find a way to do things together and to work as an assembly to find solutions.

It was as if [participants] parked their anger at the door.... No matter how intense the anger is, you’ve got two hours now to talk about the future of Ireland. So just put that outside the room and let’s do that.
Professor David Farrell, University College Dublin

Lesson 2: Translate the Science from the Experts to Everyone Else

Ordinary citizens can tackle complex issues with the help of sincerely and accessibly-delivered information. Experts provided reliable, agenda-free information to members of the Citizens' Assembly, which was then made available to the wider public.

You kind of get the impression that people who aren’t really invested in this, and aren’t climate scientists, can’t understand this. But then…we got 99 completely normal people from very diverse backgrounds, and when this was explained to them without Youtube videos and conspiracy theories, they said the exact same thing we’re saying.
Climate activist from Not Here Not Anywhere

Lesson 3: Politics Are About People

Assembly participants invested a lot of time and energy into the process, giving up their weekends without pay, to fulfill what they saw as a duty to their fellow citizens. Their responses reveal an appreciation for the impact these issues have on people.

Governments have got to engage themselves with explaining to people what it is that they’re about, and the direction that they’re moving the country in.
Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny

You’ve got to stitch direct democracy and representative democracy together so that…the citizens are taken seriously. They deliberate, they think, they produce a report... The Citizens’ Assembly has to have the sense that "what we’ve done matters."
Michael Ignatieff, President and Rector at the Central European University
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