Report: with the Citizens' Assembly due to meet again later this month, just how did this body come about in the first place? 

By Luke Field, UCD

On January 13 and 14, the Citizens’ Assembly will meet to deliberate on the manner in which referendums are conducted in Ireland. This is the fourth topic to come before the Assembly since it began its work in 2016, following discussions on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, serving an ageing population and addressing climate change. In March, the Assembly will consider fixed term parliaments

The Citizens’ Assembly is an act of deliberative democracy, which means citizens participating directly in decision-making (differentiating it from representative democracy), through the means of deliberation and consensus-building (differentiating it from direct democracy, such as referendums). Here, we look at how it came together, and what will happen to its recommendations.

Chair of the Citizens' Assembly Ms. Justice Mary Laffoy delivers the 2017 Michael Littleton Memorial Lecture on "The Citizens' Assembly - an exercise in deliberative democracy"

The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly

Considered by many to be the world’s first of its type in a contemporary democracy, a Citizens’ Assembly was organised in 2004 to discuss electoral reform in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The design and process of this assembly would prove extremely influential on similar projects created in later years, including the Irish processes.

The chair of the assembly, Dr Jack Blaney, was appointed by the provincial government in British Columbia. The other 160 members of the assembly were citizens of British Columbia, randomly-selected with respect to gender parity and even distribution across the electoral districts of the province.

The work of the assembly followed three stages: a learning phase, where members received expert instruction on electoral systems; a public hearing phase, where over 1,600 submissions from members of the public were considered, and a deliberation phase, where members considered the evidence.

An explainer on the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly

The assembly recommended changing British Columbia’s electoral system from the UK-style first-past-the-post to a proportional system nicknamed "BC-STV", which was almost identical in design to Ireland’s PR-STV system. The recommendation was then put to the people of British Columbia in a provincial referendum. While the referendum ultimately failed on a technicality, there were important learnings from the process that would heavily influence future citizens’ assemblies.

From an Irish perspective, the involvement of two academics in the British Columbia process would prove to be very important. One was Ken Carty, the assembly’s Chief Research Officer and a political scientist with a particular interest in Irish politics. The other was David Farrell, an Irish political scientist then based at the University of Manchester, who had played a key role as an expert on electoral systems during the learning phase of the Assembly.

We the Citizens and the Convention on the Constitution

In 2011, after returning to Ireland and becoming Chair of Politics at UCD, Farrell brought his experience advising the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly to bear closer to home. He and Dr Jane Suiter, Dr Eoin O’Malley and Dr Elaine Byrne created We the Citizens, an experiment in running a deliberative democratic process in the Irish context. Funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, We the Citizens created a National Citizens’ Assembly to consider issues of political reform and economics.

We the Citizens proved that there was room for deliberative processes in Irish democracy

Although the project had no statutory bearing or means of directly influencing the country’s political agenda, it was run according to the same broad standards as the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly. A random selection of citizens, representative of the demographics of Irish society, were provided with expert guidance and evidence relating to public policy matters and asked to deliberate on them and make recommendations.

We the Citizens proved that there was room for deliberative processes in Irish democracy and was heavily influential on the first statutory act of deliberative democracy in Ireland. The Convention on the Constitution ran from 2013 to 2014 and was mandated to consider and make recommendations on changes to the Constitution of Ireland that could then be put to the people in a referendum.

While the process of learn-hear-deliberate remained in place, the composition of this Convention differed somewhat from previous experiments. Rather than being composed entirely of a representative random sample of citizens, these citizens made up two-thirds of the convention on this occasion, with the remainder composed of elected political representatives from both the Republic and Northern Ireland.

The Convention recommended a number of Constitutional changes be put to a vote in a referendum. Although few of these were seriously considered for referral by the Government, one high-profile recommendation that did make it to a vote was amending the Constitution to allow for marriage equality in Ireland, which was approved by referendum in 2015.

The Citizens’ Assembly

The current Citizens’ Assembly has operated under its Chair, Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, since October 2016. Its membership has reverted back to the traditional Citizens’ Assembly model: it is entirely made up of demographically-appropriate randomly-selected citizens, rather than having seats reserved for politicians.

From RTÉ Radio One’s This Week, Joe Little speaks to Ms Justice Mary Laffoy about how the Citizens' Assembly will operate

As before, the Citizens’ Assembly will make recommendations to the Government for consideration. While there is no statutory requirement for how these recommendations must be dealt with, the process followed for the Assembly’s recommendations on the Eighth Amendment offers some guidance. In that model, they are referred to Oireachtas Committees, as with other issues. But rather than being considered from scratch, the Committee will decide on which recommendation to proceed with and how it should be implemented.

From there, the process will differ depending on the type of recommendation. Constitutional affairs, as always, will have to be put to the people in a referendum for approval, while other policy matters, such as tackling climate change, can be approved within the Oireachtas itself as legislation.

Luke Field is a PhD candidate and lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations (SPIRe), UCD


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ