The Irish Citizens' Assembly was a deliberative exercise that put citizens at the heart of decision-making for important legal and policy issues facing Irish society. It brought together 100 members of the public who had the benefit of expert, impartial and factual information to support their decision-making. The Assembly was established by the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas, by a resolution in July 2016. Their recommendations were submitted to the Irish Parliament for further debate with one topic, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, making it to a nationwide referendum.1
The Irish Assemblies have shown that deliberative mini-publics can make a difference
Dr Clodagh Harris
What problem was it trying to solve?
The Assembly was tasked by the Irish Parliament to form "within six months and without participation by politicians, with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues over an extended time period".
The issues were (in the order they were considered by the Assembly)
- The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution
- Challenges and opportunities of an ageing population
- Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change
- Manner in which referenda are held
- Fixed term parliaments
The Assembly’s terms of reference were agreed by the Irish parliament in July 2016 prior to the start of the first meeting. These terms of reference cover the topics, the number of participants, the timelines of the Assembly, the voting process and substitutions.
Who were the participants? How were they selected?
There were 99 members of the public in addition to a Chairperson. The selection criteria was designed to bring together a group of citizens who were broadly representative of the population in terms of age, gender, social class, regional spread etc. A further criteria was that they must be have been on the electoral register to be eligible to vote in a referendum. The members were selected using a polling company and apart from not including political representatives, it was modelled closely on the Irish Constitutional Convention. The original Assembly Members were selected between September and October 2016. Throughout the process some members left for various reasons, and some of these were replaced. You can read more about this here.
What was the process?
The Assembly was guided by its 6 key principles: Openness, fairness, equality of voice, efficiency, respect and collegiality.
The Assembly was overseen by a Steering Group and had an Expert Advisory Group that helped to prepare the information and advice to the members. Submissions made to the Assembly are available to be viewed online here. There were no public observers allowed to attend the Assembly meetings but all presentations were streamed live and are available to view on the Assembly’s YouTube channel here.
A detailed outline of the Assembly’s meetings can be found here. The meetings took place on weekends (Saturdays and Sundays). They ran from October 2016 until April 2018. Each meeting was generally run in the same format as shown below.
- Introductory remarks by the Chairperson
- Expert presentations
- Presentations from civil society and advocacy groups
- Consideration of submissions by Members of the public
- Question and Answer Sessions and Debates
- Roundtable discussions
The Assembly had an independent chair, the Honourable Mary Laffoy who is a former member of the Supreme Court.
Following the discussions at the meetings the issues were voted on. Following this recommendations based on the majority view of the Assembly Members were presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Government was tasked with providing a response to these and if they were accepted they would indicate a time frame for bringing the issue to a public referendum.
What was the conclusion?
The Assembly considered five varied issues. On each issue they came to a range of different conclusions and voted on several of the key points. After each one the Assembly secretariat produced a report for the Irish Parliament which outlines the options that were voted on, an explanation of any changes made to the ballots, and the final recommendations. See below for the individual reports.
Final Report on Manner in which referenda are held (not yet completed)
Final Report on Fixed term parliaments (not yet completed)
What was the impact?
The Assembly is still yet to produce its final reports on the last two issues it considered. But the other three have all been put to the Irish Parliament for debate. The first issues that was considered - the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution - was accepted by parliament and put to a referendum on May 25th 2018. The referendum. The Irish people accepted the Assembly’s recommendation and voted for change.You can read one our blog posts on the Assembly behind the referendum here.