Alan O’Reilly is a political activist based in London.
Over the last decade Ireland has seen a rise in the use of citizen assemblies as a way of hashing out thorny issues Their use has now become part of Irish democratic life, helping to deal with issues as diverse as same-sex marriage to the structure of the Irish political system.
Citizen assemblies arose from the Constitutional Convention in 2012, established by the then Fine Gael/Labour coalition government. The convention consisted of a cross section of politicians and members of the public; it was allowed to discuss and debate these issues and then make recommendations to the parliament.
While the government and parliament were required to provide a response to these recommendations, they were under no obligation to take up the recommendations or deal with the substance of any recommendation.
The Convention worked throughout the period 2012-2014. It made a range of recommendations, many of which were then put to the public in a referendum – the highest profile of these was the 2015 referendum to legalise same-sex marriage.
Other proposals, such as removing the offence of blasphemy from the constitution, were also approved whilst many others such as changes to the electoral system, were either rejected by the parliament or rejected in a referendum. For example, in a referendum held on the same day as the marriage poll, voters rejected a proposal from the Constitutional Convention to reduce the age of presidential candidates from 35 to 21.
Nevertheless, the perceived wisdom was that the convention was a success. and heading into the 2016 general election Fine Gael promised to set up a Citizen’s Assembly. Comprising 100 members (99 members of the public and one chairperson), it was established in the same manner as the convention, with the aim of addressing key social and political issues and making recommendations to the government.
The assembly’s most high-profile recommendation was the change to the constitution to remove the ban on abortion: in the subsequent referendum, the repeal was passed with 67 per cent support.
The assembly has continued offering recommendations on a wide range of subjects, from fixed-term parliaments to the ageing population to climate change; it is currently debating drug legalisation.
But whilst both the Constitutional Convention and Citizens Assembly have drawn praise for helping set out a pathway to deal with potential difficult social issues, many of the proposals put forward have either gone nowhere or appear stuck.
This has sparked debate not just about whether or not such bodies are serving their purpose, but also tricky questions about what their proper function even is.
Some have argued that the greatest effect of the assemblies was on serving politicians: watching a group of citizens debate, deliberate, and hash out differences on tricky issues showed that the public would be open to major social reform.
However, there are also clear limits to this. Many of the proposals have gone nowhere or were rejected by the public, raising the question as to the use of resources and time.
Moreover, the growing use of these groups to tackle issues leads some to ask if they are not taking the place of what the parliament should be doing.
The danger is that over-reliance on the use of citizens’ assemblies to deliberate and make recommendations ultimately lets politicians off the hook from making decisions they can and should be making – in fact, that they are elected to take.
Rather than focusing on legislation, more and more power could be passed to these groups- which are ultimately unelected – leaving the parliament out of the picture. Converesly, supporters of assemblies worry that public enthusiasm for them wane if recommendations go nowhere and they aren’t driving major societal change.
What’s certain, however, is that they will continue – for the time being at least. At the time of writing a citizen’s assembly is conducting a review of drug laws.
But it will be interesting to see whether such things become a long-term part of Ireland’s constitutional order, and the next major test of that is surely the next general election. If there is a change of government, will the new ruling parties be as amenable to outsourcing the business of politics as was Fine Gael?