Public Affairs: People Power
Resource type: News
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In June, The Atlantic Philanthropies supported a citizens’ assembly organised in Dublin by We the Citizens. The group of 100 participants discussed political and electoral reform, and debated tax increase options, spending cuts and privatisation. Topics were determined by popular issues discussed at seven prior regional meetings which were open to the public and attended by 100 – 170 people. David Farrell, academic director of the citizens’ assembly, plans to share the assembly findings with party leaders and journalists in order to provide hard evidence of a developing national discourse.
Public Affairs: People Power
A cross-section of one hundred citizens gathered for a weekend in Dublin to deliberate on political issues. Stephen Dineen attended.
From the four corners of Ireland, one hundred citizens travelled to Dublin on a wet Friday evening in June. They had been polled by MRBI a few weeks before and were asked if they would be willing to attend a citizens’ assembly in Dublin. Like a jury of the courts they were to spend time together deliberating and deciding, but on what choices might be made on behalf of the body politic.
After spending Friday evening in a south Dublin hotel being welcomed, dined and given a chance to get acquainted, the citizens got down to business on Saturday morning in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. They were divided into thirteen groups of seven or eight, with a staff convenor and note-taker at each table. Throughout two days they followed a set routine: listen to an expert on a given topic; spend an allocated amount of time discussing the issue in a group; relaying the group’s views and suggestions back to a plenary session; then drafting up the group’s proposals after post-plenary reflection. The proposals (which did not have to be accepted by consensus) were then refined by the organisers, and at various stages over the weekend the citizens voted on the suggestions. During each session of deliberation ‘expert witnesses’ were on hand to clarify information.
The issues discussed over the weekend were decided by what topics came up most at seven regional meetings which preceded the event. Each regional meeting was open to any member of the public and saw between 100 and 170 attend.
The first day of the citizens’ assembly was devoted to discussions of political and electoral reform, while the second day was consumed with debate on choices on tax increases, spending cuts and privatisation.
PJ Walsh, a retired man from Ballymahon, County Longford, was a delegate at the citizens’ assembly. He was very impressed with the organisation of the event. “What astounded me was, over two days, we had about eighty people [out of the 100 citizens] who stood up and gave a synopsis of what had been discussed over the previous 25-30 minutes and I thought the quality of speakers, their ability to grasp the issue at hand, their imagination and their commitment, and their concern for the way the country is being run, was quite remarkable,” he tells eolas.
Dan McDermott, a 27-year old mature student, who also attended, told eolas “there were a couple of young people there (late teens, early twenties) I was quite envious of, they were so engaged and well informed.” McDermott, from Dublin, “got a great insight into rural life, particularly around the issue of water charges.”
Such an event, the first of its kind in Ireland, has happened on a grander scale in other countries. In the 2000s the provincial governments of British Columbia and Ontario in Canada established citizens’ assemblies to deliberate on the voting system in their provinces. In both cases, over one hundred randomly selected citizens met a few times a month for over six months to receive expert information, debate the issues and ultimately produce recommendations.
The British Columbia citizens’ assembly, which cost $6 million to conduct, proposed a move from the first-past-the- post voting system to PR-STV. In the consequent referendum the proposal received a 57.1 per cent ‘Yes’ vote, just short of the required 60 per cent. In Ontario, the citizens’ assembly advocated changing the electoral system from first- past-the-post to a mixed member proportional system, but it was rejected by the electorate.
The Netherlands had a citizens’ assembly in 2006, though its status was purely advisory and its recommendations never acted on due to changed political circumstances at the time.
“The essence of the idea,” says Professor David Farrell, academic director of the citizens’ assembly and who was involved in the Canadian and Dutch experiences as an expert witness, “is that you’re engaging in a bottom-up process involving citizens: giving the citizen information about the issues which they’re going to be discussing, an opportunity to grill witnesses, to inform themselves and then deliberate among themselves about those issues in a reasonably timely fashion, and then come to a decision.”
The idea in Ireland arose when Farrell and three other political scientists engaged with Atlantic Philanthropies, which was “interested in trying to provide some small amount of funding to help develop a national discourse among the citizenry,” says Farrell. Atlantic Philanthropies have given €630,000 for this pilot project.
Farrell, the Head of the UCD School of Politics and International Relations, says citizens’ assemblies must have randomly chosen citizens, from the usual socio- economic measures, to avoid “the risk that organised interests take over the process.”
For Professor Ken Carty, a political scientist from the University of British Columbia who was involved with the Canadian and Dutch assemblies, told eolas that the kind of issues which citizens’ assemblies need to deal with are “fundamental questions” such as institutional design, where “basic, and often competing, values need to be balanced.” Carty says that “where the political class is not able to make the necessary trade-offs, or finds itself in a conflict of interest (here the electoral or legislative reform issues are obvious examples),” a citizens’ assembly offers real promise.
Criticisms of the assembly, as voiced on the internet and a Primetime programme after the event, include the charge that it is not a grass-roots movement, that it was merely a social science experiment and that a citizens’ assembly would be in danger of undermining the democratic mandate of the Dáil. One member of the citizens’ assembly said the parameters of political choices offered to participants were skewed, whilst another said he was unsure what the purpose of such an event was.
Farrell says some aspects of the media seem to believe “that what my colleagues and I have been talking about is some kind of alternative or competitor institution to the Dáil which is rubbish.”
As for any follow-up to the assembly’s choices, opinion among participants is divided. Miriam Browne from Galway hopes that “it’ll come to something and that it wouldn’t have been in vain or a talking shop”.
“I hope the Government would listen. We know we can’t change government decisions, we’re not that stupid or naive, but if they could just listen to what people are saying,” she tells eolas. Whilst PJ Walsh thinks “they will probably pay this lip service and say: ‘That’s wonderful. Thanks for your advice. Bye-bye.’”
For Farrell and his colleagues, the next step is to analyse the findings of polling done on the citizens’ assembly members (MRBI polled members before and after the event on a range of issues, with two control groups also surveyed) and then to “target the leaderships of the parties and the senior journalists in the early autumn.” He hopes to provide them with “the hard evidence of what we’ve done and with a view to trying to add pressure to the argument that this now needs to be done on a much more ambitious scale at this crucial moment in our history.”
The issue is significant because the Government is committed to establishing a constitutional convention, which will examine various issues of constitutional reform. In its election manifesto, Fine Gael proposed a citizens’ assembly to examine electoral reform whilst Labour proposed a constitutional convention for a range of issues, with thirty of its ninety members being ordinary citizens. The Programme for Government does not specify the composition of the convention.
We the Citizens is funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies.