Citizens’ assemblies – the deliberative response of ordinary people to solve the most difficult issues in politics.
Doormen, academics, farmers. Young, old, all genders. 99 randomly selected citizens from Ireland tell their government how to act on important issues.
Isn’t that Public Participation in its purest form? The process to abolish the Irish abortion ban should give us an answer.
On 25 May 2018, two-thirds of the Irish voted to repeal the 1983 8th constitutional amendment that made abortion illegal in all circumstances. The vote was hailed as a powerful paradigm shift – a victory for citizen participation over traditional, dragnet politics. But how did it come about?
Mass protests and heated discussions across the country occurred after Savita Halappanavar was denied an abortion during a septic miscarriage in 2012 and died. Thus, she was not the only one for whom the 8th constitutional amendment led to serious medical problems. The decision-makers in government were therefore under increasing pressure to act.
Briefly some facts about the political system of Ireland: If the Irish constitution is to be changed, public participation in the form of referendums is already an important part of the political decision-making process. An amendment passed by Parliament thus only becomes law once it has been confirmed by a simple majority in a referendum.
Now the issue of abortion was particularly explosive. In order to take this into account and to give a later decision more social support, the executive deviated from the usual procedure. Instead of letting the citizens decide on a draft constitutional amendment prepared by the parliament, a citizens’ assembly was entrusted with the process.
By Us For Us
On five weekends, 99 citizens, randomly selected to reflect the demographic and social characteristics of the Irish population, were asked to discuss and make recommendations. They were ordinary citizens: young, old, academics, farmers or a doorman, meeting at a pub or a town hall. The assembly then forwarded their recommendations to Parliament, which could then decide how to proceed with them. Both the Citizens’ Assembly and the Parliamentary Committee recommended repeal. Following this process, the Minister of Health introduced a law, which was finally approved by the citizens in a referendum.
According to the Ladder of Arnstein, a model of how the executive can involve citizens in policy-making processes, this form of public participation can be described as “collaborative” – meaning, that citizens and the executive work together to find solutions.
We want to be Engaged Citizens instead of demanding “customers”!
“The Citizens’ Assemblies have attracted much attention because they have led to three referendums on amendments to our 1937 Constitution, two of which were passed: same-sex marriage and the repeal of the ban on abortion.”
(Donal O’ Brolcháin)
In other countries, too, this kind of political decision-making was seen as a model for deliberative democracy and public participation, especially in terms of its potential for cultural change.
“These are normal people sitting in the citizens’ assembly. We and our opinions are important there and are listened to.”
(Finbarr O’Brien, Citizens’ Assembly 2014)
But it is important to note that such citizens’ assemblies and referendums do not come out of anywhere. Previous Civic Engagement played a crucial role:
“There is no doubt that the outcome of the referenda on abortion and marriage equality is the result of decades of campaigning by civil society groups. These campaigns led directly to being explicitly included in the mandate of the 2016 Citizens’ Assembly.”
(Donal O’ Brolcháin)
Most notable is the campaign group Together for Yes, under which 70 other locally and nationally self-organised civil society organisations came together – including the Abortion Rights Campaign, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment and the Irish Family Planning Association. In addition to the incident of Savita Halappanavar, the campaigns drew strength from the growing number of women having secret abortions in the UK or using dangerous abortion pills. In addition, more and more states in Europe overturned their abortion bans. Certain cultural changes are also said to have contributed to the success of the campaigns.
In the annual March of Choice, the campaigns repeatedly drew attention to the abuses in abortion legislation since 2012, increasing the pressure on the Citizens’ Assembly, Parliament and the Executive. In the end, several sympathetic political parties, foundations and trade unions joined.
Did we succeed?
Yes! The example from Ireland shows how effectively citizens can participate in the political and cultural direction of their country. Of course, only if the state lets them. Moreover, in addition to drafting a recommendation, the process left enough room for basic political exchange, the discussion of different opinions and the dissemination of relevant information.
For the participants of the assembly, but also for those citizens who organised themselves in civic campaigns or simply mentally accompanied the process, it was an opportunity to get a feel for the opinions of others on certain topics, to develop political sensitivity for relevant social issues and ultimately to stand up for their convictions within the framework of Civic Engagement.
“Normally you only read the newspapers to find out what has already been decided. But here in the citizens’ assembly I get to see the whole process. I look behind the scenes, see the drafts. Every day, every hour, I become more open-minded and learn a lot.”
(David Keogh, Citizens’ Assembly 2017)
In Ireland, by the way, these citizens’ assemblies are also convened on other topics, such as climate change, digitalisation or an ageing population.
“This Irish model is a good example of combining participatory elements with direct democracy in the form of binding referendums.”
Citizens’ assemblies discuss issues that are proposed primarily by parliament or the executive. Only to a certain extent are they chosen by the citizens themselves. Of the recommendations of the Irish Constitutional Convention (2012-2014), which preceded the Citizens’ Assemblies since 2015, only 17% were accepted by the government as pursuable.
Many were formally rejected or simply postponed to “later”. This lack of output legitimacy could undermine the success story of Irish citizens’ assemblies. How long will citizens take these assemblies seriously if the recommendations for one are not followed? How long will citizens take these assemblies seriously if those in power set things up so that anything that comes out of such deliberations does not complicate their way of doing things or maintaining their power?
“Empowering” instead of “Collaborating” – A Solution?
One issue, for example, that does not seem to be scheduled for a citizens’ assembly or referendum in the foreseeable future, is direct democracy. Despite the urging of citizens. Both the Constitutional Convention and the recent Citizens’ Assembly have called for modern direct democracy. According to polls, 70-80% of citizens support these proposals. The pros and cons of direct democracy are debatable. What is certain is that if the government recognises deep public participation as part of the policy-making process, there should be no interference to put only those issues in public hands the government wants to be discussed.
“The Irish people should be able to decide for themselves on what issues, with what wording of the question and when referendums are held.”
Anything else would just be a means of getting backing from society for difficult decisions.