The Irish Citizens’ Assembly was formed in response to the severe social and economic crisis caused by the global financial meltdown of 2008. A group of political scientists, led by Jane Suiter and David Farrell, advocated for citizens to be included in debates about the necessary political reforms to address the failures of the executive. Deliberative mini publics innovate democracy by engaging citizens in constructive dialogue about the issues facing society. While many in parliament assumed citizens would always favor more spending and lower taxes, it turned out that voters who were presented with detailed information came to develop nuanced policy positions. After listening to presentations by experts, they actually favored higher taxes in certain areas and reached complex compromises about government spending. By doing so, they proved to lawmakers and skeptics that ordinary Irish citizens could be trusted with vital policy work.
The first Citizens’ Assembly considered the issue of overturning the ban on abortion in the Irish constitution. Over the course of five weekend-long sessions, everyday citizens heard arguments from impartial experts, medical professionals, as well as activists on both sides. At the end of their deliberations, they produced a series of recommendations, which were sent to the Irish Parliament in June 2017. 64% of the Citizens’ Assembly participants recommended that abortion be legalized. In turn, Parliament put the question of legalizing abortion to the Irish public in a nationwide referendum in May 2018. It passed with 66% of the vote. The result indicates that the counsel of the Citizens’ Assembly was an accurate and meaningful representation of the Irish electorate. Since then the Assembly has given policy recommendations on issues such as how the state can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change and how to respond to the challenges and opportunities of an aging population.
The Assembly has strengthened trust and communication on both sides of the democratic equation – citizens and politicians – and has bolstered the legitimacy of democracy at a time when democracies around the world are under attack. Through the innovation of using citizens’ assemblies, the Irish experience is showing a path to overcome the problems of democracy in decline. Politicians learned about the willingness and capacity of everyday people to make serious, nuanced policy choices for the good of the country. The Assembly has led many in Parliament to consider the advice of constituents in a new way, and to seek advice from their voters. Conversely, Irish citizens see the Assembly as a way to augment their democracy beyond voting. Other countries have noticed this. At the launch of Scotland’s Citizens’ Assembly earlier this year, the constitutional minister for the Scottish government praised Ireland’s success as an example to follow.
David Farrell and Jane Suiter have been collaborating in research focused on Irish citizens’ assemblies for over 10 years. During the economic crisis of 2008-2009, they led a group of political scientists who proposed that citizens should be brought into the heart of debates over constitutional and political reform. This culminated in the establishment of We the Citizens – Ireland’s first national citizens’ assembly. In 2012 the Irish government established the Convention on the Constitution: David and Jane led the academic advisory group. This was followed, in 2016, by the Irish Citizens’ Assembly: David and Jane secured Irish Research Council funding to provide research leadership.
David Farrell is Head of the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin. He is also a member of the Royal Irish Academy. He is formerly the research leader of the Irish Citizens' Assembly and currently a member of the Stewarding Group of the Scottish Citizens’ Assembly.
Jane Suiter is Director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University as well as an Associate Professor in the School of Communications. She helped found the Irish Citizens’ Assembly (2016-2018) and the Irish Constitutional Convention (2012-2014). She is also a founding member of We the Citizens (2011), Ireland’s first deliberative experiment.
The Irish Citizens’ Assembly is an exercise in deliberative democracy, placing the citizen at the heart of important legal and policy issues facing Irish society. With the benefit of expert, impartial, and factual advice, 100 citizen members have considered the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (on abortion); making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change; challenges and opportunities of an aging population; manner in which referenda are held; and fixed term parliaments.
US-based deliberative democracy projects mentioned in the episode are:
You can follow David on Twitter @dfarrell_ucd, Jane @JaneSuit, and The Citizens’ Assembly @CitizAssembly.