Can Europe Make It?

Tapping the will of the people – a route to radically better democracy?

Ireland's innovative Citizen Assembly is changing the way the country debates sensitive issues like abortion. What else could it achieve?

Patrick Chalmers
12 December 2017
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Dr Roslyn Fuller says electoral arithmetic makes abortion politically tough to tackleIt’s hardly news on openDemocracy to say the usual model of western representative government is under siege. Divisive campaigns, stained by fake news and dark money, are yielding disputed outcomes and bitterly split electorates. General elections and other votes seem ever less free or fair, if indeed they ever were. Many of the resulting administrations are mired in disarray, just as levels of public trust in both politicians and news media fall through the floor.

What chance, then, for reasoned debate and political compromise between people with widely divergent views on a highly contentious and sensitive topic? What hope, dare anyone ask, of something resembling “democracy”?

Not a cat’s chance, you might think. Well, you’d be wrong, at least in one, real-life instance.

Ireland recently pulled off just such coup on no less a sensitive subject than its de facto ban on abortion. That the country managed the feat is remarkable enough, even though it’s yet to change one letter of existing law. More intriguing still is that the Irish raised the bar globally on questions of how governments might operate with far greater accountability to citizens.

Both those outcomes became possible in 2016, when Ireland’s politicians passed abortion questions to a Citizens’ Assembly. Their decision moved detailed policy deliberation away from elected officials to a process involving randomly selected Irish people. Knowingly or not, they’d tipped their hats to ancient Athens’s original concept of democracy.

You could hardly blame the politicians for wanting a break on abortion. Many faced virulent insults and threats for speaking out on the issue. Various failed attempts at reform over the years made abortion a toxic topic for any party depending on marginal or rural seats to hold power. Procedural barriers to change are also huge. Abortion law is embedded in the Constitution, making any proposed amendment subject to approval by national referendum.

Yet pressures for change have also intensified. The UN human rights committee called on Ireland last year to change its abortion laws, saying they subjected a woman to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, violating her human rights. Notorious cases, such as one involving Savita Halappanavar, who died in 2012 after being denied abortion, also played their parts.

Roslyn Fuller ran unsuccessfully as an independent candidate in Ireland’s 2016 general election. She recalls countless questions on abortion, way ahead of those on all other issues. The Canadian-Irish author and academic says the same goes for all parties, including Fine Gael, the senior governing partner in Ireland’s minority coalition.

“They depend on winning seats in a lot of areas where a small margin of voters can decide that seat,” Fuller said last July. She was speaking in an interview on Irish political reform, shot for the short film When Citizens Assemble. “What that means is that effectively, a small minority of people can keep an item off the agenda,” she added.

Or rather they could do until the Citizens’ Assembly began its work in late 2016. During five weekends held over five months, its 100 members considered how Ireland might change its abortion laws to better honour women’s rights. They concluded with a series of votes and recommendations to radically liberalise existing arrangements, amend the Constitution and improve reproductive health provision for women.

Assembly chair Justice Mary Laffoy, the sole appointee among Assembly members, sent her summary report to parliament last June. A cross-party committee then began examining the findings with a view to producing its own conclusions. It’s also due to propose wording for a referendum promised by Prime Minister Leo Varadkar for mid 2018.

“I think it surprised all observers, it’s safe to say, in terms of how far the Citizens’ Assembly want to take the liberalisation of our abortion legislation,” says Professor David Farrell, head of University College Dublin’s School of Politics and International Relations.

The soft-spoken Farrell, research lead on the Citizens’ Assembly process, is a quiet champion for better ways of doing government. He’s one of the founding editors of the Irish Politics Forum blog.

Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in Europe, if not the world. Its Constitution equates the right to life of a pregnant woman with that of an embryo or foetus, pretty much from the time of conception. It criminalises abortion except when a continued pregnancy risks the would-be mother’s own life.

The law’s effects have been to export the practice of abortions rather than prevent them. More than 170,000 women and girls left Ireland to get abortion services between January 1980 and December 2016, according to the Irish Family Planning Association. The arrangement hits hardest those lacking either the money or family support to travel abroad to end unwanted pregnancies. Others are turning to telemedicine, getting abortion pills sent through the post from abroad for use at home.

Kate O’Connell won a Fine Gael parliamentary seat in the same election contested by Fuller. The pharmacist and mother of three is an ardent advocate for abortion law reform. She’s rare enough already for being a young woman in Ireland’s male-dominated parliament. Setting her further apart is that she dares talk publicly about having faced the prospect of terminating a pregnancy.

“I think this issue in Ireland could never have got to the point we’re at today were it not for the Citizens’ Assembly. I think we would have been years getting there, if we ever got there,” she says.

O’Connell’s critics on the cross-party parliamentary committee accuse her of pro-abortion bias. That’s one of the lesser barbs to have flown during highly charged exchanges between its members.

Of course the critics are correct, O’Connell is biased. But then again so are they and so are the rest of us. How any society navigates members’ biases in search of compromise is the stuff of all politics.

Social psychologists talk of confirmation bias, our tendency to look for news and views that match our beliefs while rejecting those that don’t. This was probably an evolutionary cognitive advantage for our ancestors, helping them survive within protective “in-groups”. It’s highly problematic for practising politics in the age of social media and tailored news feeds. What worth an in-group or out-group, after all, versus the merciless physics of climate change? Who would benefit from a universally destructive nuclear missile exchange initially teed up on Twitter?

The divisive effects of confirmation bias are amplified for politicians contesting elections. Their chances of winning seats depend on looking and sounding better than opponents, a process that also favours the biggest spenders. Candidates and their supporters coalesce into mutually antagonistic camps. Think of pro and anti-Brexit, for or against Donald. Always-on campaigning makes consensus building and compromise – the basis of healthy, functioning community – near impossible.

Ancient Athenians understood the pitfalls of elections. That’s why they embedded random selection of citizens and assemblies into the heart of their politics. Downgrading elections saved would-be candidates from lying about their plans, themselves and their opponents. It also prevented the handing of outsize powers to the unrepresentative elites who would usually win most ballots. The effect was to boost the chances of common wisdom and compromise seeing the day.

Those basic elements look attractive in today’s fractious political climate. The contrast between elected versus randomly selected certainly jumps out in the style of exchanges witnessed within the joint parliamentary committee versus those at the Citizens’ Assembly.

“There was no major arguments or disputes here at the Citizens’ Assembly even though there was serious disagreements, as there would always be on this subject,” says John Long, a 56-year-old electronics technician from the southern Irish city of Cork.

Long was one of four participants agreeing to speak on camera for When Citizens Assemble. The others were a student, a self-employed events organiser, both women, and a truck driver. Each showed depth and insight in reflecting on their experiences and how their views evolved. Nothing in what they said looked anything like the tyranny of crowds warned of by US constitution writers and other establishment figures worried about unbridled “democracy”.

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A random sample of Irish citizens were asked to deliberate on changes to abortion laws.Who better than Irish citizens, after all, to deliberate on fairer abortion laws for Ireland’s women? A randomly selected, representative sample of people, can operate free from the pressures of either campaigning or political office. Its members can focus exclusively on working through the complex and sensitive questions involved. Their source materials and conclusions are available for all to see, valuable resources to help transform the quality of debate surrounding any subsequent referendum.

Contrast that with the facts black hole, for which both sides were to blame, that was the UK’s Brexit vote.

“Citizens, when you leave them to these assemblies, without much in the way of control overtop of them – they don’t actually make crazy reckless decisions,” says Fuller. “They get together and they talk and they come to compromises and they do consider things. There’s not really a major mystery of how to do this,” she adds.

Assembly participants’ political antennae are uniquely tuned by their diverse daily lives. Their combined efforts at politics stand up impressively beside those of the narrower elite of professionals in Dublin, or Westminster and Washington for that matter.

Long is clear about the disconnect that exists between traditional political parties and their publics, and how the Citizens’ Assembly helps bridge that gulf: “This is a new layer of democracy – you can’t have too much democracy. Democracy should be an expression of the will of the people. So we think, here, we’re an expression of the will of the people.”

His view certainly merits a deeper look by our media – the driving rationale for this film on the assembly’s work and that of others like it elsewhere around the world. Ireland’s innovation offers valuable lessons not just for political scientists but also for journalists and our wider societies. If the assembly process works for Ireland, on this most controversial of issues, where else might it be tried, and how soon could we start?

Patrick Chalmers is director and producer of When Citizens Assemble, launch film for planned nine-episode global series on lottery-based democracy innovations.

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