Missing Links – A critical reflection on Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly experience (by Dr Matthew Wall)

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.


3 thoughts on “Missing Links – A critical reflection on Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly experience (by Dr Matthew Wall)

  1. Paying to relieve pressure on recruiters would never address the lack of ethics of the recruiter or standards at REDc who’s secondary verification didn’t catch it either (for unknown and unexplained reason). Perhaps if those with influence had investigated why women said on national radio https://www.rte.ie/radio1/liveline/programmes/2013/0219/368568-tuesday-19th-february-2013/ (at 24minutes) that she been recruited by a friend who’d done surveys on her before for the Constitutional Convention it may have allowed for the problem with the recuitment companies standards to be addressed, as yet they remain unaddressed amid stoney silence from those involved.

    Solutions are paid and larger to allow for more diversity?

    • Thanks for your comment I couldn’t get the audio file to play on my phone, but will try later on the computer. To your point, this does appear to have been a particularly egregious deviation from the agreed methodology, and should be taken into account when considering what company to contract future recruitments for similar exercises.

      In terms of solutions, I would personally favour a combination of payment/compensation for loss of earnings and compulsory attendance similar to what we use for jury selection. There are interesting arguments to be had on these points, however and I’m working on a post to hash then out in more detail.

  2. I’d largely agree with the above (P.S. it’s nice to see some articles again by some of the main site founders/contributors! 🙂 ). While I very much buy into the general notion of sortition and think it would be a good idea to have sortition-based structures permanently built into our political system, I’d have issues with how it has been implemented in both the constitutional convention and assembly. These were also never really set up, anyway, to deeply challenge current structures. The first was IMO a political attempt to capitalize on reform sentiment in the electorate post-bust. IIRC it was the “2nd Republic” campaign group that first floated the idea of a constitutional convention. This idea was then latched onto by Labour who didn’t really have much in the way of developed reform policies going into an election (unlike FG who, at least, did have a fairly developed set of policies, even if not exactly the most radical). A constitutional convention did sound rather grand and not too specific either. And the assembly, I suspect, was mostly just to farm out a particularly contentious issue.

    Selection issues regarding the polling companies cropped up several times (for both bodies), which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the rigour of the methodology used (doesn’t look good even from a surface view). The acceptance ratio of the first convention was also way too low to be truly representative (I remember a figure of 40 people needing to be asked for every 1 that accepted). While I haven’t seen similar figures for the second body, I’d assume these must have been in the same ballpark. 40:1 necessarily implies huge self-selection bias (regardless of whether demographic boxes are afterwards used to try to reimpose some kind of representativeness). This time the abortion outcome did happen to reflect the final referendum result. However, that could very easily have flipped the other way if the hardcore NOs in the population simply happened to outnumber the hardcore YESs (regardless of the feelings of the centre ground, as those excised by the issue were probably far more likely to sign up and be overrepresented). In contrast, the jury system manages to keep the acceptance percentage quite high: for every 3 people asked 1 of those actually ends up sitting on a jury.

    If we’re really serious about having more of these bodies, IMO it’s essential that the selection process is much more transparent and ensures better representativeness. Some options would be to make taking part compulsory (using a similar framework to the court jury system), to form specific bodies to deliberate only on single issues (hence, keeping the sitting time down to a more reasonable week or two at most), to increase the number of members, and to perhaps pay people to take part (or at least have generous expenses and compensate them for lost work time etc.).

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