Citizens’ assemblies are gaining increasing attention in the UK and elsewhere. The country with most experience of using them at national level is Ireland. The Constitution Unit therefore recently hosted a seminar exploring lessons for the UK of Ireland’s citizens’ assemblies with two of Ireland’s leading experts. In this post, Hannah Kaufman draws out five key insights.
Methods for fostering public deliberation on key policy decisions are increasingly prominent in the UK. Following on from last year’s Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, organised by the Constitution Unit, the UK’s first official citizens’ assembly – on the future of social care – was commissioned by two parliamentary select committees earlier this year, and a Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland is about to convene for the first time in Belfast. The recent Independent Commission on Referendums recommended that citizens’ assemblies be piloted in future referendum processes.
Ireland possesses the most experience of citizens’ assemblies at the national level: the Irish Constitutional Convention of 2012–14 resulted in the 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage; and the Irish Citizens’ Assembly of 2016–18 led to this year’s referendum on abortion. Last week’s Constitution Unit seminar on Ireland’s experience of citizens’ assemblies therefore provided a valuable and timely opportunity to learn lessons. The speakers were two of Ireland’s leading experts on the subject – Professor David Farrell of University College Dublin and Dr Jane Suiter of Dublin City University. This post reflects on five key insights from their presentations.
1. Ireland’s citizens’ assemblies came about through unique political circumstances
One of the key challenges for advocates of citizens’ assemblies is persuading those in power to experiment with the creation of such institutions. When asked what allowed Ireland to overcome this barrier, both our speakers answered with one word: ‘crisis’. Confidence in the prevailing democratic system having been severely strained by the 2008–9 financial crisis, politicians were, as David Farrell put it, ‘desperately receptive’ to alternative approaches.
That may suggest that the exact process leading to Ireland’s first citizens’ assembly may not be entirely replicable in the UK. At the same time, politicians of all hues are likely, after Brexit, to want to seek some mechanism for moving on and stimulating new national conversations on future policy decisions. As RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor has recently suggested, citizens’ assemblies offer perhaps the most promising way of doing that.
2. But, once instituted, citizens’ assemblies can have a large and growing impact
Many politicians and commentators in Ireland were initially sceptical of citizens’ assemblies: the Constitutional Convention was at first condemned by some as a talking shop intended to kick important issues into the long grass. However, now that the potential of citizens’ assemblies to stimulate engaged, inclusive, and informed discussion of major topics has been demonstrated, opinion has changed course, and there are frequent calls for citizens’ assemblies on further issues.
Indeed, the Irish evidence suggests that citizens’ assemblies have positive effects not only on those taking part directly, but also on wider discussions – including on debates during the referendum campaigns. Jane Suiter argued that deliberation within citizens’ assemblies can act as a trusted information proxy to inform the media and parliament, and in turn the public. In the 2018 abortion referendum, the term ‘citizens’ assembly’ was mentioned 640 times during parliamentary debates and 642 times by the media during the referendum. Exit polls found that 68% of respondents were aware of the Citizens’ Assembly’s discussions of abortion, and between 60 and 70% could correctly answer specific questions about the debate. Moreover, turnout in the two referendums preceded by citizens’ assemblies (on equal marriage and abortion) has been notably high – though the impact of the assemblies in generating healthy debate is clearly not the only factor in that.
3. A citizens’ assembly can address multiple topics, but a singular focus is better
Each of Ireland’s citizens’ assemblies was established to debate several issues: the 2012–14 Constitution Convention examined ten, the 2016–18 Citizens’ Assembly focused on five. Holding assemblies with such broad agendas proved possible and enabled a wide range of recommendations to be presented to parliament. It allowed relatively low-salience topics that might not have justified a whole citizens’ assembly on their own to be subject to detailed public debate. A notable example is the question of removing blasphemy from the Constitution: proposals discussed in the Constitutional Convention will be voted on in a referendum this Friday.
But asking a citizens’ assembly to take on multiple topics also has drawbacks. It has contributed to a drop off in members in both of Ireland’s citizens’ assemblies, necessitating continual recruitment throughout the period (though this is also partly attributable to the fact that citizens were not paid to attend or reimbursed for childcare costs – a further lesson is that they ought to be). In addition, unless the exercise is to become very drawn out, it limits the time that can be devoted to each topic. Discussing complex matters for just one weekend has not always proved sufficient to reach well-grounded conclusions: the discussion of abortion was effective in part because it was extended over five sittings.
4. Citizens’ assemblies can successfully tackle even the most contested topics, such as abortion
Citizens’ assemblies have been held on relatively low-profile topics – notably, electoral reform – before. But stimulating quality, open-minded deliberation on contentious topics might be expected to be harder.
Abortion has long been one of the most contested issues in Ireland, having been the subject of several fiercely fought referendums in the past. It remains so: David Farrell showed that it prompted over twelve thousand evidence submissions to the Citizens’ Assembly, compared to just eight submissions on another topic on the Assembly’s agenda – that of fixed-term parliaments.
This contentiousness did impact the nature of the proceedings. There were public protests and a police presence at the gates of the venue. Surveys of the Assembly members did indicate that members felt somewhat less positive about the discussions on abortion than about those on other topics. But Jane Suiter strongly emphasised that these survey responses improved over the five weeks that the Assembly debated abortion, suggesting that members gradually became more comfortable in dealing with it. Furthermore, throughout the process members felt free to raise their views, felt respected by fellow participants, and thought they had ample speaking opportunities.
These findings are similar to those of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, which also addressed a topic on which views are often polarised. Farrell and Suiter emphasised the crucial work of trained facilitators in ensuring equality of voice and respectful debate. They also suggested that the fact that Assembly members had prior interest in and knowledge of social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, aided their engagement. On more technical matters such as electoral reform, members would have needed more time to get up to speed.
5. People haven’t had enough of experts
The inclusion of experts and interest group representatives as advisors to both citizens’ assemblies was essential in developing the deliberative environment. It was greatly appreciated by Assembly members, who valued the opportunity to hear diverse informed perspectives. David Farrell commented that, during a discussion between two ethicists with contrasting views of abortion, ‘you could hear a pin drop’ as members listened intently to the arguments.
At the same time, experts need to be selected with great care to ensure that biases – or perceived biases – are not introduced. David Farrell explained that, building on lessons from the Constitutional Convention, the Citizens’ Assembly of 2016–18 convened an independent Expert Advisory Group for each topic to advise on the selection of experts to address the citizens, and a Steering Group of Assembly members also assisted.
Overall, Irish experience carries many lessons for the UK. In particular, once people – including politicians and commentators – see citizens’ assemblies in operation, they come to understand the value of the process and start to suggest its use on further issues. A similar process of building momentum behind this form of democracy may already have begun in the UK too.
This blog is a summary of the discussion during a recent Constitution Unit seminar. You can see details of forthcoming events and book tickets on our events page.
About the author
Hannah Kaufman is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit, focusing on elections and referendums.