From gender equality to peacebuilding in Northern Ireland: the power of Irish citizen assemblies

Dr. Jane Suiter is a Professor at Dublin City University. She is also the senior Research Fellow on the Irish Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality and is co-PI on the Irish Citizen Assembly (2016-2018) and the Irish Constitutional Convention (2012-2014) and a founder member of We the Citizens (2011), Ireland’s first deliberative experiment. She analyses the incredible momentum the Irish assemblies had on the country’s private, public and political sphere and looks ahead at how Northern Ireland could achieve peacebuilding through citizen participation.

At Missions Publiques, we’ve been greatly inspired by the recent Irish assemblies, the most recent one being on gender equality during which citizens voted for a radical programme of reform which could see gender quotas in all elections and across public and private bodies, extra supports for carers and a new clause in the constitution recognising all forms of families in the Constitution, not only families based on marriage. We found this incredibly inspiring, how did Ireland achieve this?  

In the first Constitutional convention (2012-2014), several amendments to Ireland’s Constitution were made and specifically the very controversial clause in the Irish Constitution about a woman’s place being in the home. But the Constitution was drafted in 1937 and unlike France, we don’t get to rewrite the Constitution with a new republic.

Back then, citizens at the assembly recommended that there be a referendum to take that clause out and replace it with a gender-neutral recognition of carers in the home. The government went along and planed the referendum but it wanted to only repealed it and recognized carers in legislation only and was opposed by activists. So that plan is still on hold for now.

Organisations such as the National Women’s Council of Ireland wanted the full recognition to be integrated into the Constitution so that it why the clause was put back into a second assembly. The first one had 8 topics, the second had 4 and this last one had just one topic. Participants looked at pay, care, gender-based violence and a whole gamete of areas. It was really wide-ranging. They finally proposed that the clause would have to be replaced with gender-inclusive language rather than simply taken away.

I think people who campaigned for gender equality were quite surprised by the extent of the mandate they got, because citizens recommended relatively radical proposals. It seems the Government is likely to hold two referendums: one to replace the Article in the Constitution and the other will be the recognition of all forms of family, not only family based on the marital unit. And of course, legislation should  take into consideration other provisions around work, quotas, politics, public life and violence.

So, what happens now? In the previous assembly there were 4 topics and 2 of them – climate change and abortion, were largely acted on. They were the two for which a special Committee was set up in the Parliament, made up of representatives of all parties, to examine them, look at the report and draft the legislation based on the report. The two others, which hadn’t a special Committee were largely ignored. So it will be interesting to see where this leads to, if a Committee will be set up to draft this legislation or not, because people need to know what they are voting for. If there’s going to be a referendum to replace a clause in the Constitution, you need to be specifying what that clause is and what is the legislation that underpins it. We know what happens if you put a question to referendum and there’s no legislation underpinning it… People can end up voting for something very different to what they expected.

It seems the Government is likely to hold two referendums: one to replace the Article in the Constitution and the other will be the recognition of all forms of family, not only family based on the marital unit.

Dr. Jane Suiter

Professor at Dublin City University

The debates around abortion and same-sex marriage went further than the deliberations between participants and politicians. Families discussed it largely and debates rose over dinner, which is not a specific trend for Ireland. How do you explain the fact that the whole nation took an interest in this debate? How did that momentum strive?

Because people knew there was going to be a referendum, and that they were going to decide for themselves whether or not they were in favour or against abortion. Students got involved and had a terrific campaign called “#Ringyourgranny” which inspired young people to talk to their relatives about the controversial issue. The fact that everybody had a chance to vote gave people the feeling that they had a say and that there was a reason for them to make up their mind and decide what side they wanted to be on.

But let’s not forget that a referendum was possible only because of the absolute prohibition of abortion in the Constitution. If abortion had not been mentioned, it would just have been legislation and the momentum would have been far different.

Northern Ireland marked its 100th year anniversary last month. Its troubled past, fragile present and uncertain future are endlessly disputed between pro-UK unionists and republicans who favour union with Ireland. Do you think citizen participation can be a solution to this polarization?

I have been asked a few times if a deliberative process could be used for Northern Ireland in response to the many calls for a citizens’ assembly there. I don’t think that is something that could be done in the short term because I don’t believe Unionists will join the assembly because they could consider it as a Trojan horse to try to get them to agree to a United Ireland. And I truly believe in the principle of inclusiveness for these type of assemblies and going ahead without them would be a damaging for the quality of the output.

Instead of a one-time citizens’ assembly, I propose a permanent model of citizen participation in Northern Ireland to first look at cross-cutting cleavages for both sides: depravation, drug use among the young or living together on either side of a peace wall. If we were to rush into an Ireland-wide citizen assembly it would be disastrous. It’s such a polarizing and divisive topic that it would be impossible to have an assembly that would be perceived as trust-worthy and inclusive without the central protagonists onboard.