What happens after a Citizens’ Assembly?

Internationally Ireland is seen as a beacon in the development of deliberative democracy. There has been plenty of positive hype (not least in international media coverage) about the outcomes of the 2018 abortion and 2015 marriage equality referendums that followed recommendations by the Irish Citizens’ Assembly (or CA, that operated between 2016-18) and Irish Constitutional Convention (or CC, operating between 2012-14) respectively. Ireland has broken new ground in two key respects, as the first country in the world to run two national-level deliberative processes, and the first to see key recommendations translated into policy outcomes as a result of referendums.

But what about all the other recommendations of the CC and CA? One of the more common criticisms of deliberative mini-publics is that the government can cherry-pick, implementing those recommendations that are convenient, and ignoring those they don’t like.  What has been the Irish record to date?

These two tables provide summary information on how the government has reacted to the CC and CA.  Given that the CA only just completed its work in the past month, we cannot expect that much in terms of government reaction to date: the fact that the abortion referendum has already taken place and that a special Oireachtas committee on climate change has just been established is quite impressive in that regard; however, the lack of any reaction to the report on ageing that was submitted last December is unfortunate.

Clearly, we should expect to see far more progress in dealing with the various recommendations of the CC, whose work concluded over four years ago. And progress there has undoubtedly been.  Of the 10 areas that the CC considered (the eight topics it was originally set and the two it added), in only two areas has there been either outright rejection of the CC’s recommendations by the government (on economic, social and cultural rights) or no apparent progress whatsoever (increasing women’s participation in politics). In all other areas there has been at least some progress. These include the following:

  • Extensive Dáil reforms in June 2016 that in large part map onto the main recommendations of the CC
  • A series of referendums promised on blasphemy, women in the home, voting age, and votes for citizens’ abroad, with one (and possibly two) of these likely to occur later this year
  • The referendum on the age of presidential candidates that was defeated in 2015
  • Evidence that the government is starting to address problems with our electoral process (notably the recent announcement of proposed reforms to our electoral register).

The record of government follow through on the CC and CA has been far from perfect; there has undoubtedly been some cherry-picking. But what cannot be denied is that there has also been some quite significant follow through.

* David Farrell was the research director of the Constitutional Convention and the research leader of the Citizens’ Assembly (in the latter instance funded by the Irish Research Council).  


Assessing the ICC in terms of outcomes (as of July 2018)

Topic ICC output Government reaction Action?
1. Reduction of presidential term 3 recommendations Government accepted 2; rejected 1 Referendum defeated May 2015
2. Reduce voting age 1 recommendation Government accepted this Referendum was promised for 2015; now promised within next 18 months (?)
3. Role of women in home/public life 2 recommendations Ministerial taskforce considered options. Government favoured simple removal of clause. Referendum proposed for October 2018. Date of referendum may now be delayed.
4. Increasing women’s participation in politics 3 recommendations Ministerial task force to investigate further No update
5. Marriage equality 2 recommendations Government agreed to referendum and to supporting legislation Referendum passed May 2015
6. Electoral system 10 recommendations Government promised to establish an electoral commission and to task it with addressing 4 of the other recommendations; remaining 5 recommendations rejected Electoral Commission proposal still being considered at government level. Government is to proceed with steps to improve the electoral register.
7. Votes for emigrants/N. Ireland residents in presidential elections 1 recommendation Ministerial task force considered options Referendum promised within next 18 months (?)
8. Blasphemy 2 recommendations Government agreed to principle of referendum Referendum proposed for October 2018
9. Dáil reform 12 recommendations No formal response from government The bulk of the recommendations were implemented (by changes to Dáil standing orders) in June 2016
10. Economic, social and cultural rights 2 recommendations Government rejected this n/a


Assessing the Citizens’ Assembly in terms of outcomes (as of July 2018)

Topic CA output Date CA report sent to Parliament Government reaction Action?
1. 8th Amendment (Abortion) 1 key recommendation (in various parts) 29 June 2017 Considered by a special Oireachtas committee. Government accepted proposal for a referendum Referendum passed May 2018
2. Challenges and opportunities of an ageing population 15 recommendations plus 6 ancillary ones 8 December 2017 No reaction to date
3. Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change 13 recommendations 18 April 2018 A special parliamentary committee has been established to consider the report
4. Manner in which referenda are held 8 recommendations 21 June 2018 No reaction to date
5. Fixed term parliaments 7 recommendations 21 June 2018 No reaction to date

One thought on “What happens after a Citizens’ Assembly?

  1. On the contrary there’s no evidence it mattered at all, and social scientists ought to be more sceptical, though of course this duty ought not to fall the responsible researcher. Null hypothesis: The deliberative assemblies merely served as cover to deliver referendums demanded by junior coalition partners, which if brought purely on government initiative would have caused problems for the conservative wing of the senior coalition partner. It’s not so surprising that in a small, extremely competitive democracy like Ireland, an assembly comes to similar conclusions to those of the people who elect and instruct politicians. But when these clash, like “social rights” versus private property, politicians took the side of public opinion rather than the assembly.

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