This series, by BANR founder, Ted Wachtel, applies the concept of citizens’ assemblies to an urgent need that the U.S. Congress avoids — gun violence and how to prevent it. Wachtel identifies the reasons legislators can’t do it and why a diverse group of citizens can. No longer theoretical, in the last few years citizens’ assemblies have been used around the world to make thoughtful decisions about challenging and often controversial problems.
7. The Irish Citizens’ Assembly proved that ordinary citizens can deal more effectively with controversial issues than politicians.
The Irish Third Rail
In 2016-2017, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly discussed the most contentious political issue in Irish politics: abortion rights.
Until then, abortion was the third rail of Irish politics, the legacy of a strong Catholic religious tradition. Irish politicians avoided discussing abortion policy, because whatever they said would cost them votes among groups of voters on one side of the issue or the other.
The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, enacted in 1983, made it nearly impossible for a woman to get an abortion in Ireland, even to save her life. The severe restrictions were criticized by other countries as inhumane and a violation of human rights.
In December, 2012, an Irish Constitutional Convention began meeting with a randomly selected group of 33 politicians and 66 citizens, to discuss changes to the Constitution, including the Eighth Amendment. Five years later, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly on abortion rights—a group of 99 randomly selected citizens (this time no politicians)—had five monthly weekend meetings at a hotel in Dublin. The proceedings were officially videotaped, livestreamed to the public, and are still available on YouTube.
A 17-minute independent film, When Citizens Assemble (on YouTube), provides an opportunity to hear directly from participants.
John Long, a 56-year-old from Cork, explains the Assembly’s work. “Five weekends, probably of 15 or 20 hours of sessions, papers, debates…and then dozens and dozens of hours of research, and reading, and analysis. So I would say we probably put a couple of hundred hours of total time into it, which is more than any parliamentary party committee would have put into it.”
Louise Caldwell, mother of three and self-employed events manager, says, “It hasn’t been a walk in the park. The energy has been very tough. You know, it’s not an easy topic, and some of the presentations were very difficult to listen to. But yeah, I think as a group we managed to, I suppose, support each other through that.”
John Long adds, “Unlike some of the debates that have taken place in referenda in the past in Ireland, the Citizens’ Assembly was very respectful and very congenial to everybody’s opinion.”
David Keogh, a 47-year-old truck driver, describes his experience. “But I came in pro-choice like most citizens of the country, uninformed or informed my own way. We were given legal, we were given medical, we were given ethical, moral, religious and then social, as well. And then the advocacy groups as well. How am I gonna process this?
“How it was done? Question-and-answer, roundtable discussions and everything. You always felt at the end of it that you understood what they were telling you.”
John Long changed his mind. “For myself, personally, I probably would have been in the middle. But as time went on and as we were getting more and more information,—and as it was totally fact-based, unbiased—I started moving to a pro-choice position.”
The Assembly’s pro-choice recommendations were sent to the Irish legislature, which had voluntarily delegated its authority to the Assembly. The legislature gave the final say on the recommendations to the voting public in a May, 2018, referendum. Two-thirds voted in favor of the Assembly’s abortion rights proposal.
According to Brett Hennig of the Sortition Foundation, “Very few politicians wanted to talk about abortion publicly in Ireland before it went on the Citizens’ Assembly agenda. After the assembly’s deliberations, you could hardly stop them.”
The Irish Citizens’ Assembly clearly demonstrated how ordinary people can deal more effectively with controversial issues than politicians.