Symposium: Embedding Deliberation in the Political Process


Jane Suiter

Dublin City University

The Irish Citizens’ Assembly established in 2016 and operating through 2018 built on the model of the previous Convention on the Constitution, which had deliberated from 2012 to 2014. What both assemblies had in common was their make-up of randomly selected citizens, with selection carried out by polling companies. The first Constitutional Convention was composed of 66 citizens and 33 politicians as well as an independent chair (the former head of a leading Irish development charity). The Citizens’ Assembly comprised 99 citizens plus a chair (this time a former Supreme Court judge), thus eschewing the inclusion of politicians for deliberation on the contentious topic of abortion regulation.

The creation of both mini-publics played a role in supporting various referendums for constitutional change, most notably marriage equality and abortion regulation, suggesting a degree of ‘systemization’ of deliberation in the Irish process of constitutional review.

Both assemblies were established by the governing coalitions at the time. The Convention was set up on insistence from the Labour Party (then the junior party in a coalition government with the Fine Gael party), based on an understanding that marriage equality was “the civil rights issue of our generation” according to its then leader. The Assembly was established on the insistence of an independent member of Cabinet Katherine Zappone (the 2016 election had led to a minority government under the Fine Gael party, with the support of key independent members of parliament unaligned to any political party).

Both assemblies also considered a range of issues; although there is little doubt that there was one item of central interest to both politicians and the public at each: the marriage equality referendum in the Convention; and the abortion referendum in the Assembly. Both were also issues where civil society had campaigned for a long period of time. In addition, on abortion the Government was facing pressure from the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which had issued a decision in June 2016 finding Ireland’s abortion regime in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as a groundswell of popular support in polls.

Turning specifically to the Citizens’ Assembly, the random selection of citizens was weighted according to age, sex, social class and region, although with only 99 citizens complete representativeness was not possible. In addition, the Assembly followed the Convention in much of its process: members sat at circular tables of eight with a facilitator and note taker at each table. The object was to ensure that everyone’s voice would be heard and that no one would feel dominated. The facilitators at the Assembly had, in large part, been trained at the Convention and many were trained lawyers. Each table membership was changed each weekend so that members would not become used to a particular dynamic and surveys were conducted each weekend to check that the citizens felt that deliberative norms were being followed.

As part of an Irish Research Council  (IRC) research award Professor David Farrell of UCD and myself were responsible for surveying the members after each weekend on the quality of the deliberation. These surveys were part of the quality control of the process and reports were fed back to the secretariat after each weekend of deliberation. Overall levels of satisfaction were high and most members felt they had had ample speaking opportunities, were free to raise their views and that others respected what they had to say. There was slightly more equivocation on some weekends around whether some members tried to dominate the discussions.

Following the format of the previous Convention, experts and other groups addressed the citizens on different weekends. The general format was for was for two expert presentations followed by roundtable deliberation and then a plenary to gather individual deliberations and ask questions. The media and others left the room during the deliberative phases. The weekends were divided around selected subjects. For example, one weekend was devoted to ethical questions, another to medical matters and a third to legal issues. The Assembly had learnt from the Convention and specialist expert groups were brought in to advise on each different topic; rather than generalist political scientists and lawyers making recommendations on experts as in the Constitutional Convention. For abortion these included obstetricians Elizabeth Dunn and Declan Keane, and constitutional lawyers Oran Doyle and Rachel Walsh along with Professor Deirdre Madden, a specialist in medical law and ethics. None of the appointees had previously expressed a view on the constitutional restrictions on abortion in public.

This group in tandem with a sub-committee of members decided on who would give evidence to the assembly, these presentations by legal, ethical and medical experts were circulated in advance and were as objective as possible. But there were also personal testimonies from advocacy groups on both sides of the argument as well as personal testimonies from women.

In terms of its place in the campaign the establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly marked the beginning of the last leg of the long campaign of the 2018 abortion referendum.  It had been preceded by almost 35 years of action from various rights activists who were mobilised since before the insertion, through a public referendum, of the anti-abortion clause in the Constitution in 1983.

Its result was a series of recommendations to Government which proposed a radical liberalization of abortion laws, specifically authorizing the Dáil (parliament) to enact further legislation to extend and liberalise regulation of abortion. Specifically it recommended that termination of pregnancy without restriction should be allowable to various gestational limits. The result was greeted with surprise in some political and media circles and thought to be out of sync with public attitudes. However, in an interesting development the report was sent back to a specially convened parliamentary committee; thus embedding the process further in representative structures. The impact there was notable: some politicians who had previously espoused firm pro-life views declared to have changed their mind in the face of evidence. That committee also recommended that a referendum be held to remove the 1983 constitutional amendment and also advanced a liberal position. Thus, it would seem that the Assembly may have had an impact on politicians and allowed them to proceed with taking action on a divisive topic which they had firmly ignored for many decades.

It is also likely that there was some impact on voters. It appears that voters in both marriage and abortion referendums who knew about the role of the Convention or Assembly were more likely to vote yes.  We are currently conducting further work on this question. However, it appears that the long lead-in time and the media space given to both the Assembly and to the Oireachtas (parliamentary) Committee meant there was an unusually high degree of knowledge and understanding among voters about the issue and knowledge about the role of the Citizens’ Assembly. That may also mean that voters how knew about the role of the Assembly were also more likely in a value-aligned way.

Overall, then, the Assembly was one part of the process of the liberalization of Ireland’s abortion regime. It had proven to be a successful way to aggregative voices and to deliberate on a most contentious topic. But it is not without its issues; primarily the ability of politicians to pick and chose which topics go before such an assembly; and to decide on which topics should get attention.

Jane Suiter is Director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism (FuJo), and Associate Professor in the School of Communications at Dublin City University (DCU)

Suggested Citation: Jane Suiter, ‘Embedding Deliberation in the Political Process’ (21 November 2018)