Can you give us a brief introduction – what is a citizens’ assembly?
A citizens’ assembly is what we also call a ‘mini public’. Basically, it’s a gathering of citizens who have been selected randomly to discuss a topic. The Irish Citizens’ Assembly comprised 99 citizens who were selected at random by a market research company. They were literally knocking on the door, and if you opened the door then you were offered the possibility to participate. We also used a stratified random selection which meant that there were targets to meet in terms of gender, age and geography. The idea was to produce 99 individuals who were a decent representation of the actual population of the country.
What was the role of the citizens’ assembly in the Irish abortion debates?
The Irish Citizens’ Assembly was set up by the government and it was supported by civil servants and chaired by a Supreme Court judge. A lot of public money was invested and the government made it clear that its role was to discuss abortion. It did discuss other things after that but abortion was the topic everyone was interested in.
The purpose of it was to come forward with recommendations on first of all, whether we should have a referendum to remove the constitutional ban on abortion, and secondly, if they were proposing that, then they would have to discuss what sort of legislation would follow in terms of the kinds of abortion that would be allowed on our end. It was made clear that the citizens’ assembly would make recommendations but these would be advisory.
So they had no statutory bearing?
Absolutely none. And it was understood was that the recommendations of the citizens assembly would be considered by a parliamentary committee – and that’s what happened.
If the citizens assemblies have no legal bearing, how do you measure their impact?
This is a core question. The way you measure the impact is in terms of the influence, particularly on the political class. And there’s plenty of evidence anecdotally of senior politicians from all parties standing up in the parliament and saying how much they were influenced in developing their own views on abortion, as a result of hearing the evidence that the citizens’ assembly listened to, and hearing the discussions in the citizens’ assembly.
For example, we had some very senior, otherwise socially conservative politicians readily admitting that their minds were converted to the need for an unrestricted access to abortion for the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, and that they would have never considered this before. So, that’s one big area of impact.
From the survey work that we’ve done we also know that there was a significant portion of the voters who voted in the referendum that followed, to bring in abortion, who knew about the citizens’ assembly, and were able to answer correctly factual questions about it. We could see the relationship between their knowledge of the assembly and whether they voted yes. So there was also a wider impact on society.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the process itself?
After the 99 citizens concluded their work, there was a special parliamentary committee of 21 members from all parties and they spent three or four months discussing in detail the recommendations of the citizens’ assembly. After that it went to the floor of the parliament for all the members of the parliament to discuss and then ultimately, it was a referendum.
Since 1983 we had this ban in our constitution which stated that the right to life of the unborn was equal to the right to life of the mother, essentially making it impossible to have an abortion. This was replaced last summer with this new referendum that said, ‘It is for the Parliament to legislate on abortion.’ So, it opened it up completely.
What is it about this process that makes it so successful when you’re dealing with these highly emotive and sometimes polarising topics such as abortion?
I think it’s important for this process, if it’s to work, that it actually considers emotive issues. To put it another way, it’s important that the issue being discussed should have values attached to it. Quoting a friend of mine, ‘You would not want to fly an airplane designed by a citizens’ assembly.’
‘You would not want to fly an airplane designed by a citizens’ assembly’
Having a citizens’ assembly to discuss budgetary issues, it could do it, but it wouldn’t excite much interest and you don’t really need a citizens’ assembly to discuss highly technical stuff. So, I think for it to work, it should be dealing with emotive issues.
But you are bringing citizens from various backgrounds together, how do you keep the conversation respectful?
One of the features of the citizens assembly is a facilitated discussion. So, you have everyone arranged in round tables and there’s usually seven or at most eight people at the table, and every table would have a trained facilitator and a notetaker. And the job of the facilitator is to make sure that everyone has equal voice.
The ground rules are agreed in advance at the first meeting: be respectful, be careful about your use of language, and listen to people, switch off your mobile phone, respect the other view, be open to the possibility that your mind might change. These sorts of themes are repeated throughout the process. I don’t want to pretend it’s absolutely perfect – there were problems with the Irish process. But on the whole, this sort of sense of careful considered deliberation worked very well.
This is widely considered to be one of the most successful processes in the world. Has there been much interest or uptake globally to adopt these measures?
I think it’s beginning to get some traction in other countries. We’ve had two of these in Ireland now. We also had a referendum in 2015 on marriage equality, which came from a previous process called the constitutional convention. I think there’s an understanding that the Irish cases have produced some interesting outcomes.
I’ve certainly had a fair bit of interest in talking about the Irish case in other countries. For example, the German-speaking population has its own parliament in East-Belgium. They took advice from a number of people, including New Democracy in Australia and myself, and recently passed the legislation to establish a permanent citizens’ assembly running alongside the parliament and feeding in proposals about possible policy changes.
It’s a small place and it’s only a start but I think gradually.. Poland at the municipal level, the city of Madrid has recently passed an ordinance that now would have annual citizens’ assemblies. So, it’s growing as an idea.
But to be frank, there’s no reason to believe that we’ll have another one in Ireland. I hope we do, but it would still need a a prime minister to say, ‘I want to establish another citizens’ assembly’ and if there isn’t a prime minister to make that proposal, then it will never happen again.
So we’re still stuck with the fact that the politicians are completely in charge and they’re always going to be reluctant to give up that degree of control. Now, in the German-speaking community of Belgium, they showed evidence that they are prepared to do that so maybe that will begin to happen. But I’m not holding my breath.