Patrick wrote this article for the Dutch radical journalism platform, De Correspondent. It sets out the context for the referendum on whether to repeal the 8th amendment to the Irish Constitution. And it describes in detail the machinations of the Citizens' Assembly, whose deliberations led to the referendum.
All Hands On believes that we require radical, systemic changes to our democratic processes if we are to address systemic issues such as climate change and inequality. Citizens' Assemblies and the sortition process by which they are selected are an example of such change.
But we also require fundamental, systemic changes to the media and the role of journalism. De Correspondent is a shining light in this respect. It is an advertising free, participative journalism platform, funded through a membership subscription model. It has over 60,000 paying members at the time of writing. Its manifesto is based on ten principles, which describe its business model, its dedication to journalistic ideals rather than any political ideology, its social aims, and its desire to shift the emphasis from passive readers to active participants. Patrick experienced the latter at first hand as he took part in a live Q&A session in the article's comment thread.
The thread was joined by Citizens' Assembly member, Mike Loughnane. At the time of writing there are 81 comments in the thread. The discussion reflects deep both a dissatisfaction with democracy's status quo, and consequent admiration for what the Irish have achieved with their Assemblies. The quote below is indicative.
The thread also had an unexpected "guest" appearance from De Correspondent contributor and author of Against Elections, David Van Reybrouck.
Patrick's article is published in Dutch. An English transcript is shown in full below.
Ireland’s immaculate conception – a step forward for democracy?
By Patrick Chalmers
Irish voters will weigh countless women’s stories today in deciding how to balance the rights to life of a mother and her unborn child. These life-and-death dramas have dominated months of impassioned campaigning, years even for some, each one an individual truth about a pregnancy.
They include Sorcha’s, who described travelling to England for a termination she couldn’t have had in Ireland. A mother already, she wanted no further children and also feared a recurrence of severe post-natal depression and possibly having a still-born child. And Tracey’s, who went to Liverpool in England to have her terminally-ill daughter Grace induced early, an illegal act at home. Her baby’s ashes arrived back by courier three weeks later.
On the other side were those of women such as Carina. She first knew her son Benjamin had Down Syndrome after his birth. She fears more liberal laws would have Ireland following the likes of Britain, Denmark and Iceland in aborting most Down Syndrome babies. Or Emma, who says someone like her might abort their unplanned baby, rather than keep it, if abortion were more easily available.
The binary nature of a referendum means only one side will win on an issue that’s far from black and white. For Ireland, abortion pits traditional Catholic morality and rural conservatism against the modernising morals and ethics of its more urbanised, youthful population. It’s not any easy mix.
So there’s a deeper story buried here, one beyond any single woman’s pregnancy experience, however poignant. Its core concerns Ireland’s use of a democratic device inspired by Ancient Greece to resolve this highly contentious question. Not the referendum itself but what made it possible – a randomly selected jury of Irish people whose collective wisdom broke through a decades-long deadlock over abortion.
During dozens of hours those everyday Irish jurors considered the medical, moral and ethical issues involved. Their main recommendations – to repeal a de facto constitutional ban on abortion law to free politicians’ hands on the matter – surprised pretty much everyone. The evident seriousness of the work, and clear-cut conclusions, opened the doors for an all-party committee of politicians to follow the assembly’s lead.
Today’s vote is the third leg of this unique process, a mandatory requirement for any change to Ireland’s constitution. It gives all Irish citizens a direct say on abortion law. For all the imperfect bluntness of referendums, let’s not talk about Brexit, the electorate has a bedrock of facts and testimony on which to decide. Many countries wouldn’t dream of giving citizens a say on abortion still less with such high-quality support materials. A brake on targeted political advertising on social media has also helped keep things more transparent.
That means whatever the outcome, some will quietly celebrate having radically changed the rules for doing democracy.
No Irish joke
So, in a country of renowned story tellers, it’s this one that may endure beyond all others. Its essence is that Ireland has changed the rules for doing democracy – for all of us, everywhere – no joke.
The referendum emerged from a process far closer to original Athenian ideas of power to, or government by, the people. We’ve not seen anything like it in a couple of centuries, when the modern version of government by elections took root. Without the assembly, there might not even have been a referendum, so entrenched had abortion become for Irish people and politicians of all parties.
Ireland’s message for the world is simple enough: that ordinary citizens, given time and the right conditions, show deep, collective wisdom quite unlike what comes from adversarial politics. The implications go way beyond a single referendum, whatever the result, and way beyond one country even.
That’s why I went to Ireland in July last year - to get a close-up look at what seemed like a different way of doing democracy. Inside a North Dublin hotel, nestled by a sea front dotted with sailing boats and other small craft at anchor, I met members of a public jury fresh from five weekends spent pondering their country’s abortion laws.
My trip was the latest step on a journey I’d first thought of more than two decades earlier as a news reporter in Brussels. Back then I’d been shocked at how EU’s leaders had tossed aside, with little evident debate, environment ministers’ attempt to install a European carbon tax. What struck me then was how the leaders guillotined months of negotiations on tackling climate change, telling journalists nothing of their closed-door meeting’s who, why or how.
My thinking had evolved over the years into an all-encompassing critique of elections themselves. Part of that was the skewed outcomes of my native Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral process. Another was the growing body of books unpicking representative democracy’s claims to be either representative or democratic. They included the revelation that Ancient Greeks – think Aristotle – saw democracy as requiring public assemblies and random selection of public office holders. They barely used elections, devices they saw as inevitably oligarchic or aristocratic, meaning they inevitably favoured an elite few.
The Irish jury process I came to see – the Citizens’ Assembly – was firmly in the original democracy camp. Its 99 members comprised randomly chosen citizens intended to represent ordinary Irish people by age, gender, social class and region.
What struck me most was participants’ quiet pride in what they’d done. That quality shone through on camera, and again in phone interviews I did with other participants for a Guardian newspaper article. These story tellers spoke about personal transformation, how they’d deeply engaged in the jury process and even moved their positions as a result.
David Keogh, a truck driver in his late 40s, was one of them. He couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.
“It’s been the best experience of my life and I mean that genuinely. It’s, what can I say? It’s the inside of the machine – we’re inside the machine.”
A step back from participants I met Dimitri Courant, a French researcher in political science at the Universities of Lausanne and Paris 8. Speaking to him after the Assembly ended, in 2018, he described a process that put Ireland in the front rank of democracy innovation.
“There’s a new standard, a new norm to be taken seriously – and that’s the Irish example.”
Assembly enthusiasts highlight two aspects of the approach that set it apart from electoral politics. The first is to randomly select participants to represent more accurately the views of wider society. That pricks the narrow bubbles of elected politicians, making policies less elitist. The second is to create the necessary conditions required for people to deliberate. That means having balanced panels of experts address participants, presenting different perspectives and arguments, and giving time for reflection and exchanges among members.
Gender bias impacts
The first element certainly matters in Ireland when it comes to questions of women’s reproductive health, not least abortion. That’s because Irish women are chronically under-represented in politics. Despite hitting an all-time high in the 2016 general election, they still hold just one in every five seats in parliament.
So, while men may take part directly in most conceptions, they never do gestation and are rarely left holding any baby. Hardly the place of deep knowledge from which to craft women-friendly policies, to put it mildly. That imbalance plays out in serial policy failures.
That’s not to say gender questions led directly to the assembly as their antidote, though they certainly fuelled enthusiasm for it. One of the 2016 intake of new Teachta Dála or TDs – members of the Irish parliament’s lower house – was Kate O'Connell. Her political ambitions flowed directly out of experiences she’d had after diagnosis of a potentially fatal condition in her unborn son, one that might have required her to have an abortion, in England.
A Citizens’ Assembly was already in prospect for the Fine Gael minority coalition government in 2016, part of an attempt to restore voters’ trust in politics. The idea harks back to something more like original democracy’s meaning of government or rule by the people.
The Greeks of antiquity understood implicitly the pitfalls of elections. To avoid them, they embedded random selection of citizens and assemblies as their political mainstays. Downgrading elections meant would-be candidates couldn’t lie about their plans, themselves or their opponents. It also prevented the handing of powers to elites, they called them aristocrats or oligarchs then, who usually win most ballots.
Those basic elements, then and now, make for very different political dynamics from what we’re used to. Instead of fractious debates between rival parties or candidates for election, assembly participants are more likely to tackle issues on their merits. That difference certainly jumped out in the style of exchanges witnessed within the Citizens’ Assembly versus those of the joint parliamentary committee that took up its recommendations.
“There was no major arguments or disputes here at the Citizens’ Assembly even though there was serious disagreements, as there would always be on this subject,” said John Long, a 56-year-old electronics technician from the southern Irish city of Cork.
Long was another of the 99 random strangers brought together for the assembly. They spent their first five weekends over five months tackling abortion law, ending in April 2017.
“I would say we probably put a couple of hundred hours of total time into it, which is probably more than any parliamentary party committee would have… So, we're probably the best-informed amateurs in the country on this topic at the moment.”
He, like some others on the assembly who spoke publicly, said his views gradually moved towards liberalising abortion laws.
That’s not to say assemblies alone could solve the pervasive crisis of trust in election-led political systems around the world. They’re fragile entities, needing transparency in their use so as to build public trust in their potential. That means choosing genuinely representative samples of jurors. It means politicians buying into the process, giving the necessary budget and support staff to make things work. They must also commit to act on assembly recommendations, even those they might not agree with. None of this is guaranteed.
The point is to create space for people to grasp complex issues, and perhaps change positions as their opinions evolve. That’s why Ireland’s decision to hold one on abortion and put its core recommendations to politicians and then a referendum, marks a quantum change worldwide for the approach.
While Ireland’s recent efforts may make it the poster boy for those advocating for more assemblies, it’s not an only child. This year saw the launch of Democracy R&D, in Madrid. Its members’ collective focus is to explore ways to do democracy better. Core principles involve using randomly selected juries, so-called sortition, coupled with deliberation.
An Irish “yes” vote would certainly boost case for sortition, vindicating politicians’ choice to use it to test voters’ deliberated thinking. A “no”, rejecting the Assembly’s recommendations, would weaken the idea’s appeal though probably not fatally. British Columbia used a citizens' assembly to consider electoral reform in 2004 but then saw the recommendations rejected in a referendum. Despite the result, the process won praise for the seriousness and quality of members’ thinking, engagement and conclusions. The same would likely be true of Ireland.
Either way, playing the long game looks like any would-be reformers’ best option. That an assembly took place at all in Ireland was thanks to seeds planted during fallout from the global financial crisis of 2007/2008. The credit crunch knocked the stuffing out of several leading Irish banks and burst the local property bubble. Political scientists saw economists digging into the causes and reckoned they should too, arguing Ireland had to change.
“Without radical reform, we are in danger of sleepwalking into a different crisis in 20 years’ time,” they said.
Ireland has certainly moved on since then, not least in the “yes” vote for same-sex marriage in a 2015 referendum that emerged from that very reform process.
For Kate O'Connell, the pharmacist-and-mother-of-three-turned-politician, just holding a jury had worked wonders for abortion questions, even before May 25.
“I think this issue, in Ireland, could never have gotten to the point we're at today, were it not for the Citizens' Assembly. I think we would have been years getting there, if we ever got there.”