Editorial - Debate Symposium: 'The Citizens' Assembly in Ireland: A Successful Experiment in Deliberative Democracy?'

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Erika Arban & Tom Gerald Daly


An Eye-Catching Experiment

On 25 May 2018 the Irish public voted in a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment of the Constitution of Ireland, which had accorded equal constitutional protection to the life of the mother and the unborn. Since the result, international attention has focused on the novel deliberative mechanism that led to the referendum being tabled: the Citizens’ Assembly, composed of 99 randomly selected citizens and chaired by a former Supreme Court judge.

As Eoin Carolan notes in his critical contribution to this Symposium, the Citizens’ Assembly has been lauded internationally as a model of democratic innovation that could – or should – be emulated elsewhere. At a time when the democracies of the world are facing a rising tide of regressive and authoritarian political forces, the Citizens’ Assembly has been held out by many as an example that progressive democratic politics can still make headway. It has become a central example of a global trend toward, and interest in, mechanisms for democratic deliberation that has included similar mechanisms in British Columbia and elsewhere, and deliberative polling in states as diverse as Uganda and Mongolia.

And yet, from its inception the Citizens’ Assembly has been a contested entity, regarding its form, procedures, and outcomes.

Purpose of this Debate Symposium

This Debate Symposium has two objectives:

  1. to inform the Blog's global audience of how the Citizens’ Assembly functions; and

  2. to air differing views on its success and appropriateness within Ireland's constitutional system.

From a global perspective, airing these opposing views offers the opportunity to provide a finer-grained account of the Assembly and the various constitutional, theoretical, and practical questions it has raised, which resonates worldwide as more and more states experiment with deliberative democracy mechanisms.

Three things should be borne in mind regarding the Symposium:

  • We have aimed to gather leading voices in Ireland and elsewhere – including those who were expert advisors for the Citizens’ Assembly, leading advocates for abortion reform in Ireland (the central subject before the Assembly), critics of the Assembly, and leading thinkers on deliberation and democratic participation. It should be highlighted here that we were unable, despite significant efforts, to secure a contribution from any lawyer strongly opposed to the substantive outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly (i.e. liberalisation of legal access to abortion).

  • As this Symposium is intended for a global audience, a certain amount of exposition has been provided, to ensure that the discussion is inclusive and accessible.

  • A relatively broad latitude has been accorded to each contributor to choose what they wish to focus on, and contributors have been encouraged to refer to one another’s work.

We are sincerely grateful to our contributors for their thought-provoking, lively, and insightful pieces. There is much food for thought here. The Symposium pieces also chime with recent research by scholars such as James Fishkin (Stanford) indicating that deliberative bodies can play a positive and productive role, but that care must be taken to ensure they operate correctly. The challenges of blending representative democracy and sortition in a meaningful way - and practical and procedural considerations – lie at the heart of the debate.

Our First Debate Symposium

The planning of Debate Symposia has been one of our stated aims in the new Mission Statement accompanying re-launch of the IACL-AIDC Blog in June 2018. Unlike ‘ordinary’ Blog Symposia, which simply gather blog posts on a selected topic, the aim of Debate Symposia is to air a diversity of perspectives on a selected issue, with greater connections between the posts.

We encourage you to submit ideas and proposals for future Debate Symposia to us at iacl.blogeditor@gmail.com.


This Debate Symposium will comprise 11 posts, which will begin on Monday 19 November. Posts will be published each Monday and Wednesday until the Symposium concludes. Blog posts on other matters will generally continue to be posted every Friday. Additional posts may be added in due course.


1. 19 November: Oran Doyle – 'Shaping Public Debate: An Introduction to the Citizens' Assembly'

2. 21 November: Jane Suiter – 'Embedding Deliberation in the Political Process'

3. 26 November: Fiona de Londras – 'The Citizens’ Assembly and the Disciplining of Activist Demands'

4. 28 November: Eoin Carolan – 'Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly on Abortion as a Model for Democratic Change?: Reflections on Hope, Hype and the Practical Challenges of Sortition'

5. 28 November: Mairead Enright – 'Abortion and the Citizens' Assembly: Agonist Futures?'

6. 3 December: David Kenny – ‘Repeal or Replace? The Challenge of Debating Complex Legal/Constitutional Questions in the Citizen's Assembly’

7. 5 December: Laura Cahillane – ‘Delaying Tactics or Useful Deliberative Exercises? The Irish Citizens’ Assembly and the Convention on the Constitution’

10. 10 December: Colm O Cinneide – 'The Citizens' Assembly Viewed in Comparative Perspective: Useful, but not a Deliberative Deus Ex Machina'

11. 12 December: Tom Hickey – Title TBD

Erika Arban and Tom Gerald Daly

Suggested Citation: ‘Editorial - Debate Symposium: 'The Citizens' Assembly in Ireland: A Successful Experiment in Deliberative Democracy?’’ (19 November 2018) https://blog-iacl-aidc.org/debate-the-citizens-assembly-in-ireland/2018/11/19/editorial-debate-symposium-the-citizens-assembly-in-ireland-a-successful-experiment-in-deliberative-democracy