Since 2016, the Citizens’ Assembly—chosen to reflect Irish society in terms of age, gender, social class and regional spread—serves to incorporate citizens’ views into policymaking and provide the government with the public’s opinion and demands on certain key issues. The Assembly has explored issues like abortion, climate change, aging, gender equality, and fixed-term parliaments.
The Citizens’ Assembly (“Assembly”) is composed of 99 randomly selected people from the Irish electoral register; it ensures that the group reflects Ireland’s age, gender, social class, and regional makeup. A chair is elected by the government, and can be an academic or a public figure. An Expert Advisory Group organizes discussions with experts on the issues discussed, and submissions from the general public and civil society are allowed (the author could not locate information on how the Expert Advisory Group is formed). All meetings are live streamed, and all relevant documents including decisions and recommendations are available online in the official website.1
Members of the Assembly meet for about 12 weekends over 18 months in Dublin, in a space selected through public procurement. Meetings usually include opening remarks from the chair, inputs from experts and presentations from civil society and advocacy groups, and deliberation by the members where they consider the submissions, ask questions, and participate in roundtable discussions with the support of facilitators. Following the discussions, the Assembly votes on the recommendations to be presented to the Parliament. At the end of each issue discussed, the Assembly drafts a report where it outlines the recommendations to the Irish Parliament. After the submission of the reports, a debate may be arranged in Parliament on implementation.2
The Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland was inspired by a pilot program, “We the Citizens,” established in 2010, and the subsequent Constitutional Convention in 2012 that led to a public referendum on legalizing gay marriage. Following these successes, the Citizens’ Assembly was established following the general election in 2016.3
The first iteration of the Citizens’ Assembly took place between 2016 and 2018, during which members discussed issues of abortion, aging, referenda, fixed-term parliaments, and climate change. Another Citizens’ Assembly was established in 2020-21 to address issues of gender equity, and subsequently in 2022-23 on the topics of biodiversity loss and the local government structures for Dublin.
Members of the Assembly are not paid for their work, but were reimbursed for expenses incurred and a contribution towards childcare. Aside from salary and office administration costs for the Assembly, its organization involved recruitment, research, broadcasting, advertising, and legal support costs. These most amounted to about EUR 1.25 million (USD 1.49 million) for the 2020-21 Assembly.
The Citizens’ Assembly has been a particularly useful tool to demonstrate public support for measures that might have been considered too controversial or risky by Parliament. Some of the issues addressed have included abortion, aging populations, fixed-term parliaments, referenda, climate change, and gender equality.
Most notably, the first Assembly recommended a referendum to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution, which was organized the following year and passed by a majority of 66.4 percent, allowing abortion to be legalized. The Assemblies have also seen public support, with the first iteration receiving over 15,000 submissions from the general public across all topics. Actions on other issues have included the creation of a Joint Committee on Climate Action and the elaboration of a government action plan on climate change.4
The Citizens’ Assembly, which continues to operate, has been lauded for allowing advances in agendas previously considered politically controversial, and studies have demonstrated public support towards the process. The cross-party support for the Assembly, as well as the use of trained facilitators and the participation of experts have been noted as factors for its success. Its experience has served as inspiration to multiple departments and agencies, including the National Dialogue on Climate Action, and has also been replicated in other countries like Germany and Belgium.5
Certain drawbacks to the Assembly include the large, unpaid time commitment required from participating citizens, which has resulted in some of those selected dropping out of the process, particularly women with child caring responsibilities. Furthermore, public engagement with Citizen Assemblies still remains skewed towards those with further education and higher-incomes.6
- 1. “Citizens’ Assembly.” Citizens Information. https://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/government_in_ireland/irish_constitution_1/citizens_assembly.html.
- 2. OECD, “The Irish Citizen Assembly,” Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, https://oecd-opsi.org/innovations/the-irish-citizens-assembly.
- 3. “The Irish Citizens’ Assembly.” Heinrich Böll Stiftung, https://us.boell.org/en/irish-citizens-assembly.
- 4. Back, P. “How citizens’ assemblies are revitalizing democracy.” Resilience, June 13, 2022, https://www.resilience.org/stories/2022-06-13/how-citizens-assemblies-are-revitalizing-democracy/; Procaccia, A. “Citizens’ Assemblies Are Upgrading Democracy: Fair Algorithms Are Part of the Program,” Scientific American, November 1, 2022, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/citizens-assemblies-are-upgrading-democracy-fair-algorithms-are-part-of-the-program/.
- 5. O’Leary, N, “The myth of the citizens’ assembly,” Politico, June 18, 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/the-myth-of-the-citizens-assembly-democracy/.
- 6. Ibid.