Three Lessons for Politicians from the Irish Citizens' Assembly


What can we learn from the Irish case? We look back on the successes and failures of the Irish Citizens Assembly and to uncover lessons for policy-makers.

This article is part of a student-led project at the Central European University School of Public Policy on the Irish Citizens' Assembly.

With populism and polarization rising across the globe, it is becoming clear that people no longer trust their leaders. Yet if the Irish Citizens’ Assembly is any indication, part of the problem is that leaders do not place enough trust in the people they represent.

The Irish Citizens’ Assembly is an innovative attempt to put the people into the political process. It asked 99 diverse Irish citizens to sacrifice their weekends and come together in the same room to deliberate on some of the most pressing and controversial issues facing their nation. When they considered issues such as abortion and climate change, it turned out that Irish citizens had a lot to say. More importantly, citizens also listened to each other, learned from experts, and sometimes even changed their minds. In the end, they managed to produce some recommendations which were thoughtful, evidence-based, and surprisingly progressive.

Noeline Blackwell, an expert who testified on abortion at the Citizens’ Assembly, thought politicians to learn from the example set by the citizens at the assembly. She said that the Citizens' Assembly, "led to a different way of discussing [issues] in the Oireachtas committee (Ireland’s parliament) as well. I think [politicians] could no longer sit in their boxes shooting out at everybody else. They were now at least obliged to be as civilized as the Citizens’ Assembly."

Politicians can rise to that challenge by considering these three lessons from the process.

Lesson 1: Park the Anger at the Door

Given the intensity and polarization that has come to characterize some morally rooted issues such as abortion, it is easy to imagine dialogue devolving into anger and division. However, both the Irish Citizens’ Assembly and its predecessor the Constitutional Convention proceeded with a sense of mutual respect among participants.

According to David Farrell of University College Dublin, who helped develop the Convention, the process was powerful in that it was “as if [participants] parked their anger at the door.” He said participants understood that “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.”

That sense of collaboration which goes beyond emotion and individual grievances is precious and rare. Instead of seeking only to have their way, participants were concerned about finding a way to do things together. As Blackwell noted, “They wanted to get this right. There were different views about what was right, but they really wanted to work as an assembly to get it right.”

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

Populism thrives on the divide between the elite - including experts - and everyone else. Although one cannot expect all citizens (or, for that matter, legislators) to become experts in every field, the Citizens’ Assembly showed they can still tackle complex issues with the help of sincerely and accessibly-delivered information.

The information shared in each meeting was compiled painstakingly, with experts chosen to provide reliable, agenda-free information which was then made available to the public.

As a climate activist from Not Here Not Anywhere noted, “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.”

Citizens frequently referred to the value of the expert testimony in their responses suggesting that they knew more than the politicians and urging politicians to listen to the experts too. As response 20 in the report on abortion said: “The Oireachtas Committee should read all documentation and watch all presentations and Q&As to ensure they are as informed as the members are. Test them! We don’t trust them.”

Lesson 3: Politics Are About People

From the heights of political office, it might be possible to lose sight of the people for which politics exists in the first place. Politicians have a responsibility to engage with people. As Ireland’s Former Prime Minister Enda Kenny told our interviewers:

“If a government doesn’t engage with people…then people feel alienated, and they drift right or left through fear or anger…Governments have got to engage themselves with explaining to people what it is that they’re about, the direction that they’re moving the country in.”

Assembly participants invested a lot of their time and energy in the process. They gave up their weekends without compensation to fulfill what they saw as a duty to their fellow citizens. Their responses reveal an appreciation for the fact that these issues affect real people. In Response 3 on abortion, one delegate mentions hearing “accounts of extremely difficult and personal experiences,” and recognizes that “these challenges are unique to each case and by their very nature, extremely personal.”

Respect, empathy, and humanity seem to have been imparted to and valued by, the citizen participants. Politicians need to refresh these virtues which could help to prevent the alienation which fuels the fear and anger Kenny warns of in his quote above.

Political Accountability: Is it about the means or the ends?

Although it was recently revealed that seven of the assembly members were not randomly selected in accordance with the protocol, the value of the process cannot be eclipsed by a procedural misstep. The process has resulted in several insights such as the three lessons above, but as the final session of the Citizens’ Assembly convenes, spectators and stakeholders wonder what will become of its recommendations.

Determining policy directly goes beyond the scope of the Citizens’ Assembly, but its recommendations help frame the debate and set the agenda. They give ammunition and legitimacy to activists who want to push action on issues such as climate change, and as Blackwell noted regarding abortion, “[The Citizens’ Assembly] opened up areas for consideration that arguably might not have been opened up if the parliament had been left to deliberate on it.”

Now, it is up to politicians to gain legitimacy by taking the Citizens’ Assembly as seriously as the citizens did. As Michael Ignatieff, president and Rector of Central European University, told our interviewers, “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. What you absolutely do not want is to have that side-lined...The Citizens’ Assembly has to have the sense that ‘what we’ve done matters.’”

What the Citizens’ Assembly has said and done already matters, but what politicians do next to communicate that they are listening could make it matter even more. If politicians place trust in the citizens’ process and endeavor to show they are as civilized as the Citizens’ Assembly, this demonstration of good faith and accountability could yield fresh dividends.