Symposium: The Citizens' Assembly Viewed in External Perspective: Useful, but not a Deliberative Deus Ex Machina


Colm O’Cinneide

University College London

The Irish Citizens’ Assembly: The Magic Formula for Leavening Direct Democracy with Greater Deliberation?

Previous posts in this blog symposium have outlined the design, purpose and functioning of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, and offered different perspectives on its impact on the 2018 Irish abortion referendum. But there is another dimension to the debate about the Assembly which is worth discussing - namely the international attention it has attracted.

As an Irish academic based in London, I have been struck by the level of interest shown by friends and colleagues in the Assembly. I have also been impressed by the way in which academics involved in designing the Assembly seem to be in constant demand to explain its functioning - with this blog symposium forming part of that particular mini-industry.

It is also striking how often the argument is made in the UK at the moment that a similar mechanism should have been established before the Brexit referendum. Various commentators (admittedly, often Irish) have argued that the lack of such an Assembly-style mechanism contributed to the apparent confusion of the Brexit vote.

Indeed, after the referendum vote, my colleagues in the UCL Constitution Unit subsequently organised an experimental ‘Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit’, to deliberate what form Brexit should take. More recently, the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has advocated the use of citizen assemblies as part of a wider ‘National Conversation’ designed to seek common ground on Brexit.    

Why this level of foreign interest in, and active engagement with, a relatively small-scale Irish political experiment whose functioning and impact is still a matter of internal academic debate? The answer must in part lie in what is increasingly referred to as the current ‘crisis of democracy’.

Calls for greater popular input into the law-making process are increasingly heard across the liberal democratic world. ‘More democracy’ has become the slogan of the moment, resonating across almost the entire political spectrum. But this valorisation of popular self-governance goes hand in hand with a growing sense of unease about the integrity of voting systems. Concerns are now frequently expressed about the distorting influence of social media and the appeal of ‘populist’ rhetoric, amongst other factors. Democracy, so desirable in theory, is increasingly viewed as functioning poorly in practice.

This is particularly the case when it comes to direct democracy procedures, such as referendums or Swiss-style popular initiatives. Such mechanisms have always attracted critics, who worry that they too often become vehicles for the expression of popular prejudice or incoherent, knee-jerk political instincts. These concerns have been stoked by several recent referendums, which have been criticised as playing out in less than ideal deliberative conditions. Examples include the Swiss ‘minaret’ referendum of 2009 and the Brexit referendum of 2016 – with the latter being recently described by Claus Offe as a ‘clear and unambiguous lesson on what democracies ought not to do’, due to the ‘manifold ambiguities’ as to what the electorate were being asked to vote on. 

All this has generated a search for new ways of leavening democratic will-formation with more deliberative input. Hence the focus on the Irish Citizens’ Assembly’s role in the run-up to the Irish abortion referendum. From the perspective of many external observers, the Assembly seemed to function as a genuinely deliberative ‘mini-public’ which managed to raise the quality of the public debate on the highly charged issue of abortion. As such, it appears to offer a way of infusing more deliberation into direct democracy procedures – and therefore to be a model worth adopting in other states.

However, some caution is in order here. There is a danger in investing excessive expectations in the Citizens’ Assembly model, and in misreading the lessons to be learnt from its functioning in the Irish context. A careful analysis of the achievements of the Citizens’ Assembly, plus a comparative assessment of how a similar model might have functioned in the run-up to the UK Brexit referendum in 2016, helps to identify specific ways in which such deliberative mini-publics can enhance democratic debate – as well the limits of their potential in this regard. Democracy is, necessarily, a messy and agonistic business: a deliberative mechanism like the Citizens’ Assembly can only play a limited role in tidying it up. 

Uncertain Impact

As previous contributors to this Symposium have made clear, considerable time, thought and energy went into designing the Assembly and its mode of functioning. Its deliberations were carefully engineered so as to generate the type of informed, ‘balanced’ debate favoured by theorists of deliberative democracy. Furthermore, the Assembly’s conclusions had impact. Its unexpectedly strong support for radical law reform helped to move the dial on the Irish abortion debate – mainly because it suggested that the general public might be more supportive of reproductive freedom than most politicians and media commentators had assumed. This lent extra impetus to the pro-choice campaign, and encouraged many politicians to be braver in pushing for substantive liberalisation of the law.

However, it is more difficult to identify what impact the Assembly had on the evolution of wider public opinion. As Cahillane and Carolan have suggested in their contributions to this symposium, the Assembly’s conclusions seem to have influenced debate within the Irish political class rather than across the general public at large. Jane Suiter has suggested that the deliberations of bodies such as the Assembly can help inform voters. However, for now, the evidence is not conclusive on this point.

This points to a wider point of uncertainty about the impact in general of deliberative mini-publics. It is difficult to identify how their functioning might heighten deliberate debate across society at large. At best, voters may be influenced by learning that a broadly representative cross-section of society reached certain conclusions after a suitably deliberative debate. However, beyond that hypothetical possibility, it is unclear how exactly the deliberations of an Assembly-style body might play a substantial role in shaping large-scale public debates – especially given the cacophony of voices usually engaged in such debates, which risk drowning out its particular take on the subject in hand.

Thus, for example, if a Citizen’s Assembly had been established in the UK to deliberate Brexit prior to the 2016 referendum on that topic, it might have generated some very interesting and informed conclusions. However, there is no guarantee that it would necessarily have exerted any real influence on wider public opinion, or helped to ensure a better quality of debate. It may have influenced the views of politicians and public policy professionals invested in the Brexit process – by for example giving some sense of how the public might choose between different policy trade-offs. But, arguably like the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, it is difficult to see how its impact would extend much beyond the political classes.

Uncertain Status

Other issues exist about the Citizens’ Assembly model. The status of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly was ambiguous throughout its entire period of functioning. It was never clear to what extent any of the actors involved in the Irish abortion debate regarded the Assembly’s views as having some sort of ‘presumptive validity’, to use Eoin Carolan’s phrase. Neither side in the Irish abortion debate felt themselves to be under any particular obligation to defer to the Assembly’s views: opponents of reform dismissed its conclusions, just as supporters of reform would have done had the Assembly decided the other way.

In this regard, it is worth noting Cristina Lafont’s concern that deliberative mini-publics such as the Citizens’ Assembly risk becoming either ‘superfluous’ or ‘illegitimate’ elements of the democratic process. If their conclusions are viewed as just another perspective on a controversial political debate, then they will be ‘superfluous’ in the sense that they will have added little or nothing to the debate. In contrast, if their conclusions are treated as having binding force, that would constitute an ‘illegitimate’ privileging of the views of a tiny sub-set of the citizenry at large over the views of others. These concerns are by no means fatal. Respectable arguments can be made as to why the conclusions of deliberative mini-publics should be treated as having at least a limited degree of presumptive validity. However, status uncertainty may be an inherent feature of the Citizens’ Assembly model – which involves a synecdoche of the general public, rather than the real thing.

This uncertainty did not become a substantial problem in the Irish context. However, it has the potential to overshadow the functioning of such bodies in other contexts. For example, if a Citizens’ Assembly had been established to debate Brexit before the referendum vote took place in the UK, there is every possibility that its conclusions might have been rejected out of hand by one side or the other – and its supporters might have struggled to make a compelling case as to why its views should be taken seriously. 

Contested Deliberation

A further potential problem with the Citizens’ Assembly model has been identified by de Londras and Enright in their contributions to this symposium. They criticise the ‘neutral’ and highly legalistic manner in which the issues at stake in the Irish abortion debate were framed for the benefit of the members of the Citizens’ Assembly, and make compelling arguments that this approach marginalised key female perspectives on the human toll of the Irish ban on abortion. 

This points to a more general problem with the deliberative ambitions of bodies such as the Citizens’ Assembly. It is rare that a consensus exists as to how controversial political issues should be framed and debated. Different views invariably exists as to what qualifies as relevant considerations, or what qualifies as an ‘informed’ opinion on the issues at hand, or how to define the key issues and perspectives at stake in complex and controversial political debates. This means that the conclusions of deliberative mini-publics are likely to be always open to challenge, on the basis that they deliberated ‘in the wrong way’.

Once again, a hypothetical Citizens’ Assembly established prior to the Brexit referendum shows the problem. The question of how to frame all the different and disputed aspects of the Brexit debate for the benefit of the ordinary citizens making up the Assembly would have been intensely controversial, and unlikely to have been resolved in a manner acceptable to all sides to the debate.  

The Inherent Limits of the Citizens’ Assembly Model: Useful for Disciplining the Political Class, But Not a Democratic Deus Ex Machina

The Citizens’ Assembly model thus suffers from certain inherent limits. Ultimately, these limits reflect a deeper problem with attempts to leaven democracy with deliberation. As Enright argues, popular democratic processes often involve agonistic conflict. Established wisdom is challenged, existing elites are destabilised, engrained presumptions are overturned. In contrast, mechanisms for encouraging greater democratic deliberation often aim to guide debate in a direction that takes the agonistic sting out of it - and to shape its contents by reference to prudential considerations, expert opinion and embedded norms. There is always a certain degree of tension between these agonistic and deliberative aspects of democracy: this is an inevitable part of its functioning. But it arguably also means that it is futile to expect a focused, guided deliberative mechanism like the Citizens’ Assembly to become an accepted template for how wider democratic processes should function across society at large: it is incapable of taming the agonistic dimension to democratic choice.

That is not to say that the Citizens’ Assembly model does not have a part to play in improving the functioning of democratic procedures. As discussed above, the real impact of the Irish experience lay in how the Assembly’s conclusions challenged accepted political wisdom as to how Irish voters perceived the abortion issue. It also encouraged politicians to show their heads above the parapet, and to engage directly with the detail of what radical abortion law reform would look like. Furthermore, it is possible that a Citizens’ Assembly established in the run-up to the Brexit referendum might have had a similar effect – by compelling politicians to engage seriously with the complexity of popular views on the EU/UK relationship, and to clarify how they saw that relationship changing in the future.

In other words, the real value of the Citizens’ Assembly model may lie in how it impacts on the political class. It can force them to engage more directly with the public in its full complexity, and to be more deliberative in framing their plans for future action. This is arguably the ‘added value’ it can bring to democratic systems more generally - which is useful and by no means insignificant. However, beyond that, the impact of the Assembly model appears to be limited. By itself, it cannot serve as a deliberative deus ex machina for the problems generated by the inherent and necessary messiness of democratic processes.   

Colm O’Cinneide is Professor of Constitutional and Human Rights Law at University College London (UCL).

Suggested Citation: Colm O’Cinneide, ‘The Citizens' Assembly Viewed in External Perspective: Useful, but not a Deliberative Deus Ex Machina’ IACL-AIDC Blog (12 December 2018)