The Irish Citizens' Assembly, an example to follow?

Deliberations have recently been successfully used for heated social and political debates. In Ireland, the citizens’ assembly on abortion is a good illustration of a deliberation process which initiated a change of the Constitution and helped to break years of a political deadlock. Following the assembly, Irish citizens were asked whether or not to replace the Eighth Amendment, which banned abortion in almost all circumstances. Irish electorate voted with a resounding “Yes” in favour of removing the Eighth Amendment The assembly was televised and watched by thousands of people across the country. It was instrumental in forging wider consensus in a society that is so sensitive to change. The Irish example shows how bottom-up citizens’ input can both complement and enhance representative democracy, and act as an impetus for constitutional renewal.

Dimitri Courant, a French researcher in political science, observed the entire deliberations of the French Citizens’ Climate Convention and the Irish Citizens’ Assembly. For the sociologist, the Irish deliberation is a process that is more respectful of the norms of deliberative democracy but, by diverging from it, the French convention was able to produce more precise recommendations.

If the Citizens’ Climate Convention (CCC) has often been presented as a “radical democratic innovation” or a “world first”, this is an exaggeration. A comparative analysis allows us to place the CCC in the history of deliberative mini-publics and to understand the commonalities and differences between the French experience and its foreign counterparts. Deliberative panels of randomly drawn citizens’ panels date back to the 1970s, along with citizens’ juries, but did not really have a great impact until the early 2000s with the invention of citizens’ assemblies (CAs) in Canada. However, the Canadian and then Dutch CAs did not see their recommendations implemented.

It is in Ireland, where several CAs are in succession, that the political impact will be the clearest, with three recommendations approved by referendums: legalization of same-sex marriage, legalization of the right to abortion, and removal of the ban on blasphemy. One of the reasons for this “success” is that any modification of the Constitution must be validated by referendum, so the articulation of the citizens assemblies with this mechanism of direct democracy is favoured by the institutional context. However, the Irish “success story” has its limits: failure of the referendum on the minimum age for candidacy for the presidency, rejection of certain recommendations by the Parliament, limitation of the subjects submitted to the CA…

"Any modification of the Constitution must be validated by referendum, so the articulation of the citizens assemblies with this mechanism of direct democracy is favoured by the institutional context.

Dimitri Courant

French researcher in political science

Passed largely unnoticed, the Irish CA (ICA) for 2016-2018, composed of 99 citizens drawn by lot, had notably dealt with climate change among its five issues. So what are the differences between the ICA and the French CCC? First of all, if the two cases are comparable, the ICA deals with five themes, different from each other, whereas the CCC focuses on the climate issue alone and therefore devotes much more time to it. As a result, after two weekends on climate, the ICA produced 19 fairly short recommendations, while the CCC voted 149, and more detailed recommendations after 9 weekends. On the other hand, the quality of the CCC’s proposals is also the result of the greater involvement of experts, present and active in the deliberations at small tables, with significant differences in speaking time from one expert to another. Divided into five thematic groups with two facilitators each, the CCC citizens deliberated more often in groups of 30 or even 5 at the tables than in groups of 150, and do not all hear the same experts or arguments, thus limiting “collective intelligence”.

The experts in the ICA are strictly limited to public hearings of 20 minutes each, followed by a question-and-answer session. The ICA has only one venue and systematically goes back and forth between the plenary and the deliberations at the 14 tables, with one facilitator and one note-taker each, so that all citizens reason collectively. Moreover, the ICA is vigilant to ensure maximum impartiality in its deliberations, unlike the CCC whose organisers are committed actors who will sometimes get involved in discussions on substance rather than procedure.