25 January 2023
If things go to plan, 2023 could see Ireland’s constitution amended to include environmental rights for both people and nature itself. Not only would this be a victory for environmentalism, it would also be a major victory for deliberative democracy, as the plan in question was not drawn up by politicians, but by ordinary citizens.
In November 2022, 83% of the 99 participants in the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss voted in favour of a recommendation that would see “substantial and procedural environmental rights” granted both to its citizens and to nature. If the Oireachtas, the Irish national parliament, approves the recommendation, a referendum will be called. It will then be up to the broader Irish public to decide if the Irish constitution should be amended.
The members of the assembly have good reason to be hopeful. Since 2012, four recommendations made by citizens’ assemblies have resulted in referenda being approved by parliament, and in three cases, constitutional amendments followed, including those on the topics of abortion and same-sex marriage — highly controversial in Catholic Ireland. This makes Ireland a world leader in integrating citizens’ assemblies into political processes.
But what makes the Irish approach to citizens’ assemblies so successful?
Citizens’ Assembly Recommendations: What Happens Next?
Picture the following: In a flagship deliberative project, 100 citizens devote six or seven weekends spread over several months to reflect on a topic. They listen to expert testimony, pose questions, discuss the subject in groups, and finally, draw up a set of recommendations based on their findings.
But then – nothing happens.
This is the nightmare scenario for a citizens’ assembly. On paper, they promise to give citizens a voice on major issues, but the fact is that there is no agreed way to proceed when it comes to integrating them into broader political discourse. Public trust in such initiatives is fragile, and is hard to regain once it has been lost through inactivity. This has already been the fate of several major citizens’ assemblies on climate change, which drew up ambitious programmes, only for few, if any, of the suggestions to be adopted.
Constitutional Reform: Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage
Ireland first began using citizens’ assemblies to discuss constitutional amendments in 2012. The “Convention on the Constitution” was convened by the Irish parliament, and sat at regular intervals between December 2012 and May 2014. It brought together 66 randomly selected citizens with 33 parliamentarians – an unusual feature, with most CAs selecting citizens only. A chairman brought the total to 100 participants.
This was followed by the “Citizens’ Assembly”, which ran from 2016 to 2018, and which included randomly selected citizens only.
Between them, the two assemblies led to three amendments to the constitution following general referendums. These were the removal of the offense of blasphemy from the constitution; the removal of restrictions on civil marriage based on sex, clearing the way for same-sex marriages; and the repeal of the 8th Amendment recognising the equal right to life of the unborn, clearing the way for abortion to be legalised. A fourth referendum, on lowering the minimum age to hold the office of the Presidency of Ireland from 35 to 21, ended in a major defeat, with only 26.9% of voters in favour.
It is important to keep in mind that in all of these cases, the assemblies alone were not responsible for the changes.
Jane Suiter, apolitical scientist and professor at Dublin City University’s Institute for Future Media, Democracy, and Society, is one of the original architects of the Irish Constitutional Convention and Citizens’ Assembly. She considers it an exaggeration to claim that they led directly to the legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion in Ireland. Nonetheless, they played a key role.
“These were very controversial topics,” she told Democracy Technologies. “In a way, the assemblies depoliticised these very contentious issues, allowing them to be framed in terms of what ordinary people thought about them. And that allowed the politicians to get behind that and say: ‘Even though I’m pro-life, I respect the decision of people to be able to procure an abortion if they need it’.”
The Irish Model
The Irish model by no means guarantees that the recommendations will be adopted. The three changes to the constitution were among a total of 28 proposed by the assemblies between 2012 and 2020 – meaning 24 never went to a referendum. The decision on whether recommendations make it this far ultimately lies with the Oireachtas — Ireland’s parliament.
Indeed, parliament exercises a good deal of control over the entire process. Since the Citizens’ Assembly of 2016, parliament alone has the power to set agendas for the assemblies – meaning an issue never even gets to the table without parliament’s explicit approval. Once recommendations are issued, parliament is meant to debate them. Yet in some cases, the parliament simply rejects the proposals. In other cases, they never even issue a formal response. Even in cases where a referendum was called, it was parliament who set the language, and determined the exact nature of the proposed amendment.
The extensive involvement of parliament could be seen as a weakness – after all, it means that power still ultimately resides with elected officials, and not with the randomly selected citizens. Yet it also goes a long way to explaining the success of Ireland’s approach, since it provides a formal framework for the recommendations to be put to a vote.
Deliberation, Not Legislation
This gets us to the heart of one of the most common misconceptions about citizens’ assemblies. Namely, that they are a way of circumventing elected officials, and handing legislative power to ordinary citizens. Certainly, there are those who make a compelling case for a shift in this direction; but in practice, no citizens’ assembly has yet been created with this end in mind.
“People ultimately vote for politicians, so that they actually have legitimacy,” says Suiter. “Although the citizen’s assemblies are representative in some way, they lack the democratic legitimacy of elected officials.” For Suiter, the aim of the assemblies is not to give them the power to pass legislation, bypassing parliament. Instead, it is about giving ordinary citizens a stronger voice in public political discourse.
We are used to special interest groups lobbying parliaments, but there are few formalized mechanisms for ordinary citizens to make substantial contributions to the discussion. Of course, in the digital age, there’s no shortage of platforms where people can have a say, and most countries allow their citizens to submit petitions, or to directly contact their elected representatives. Yet what is rare is for them to be given the time and resources to reflect on an issue in depth. Looking at the hours of footage from the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss available on YouTube, it’s clear that the members of the assembly are more than up to the task – and that the discussion is strikingly different from increasingly polarised online discussion spaces and traditional media.
The Irish model serves as a template for other citizens’ assemblies – providing they are clear on limits imposed on the power of those assemblies. Further steps are also possible to increase the impact of recommendations. In several cases, including the abortion vote, cross-party parliamentary committees were established to debate the issue. This led to a more detailed discussion.
Suiter argues that this should be established as the norm, and notes that the Biodiversity Loss recommendations included a request for a special committee. While this can slow down the process, it ultimately leads to a higher quality of debate, increasing the chances that recommendations will be taken seriously.
For the time being at least, CAs have no legislative power. But they can help move deliberation forward. The more established they become, the more attention they attract – just consider the national and international press coverage of the Biodiversity assembly in Ireland, or the ongoing coverage of France’s current assembly on end of life care and euthanasia.
It remains to be seen whether the proposal to enshrine environmental rights in Ireland’s constitution will succeed – the decision on whether to call a referendum lies with parliament. Extensive coverage in both the national and international press suggests that whatever happens, the issue is not going to simply vanish from public discourse in Ireland. The more the public and political parties commit to the process and publicly stand behind it, the more of an imperative it becomes for politicians to follow through and act on the recommendations.
Whatever the outcome however, the fact remains that ordinary citizens were given the chance to reflect extensively on a major issue of our time, shape public discourse on the topic, and trigger a discussion among legislators, clearing the way for a potential referendum.
That’s a major victory for deliberative democracy.