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The Irish Citizens' Assembly on abortion: democratisation or dodging responsibility?

Does the use of Citizens' Assemblies to decide on contentious issues return power to the people or kick the can down the road? The director of the Sortition Foundation reports.

Brett Hennig
5 September 2016
 Sortition Foundation. Reproduced with kind permission.

In October of this year, a randomly selected, representative sample of 99 Irish citizens, with chairperson Justice Mary Laffoy, will come together as a government-mandated Citizens’ Assembly. For one weekend every month over the following 12 months they will deliberate on, among other things, the constitutional ban on abortion embodied in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland.

It is emphatically not a raw opinion poll, and not a referendum.

The delivery of Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny’s promise to hold a Citizens’ Assembly on the Eighth Amendment has, as one would expect, been both applauded and condemned. Those that applaud the move include groups that believe the issue should be urgently reviewed and that constituting a Citizens’ Assembly (CA) to do so removes such an important and contentious issue from the sphere of partisan politicking and hands the power to make a recommendation to the people – a small but representative sample of the people. The aim is for this sample to make an informed, judicious recommendation that reflects what people would think after being given balanced information and being subject to debate and discussion with other citizens. It is emphatically not a raw opinion poll, and not a referendum where, as shown by Brexit, people often vote not on the matter at hand, but vote to vent frustration, anger or disappointment with politicians or the political class, and often with a very limited grasp of the import of their decision.

The British could have learned a lesson or two from the Irish. The supporters of the new Irish CA no doubt look back at the progressive outcome of the Irish Constitutional Convention held from 2012-2014 that led to the successful referendum on same-sex marriage in 2015. If such a proposal can come out of a randomly selected forum composed of “ordinary” people (sortition is the name of this ancient selection process) then perhaps amending the eighth amendment will also be highly likely.

Interestingly, those that oppose the CA are from both the pro-choice and pro-life camps. It is easy to understand why the pro-life camp is against the idea: they want the status quo to remain so any possibility of change must be resisted. The pro-choice campaigners who are against the CA have more interesting and subtle reasons to denounce the idea. First and foremost is the idea that it is a stalling tactic – “the can is being kicked down the road” it has been said – although the government has repeated defended it as “absolutely” not such a tactic. However, if the current minority coalition sets in place a two-year process (CA followed by referendum) then the current government may not even be in power when the issue comes to a head. The pro-choice camp argues that reform of the constitution should happen today, and not at some uncertain time in the future. They call the CA “a mind-boggling handover of their responsibility”. The government was elected to govern, not to side-step issues by handing responsibility to a group of citizens – or so the argument goes.

Every politician knows it is not facts and reasons that win political arguments.

All of these tactics to undermine the proposed CA have precedents. For example, in Australia in 2010 the then Labour Government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard proposed a CA on climate change which was broadly condemned by all sides of the political spectrum as showing a “failure of leadership”, being a time-wasting, delaying tactic, or a “a weak and cynical ploy” to avoid tackling the issue immediately. An academic analysis of the media coverage of Gillard’s proposed CA (that in the end never happened) noted that “many of the arguments against the CA are unfounded or misplaced” – but every politician knows it is not facts and reasons that win political arguments.

The irony is that although a CA attempts to avoid the partisan politicking of parliaments, there is a great deal of partisan politicking to be navigated when even proposing a CA. In short, the politics of holding a non-partisan CA are very partisan. Giving power to the people is, of course, a highly political action, so this should come as no surprise. How to confront those who would hoard power and belittle the informed voices of a representative sample of people on any issue is something groups like the Sortition Foundation, who are planning to organise a G1000 in Cambridge in 2017, must take into account. We do not assume it will be easy.

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