Over on the excellent British blog site Democratic Audit, Jack Bridgewater from the University of Kent cast an eye over the campaign that led to the decision to repeal the 8th amendment last month in this post. His focus is on the process that led up to the referendum and, particularly, the role of the Citizens’ Assembly. His conclusion is a striking one: ‘The success of the Irish case should be seen as a model for both the UK and the rest of the democratic world.’ I’m afraid that I must disagree.
I’ll nail my colours to the mast on this issue by stating that I was very proud to be Irish when the results of the referendum came out.
I do think that, as Jack’s post explains, there is much that is laudable in the process that led to the referendum. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have long advocated for an Irish Citizens’ Assembly following the 2008 financial crash – indeed, I spent several months back in 2011 working intensively with a wonderful group of people in a movement called ‘Second Republic’ attempting to map out how such an idea could be put into action with a view to undertaking a comprehensive review of Ireland’s political institutions.
So, I come (back) to this discussion with a favourable disposition towards the concepts of sortition (i.e., random selection of citizens, rather than election) and deliberation (listening to and debating evidence in a thoughtful and respectful way) as being of considerable potential benefit to Irish public life.
And yet, to use a particularly grating phrase that seems popular in British University management exercises – I’d like to play the role of a ‘critical friend’ in what remains of this post.
At the heart of my criticism is an analysis of power. The design of both of Ireland’s state-level experiments with sortition-based deliberative institutions (i.e., The Constitutional Convention and The Citizens’ Assembly) has meant that they never had the capacity to meaningfully challenge the existing power structure of Ireland’s political system. Both were limited in terms of their agenda to items that, while highly socially important, don’t strike at the heart of some of Ireland’s more deep seated institutional problems. Furthermore, both were confined to a role of inputting ideas to an Oireacthas that was obliged only to ‘consider’ and ‘respond’ – meaning that even if system-challenging ideas made their way onto the agenda – they could easily be side-lined.
To me, it seems that Ireland’s sortition-based deliberative institutions have really functioned as a kind of high-powered focus group on potentially tricky referendum campaigns for Ireland’s political leaders. They allow voters to experience the various arguments and framings in a concentrated format – and their results on same-sex marriage and the repeal of the 8th were strikingly similar to the final result (indeed, in the latter case they notably outperformed in-campaign polling as a predictor of the final vote).
Alongside heavily circumscribed power is the problem of limited legitimacy. To me, this expresses itself in two ways –
(1) lack of public awareness of the work of the CA
(2) issues around the extent to which the selection process has functioned to give a ‘representative’ picture of Irish society.
Firstly, then, we have the problem of limited public and media engagement with the institution of Ireland’s Citizen’s Assembly. If you view the Assembly’s (excellent) website you can take a look at the viewer numbers on the various videos of proceedings – they are not inspiring. Of course, as someone who lives outside of Ireland I’m not best-placed to assess this, but my impression on talking to friends and family at home is that, even when it came to the hugely contentious issue of Ireland’s abortion regime, engagement with the Assembly’s deliberation was not widely dispersed across the population – and on other matters that it addressed (such as dealing with an ageing society or responding to climate change) there was very little awareness. Obviously, in order to support a political institution (that is, to lend it legitimacy), a population needs to aware of its existence and have some rudimentary understanding of its functioning.
Secondly, we have the issue of the implementation of sortition. CA-type institutions draw much of their legitimacy from a claim that they are ‘representative’ of the broader population. The CA was marred by difficulties caused by replacing various members who proved unable or unwilling to continue in what was an arduous process. For 7 of these replacements, it appears that the agreed methodology was not followed, and a single recruiter relied on recommendations of likely participants from friends and family (rather than the randomised door-to-door methodology agreed by the CA) – this is all set out in black and white on the CA website. This is obviously problematic but, to my mind, it is a symptom of a recruitment system that relies on voluntary participation with very limited remuneration. Put simply, even with quota sampling, there is a risk of leaving out people who are politically disaffected or disengaged as such people are much more likely to simply refuse to participate when contacted.
Solutions and improvements suggest themselves, but I’ll get to that on my next post.