MODELS of deliberative and participative democracy have been discussed and promoted over the past three decades with some limited attempts at implementation. The aim is to get involvement in policy-making by ordinary citizens informed by a balanced range of expert opinion and in-depth discussion.

The Scottish Civic Forum was established in the first year of the Scottish Parliament but the funding was later withdrawn. Common Weal produced a report on A Citizens’ Assembly for the Scottish Parliament. The Electoral Reform Society has supported similar proposals. Our politicians have shown little interest in developing new processes that move beyond existing organisational structures, but we now have a practical model that has been shown to work and has had interesting outcomes.

What is now called the Irish Citizens’ Assembly was preceded in 2012-14 by the Constitutional Convention. This was established by the Irish Parliament as an advisory body on a range of constitutional issues, in particular same-sex marriage. In this first model, the chair was appointed by the Government, 33 representatives were appointed by political parties and 66 were citizens chosen randomly. It met over 15 months at weekends and made 18 recommendations for constitutional changes.

Some were accepted by the government, some rejected and others passed on for consideration. The most controversial recommendation was support for gay marriage which the government agreed to put to voters in a referendum and which was successful.

In the run-up to the 2016 election, there were proposals to develop the convention and rename it as the Citizens’ Assembly. The successful coalition government had committed to “establish a Citizens’ Assembly within six months, without participation by politicians and with a mandate to look at a number of key issues. These will not be limited to those pertaining to the constitution.”

The new Citizens’ Assembly had a Supreme Court judge as chair. All 99 other members plus 99 substitutes were randomly selected from the electoral register by an opinion polling company to be broadly representative of Irish society. The secretariat was drawn from the civil service.

There were 10 three-day residential weekend sessions planned. There were expert presentations, Q&A sessions and debate, round-table discussions and plenary meetings. All of this is live-streamed. During the 2016-17 period, five of the sessions were on abortion and there was a clear majority for radical change in Irish abortion policy. A referendum on this has been promised but as yet no decision on what the recommended change on the ballot paper will be.

The Assembly went on to consider policy priorities on ageing issues – long-term care, pensions and retirement. Climate change policy is currently under consideration. The government must respond to the conclusions of the Citizens’ Assembly but is not bound to accept them

This has been a valuable way of involving a genuine cross-section of the public in serious, in-depth and well-informed policy deliberation outside of party divisions. It is especially useful in tackling issues with complex moral dimensions. Had we had a Citizens’ Assembly study of assisted dying, we would quite probably have had a different conclusion to the rather cowardly outcome of the two Holyrood votes on the issue.

Scottish democracy could be enriched by informed and considered input from a non-party forum of citizens on the Irish model.
Isobel Lindsay
Via email