Democracy in action

With trust in the Irish political system at an all-time low, Jason Quigley explores attempts by the political initiative We the Citizens to introduce greater citizen involvement.

In a time when political apathy and distrust is widespread, one proposed method of increasing political participation is to increase individual citizens’ involvement via citizens’ assemblies. Traditionally met with scepticism by Irish politicians, a group of Irish professors created the initiative We the Citizens and successfully applied for substantial funding from Atlantic Philanthropy. Their experiment set out to see if increased citizen participation through assemblies could increase trust in the political system and help citizens shape Ireland for the better.

The citizens’ assembly that We the Citizens proposed followed a system in use in several other countries where, according to Professor David Farrell, Head of UCD’s School of Politics, “You engage with citizens directly in a bottom-up process where citizens have a direct involvement in helping to take decisions that are important.” Citizens would be called into such assemblies to decide on a particular issue in a particular time frame. Examples cited by Professor Farrell included allocation of a portion of local government budgets in Brazilian communities, and an electoral reform proposal in British Columbia.

Steven Cullen, a student participant, commuted from Raheny to Tallaght as a volunteer assemblyman in order to take part in one pilot. “I was required to take part in round table discussions based largely around trying to come up with practical solutions to Ireland’s political and economic problems, and on how we can improve the system under which we’re governed.” They discussed both broad and specific topics and as the discussion proceeded, “a moderator would record all of the points brought up, and we were also all given markers to use on the table’s paper tablecloth so we could write down any points or ideas that we had which didn’t come up in the discussion – moderators photographed all of these tablecloths at the end of the event.”

Cullen continued, “I was grouped with roughly eight or nine other participants plus the moderator. The other participants represented quite a variety of age groups; I was certainly the youngest in my group, while the others ranged from people in their thirties, to the middle-aged, to retired people.”  Of the moderators he said they “made sure that no one person dominated discussion, brought people into the discussion if they hadn’t spoken in a while, and also made sure that we never wandered too far from the core topics we were supposed to be talking about.” Of the discussion he felt that “the dialogue at the assembly was generally positive. Most people were articulating reasonable, realisable and constructive points.”

Professor Farrell explained there are several factors key to ensuring a citizens’ assembly is a constructive and useful process. The first of these is the selection of participants, that they are “randomly selected, because the alternative of electing them, or of letting the citizens represent sectors, or interests, either of those alternatives, introduces the dangers of entryism, and the whole process being hijacked. Random selection cuts that out immediately.” By using such random selection they prevent existing organisations from exploiting the citizens’ assembly for their own ends.

His second point was regarding the use of expert witnesses. “Clearly if you’re randomly selecting, you’re going to have huge variations in skill set of those citizens, particularly on whatever issue it is you’re talking about. And that’s exactly what we had in We the Citizens – which created an important role for expert witnesses.” These experts would be “engaging with citizens so that they become informed of the nuances and difficulties and complexities of particular issues, and then take informed decisions.” He spoke specifically of an example in British Columbia where 160 assembly members worked on weekends for a year on possible electoral reform and how “by the end of that process those 160 citizen assembly members were experts on electoral systems, more expert then most political scientists would be.”

His final point is that assemblies must be time delimited, and formed with a specific purpose. “Once it’s done its job it ceases to exist. We’re not talking about a third house of the Oireachtas, we’re talking about a one-off process and it’s set up for a purpose and made very clear from the get-go what that purpose is, so that the members have no false illusions about what their job is.” None of these assemblies exist in perpetuity, which ensures a high level of motivation on the part of participants.

We the Citizens has performed its experiment, and has now dissolved since submitting its report to the government, but the question of greater citizen involvement remains open. The group behind the initiative are continuing to lobby for the use of citizens’ assemblies, particularly for the constitutional convention the government has committed itself to. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Minister Brendan Howlin were both present to receive the We the Citizens report. Professor Farrell felt that it was too soon to say what the government’s response would be to their proposals, but he did feel, at least, that “both ministers gave a very positive vibe.”