The Irish Citizens’ Assembly

The Citizens' Assembly was 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 the 100 citizen Members considered five topics. Their conclusions formed the basis of a number of reports and recommendations that were submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas (the Irish Houses of Parliament) for further debate by our elected representatives.

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The Citizens' Assembly was an exercise in deliberative democracy, which placed the citizen at the heart of important legal and policy issues facing Irish society. Under intense scrutiny and at all times operating transparently, 99 citizen Members considered five distinct topics over a 19-month period.

The five topics covered a range of complex policy issues, all potentially divisive and some particularly emotive. The challenge faced by the Assembly was how best to add depth and quality to the public debate and understanding of these five issues in an era of social media.

Of particular significance was the consideration of the abortion topic. As in many jurisdictions, this issue brings legal, ethical, medical and constitutional complexities. In the Irish context, it is an issue which has been the subject of public debate and the subject of referendums for over 25 years. The Assembly process brought forward tangible policy and legislative proposals that were uniquely citizen led. The approach adopted through the Citizens’ Assembly allowed for a mature and informed debate that ultimately led to an amendment to the Irish constitution and related legislative change on this highly charged topic.

Following the general election in 2016, the Government committed to the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly within six months and without participation by politicians, with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues. The establishment of the Assembly was approved by resolution by both Houses of the Oireachtas.

The Assembly began its work in October 2016 and held 12 weekend meetings between then and the final meeting in April 2018. There were 99 citizen Members of the Assembly, in addition to the Chairperson, chosen at random to represent the views of the people of Ireland. The membership of the Assembly was broadly representative of society in terms of gender, age, social class and regional spread, as reflected in the Census. The five issues the Assembly was mandated to consider were: 1) the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (which concerns abortion); 2) how we best respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population; 3) how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change; 4) the manner in which referenda are held; and 5) fixed term parliaments.

For each of these five topics, the Assembly was tasked with not only considering the matters but “to make such recommendations as it sees fit and report to the Houses of the Oireachtas”. In so doing, it was vital that workable policy proposals be produced through a list of recommendations on each topic that would have the public’s support as shown through a representative sample of well informed citizens.

A submissions process on each topic widened the reach of public engagement and resulted in approximately 15,000 submissions being received across all topics.

All public meetings were live streamed and then archived online, all papers presented to the Members were made available online to the public immediately and all policy decisions were made available to the public, together with, where appropriate, the rationale for same.

In accordance with the Assembly’s rules and procedures, a Steering Group was in place to support the Assembly in the efficient and effective discharge of its role and functions. In practice, the Group assisted with planning and operational issues associated with the work programme. The Steering Group consisted of the Chair and a representative group of Members elected by the Assembly Members.

The Members voiced their perspectives and opinions with both an awareness of and the intention of having a positive impact on the lives of their fellow citizens. Supplemented with expert, impartial and factual advice the Members voted recommendations formed the basis of four reports on five topics that were submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas for further debate by our elected representatives. The recommendations have provided politicians with further insights from voters on policies and pathways that would have the public’s support, based on the representative nature of the Assembly members.

Deliberative democracy exercises are gaining traction worldwide as a way to better respond to the challenges faced by democracies. Ireland has had two constitutional amendments passed which originated as proposals put forward by deliberative democracy exercises (marriage equality as recommended by the Convention on the Constitution and replacing the Eighth Amendment as recommended by the Assembly). This makes Ireland a world leader in the use of the deliberative democracy model, as demonstrated by the high levels of international interest in the Assembly process in terms of media coverage and invitations to present the Assembly’s work abroad.

The Taoiseach (the Irish Prime Minister) has publically stated the Government’s proposals for the establishment of a future Assembly to consider other societal issues.

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Year: 2016
Level of government: National/Federal government


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