Doing democracy differently: lessons from the Irish Referendum

 (this is the third of three blogs. The first blog examined the reasons why our initial attempts to form an election compact between different centre left parties failed. The second looks at the role of social media in promoting extremism and tribalism.
This third blogs looks at exciting how deliberative democracy can inaugurate a new progressive politics)

Many celebrate the recent Irish referendum vote on abortion  as a vote for women’s rights and a fundamental break with its Catholic, conservative past. But what is less well known is the groundbreaking approach adopted by Ireland that preceded the vote – one that was the very opposite of our muddled, polarised and fear-ridden debate on Brexit.

Referendums dont normally lend themselves to nuanced debate. By their nature,  questions are framed in a binary manner to solicit a straight ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer with a ‘tyranny of the majority’ as the outcome. However, what can be done is to use the period preceding a referendum vote to promote a wide ranging and informed public debate.

This is exactly the strategy adopted by the Taoiseach – the Irish government. To do this, they convened a ‘citizens assembly’ of ordinary people, chosen by sortition, in order to ensure a representative sample of the wider population. Housewives, students, ex-teachers, truck drivers and others, met over five weekends at the end of 2016. Members of the assembly included a mix of a mix of pro-lifers, pro-choicers and undecideds whose views broadly reflected opinions in the wider Irish population. By the end of it, they voted for change on one of the most divisive issues in Irish politics that no party dared touch for fear of electoral suicide.

The citizens’ assembly helped break the deadlock by giving permission for a more balanced, open and informed debate and it added democratic legitimacy to the difficult decisions confronting the Irish government.  Much of the assembly’s  deliberations were broadcast live on the internet and assembly members listened to presentations by medical, legal and ethical experts, campaigners for pro as well as anti-abortion, as well as powerful personal testimonies by women who had  chosen abortion and those who chose to keep their baby.

“I think this issue, in Ireland, could never have gotten to the point we’re at today, were it not for the citizens’ assembly,” says Fine Gael’s deputy, Kate O’Connell. “I think we would have been years getting there, if we ever got there.”

The An all-party parliamentary committee charged with considering the work of the citizens’ assembly subsequently recommended legal abortion without restriction up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

As Oliver Escobar, a lecturer in public policy at Edinburgh University, commented, “It’s quite a milestone in the field of democratic innovations. This is the first time this has been part of everyday politics”.

When the referendum vote came, the result was a resounding ‘Yes’ to withdraw the Eighth Amendment on Abortion, a part of the Irish Constitution, and allow women the right to decide. And evidence suggests that the information and debate that came with these assemblies had an impact both on vote choice and turnout, with a better understanding of the issues, and an unwillingness to be sucked into polarised debate promoted by  shock imagery and disinformation campaigns.

This more deliberative and informed approach to a highly emotive issue resulted in  a notable failure for  the polarising tactics and disinformation strategies adopted by Save the 8th and Love Both, the two main groups campaigning against the removal of the anti-abortion clause from the Irish constitution. Both used apps developed by a US-based company, Political Social Media (PSM), which worked on both the Brexit and Trump campaign. Save the 8th also hired Vote Leave’s technical director, the Cambridge Analytica alumnus Thomas Borwick.

As the journalist Fintan O’Toole has concluded, ‘a brave experiment in trusting the people helped defeat tribalism and fake ‘facts’”.

Is deliberative democracy the antidote to party political tribalism and fake news?

But this experiment in ‘deliberative democracy’ did not come from nowhere. Ireland already has a track record in convening citizens assemblies, and this is part of  growing interest and experimentation in citizens assemblies, smaller ‘citizen juries’, consensus conferences and ‘planning cells’, all forms of  ‘mini-publics’ tested in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia  and Oregon state in the USA, over the last twenty years.

Recent experiments  in the UK have also included a specially convened Citizens Assembly on Brexit.  However unlike the Irish example, this was a little known research project by University College London convened after the referendum vote, to deliberate on what kind of Brexit deal a representative sample of the UK population hoped for. This citizens assembly  had no official support or backing by the UK government and was largely ignored by the mainstream media. The lack of official support also meant tat tight budgets could not include a properly funded  national media campaign to trigger a wider public conversation.

Despite this, the Citizens Assembly on Brexit demonstrated what other similar deliberative forms have found: that when ordinary people are given clear, fact based information, expert presentations for and against a particular issue, and a safe space to discuss these in, they are capable of wrestling with complex questions, respecting different opinions, and arriving at consensual decisions.

Divisions and categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’ dont necessarily disappear but they are no longer the governing categories by which people relate to each other. This more constructive and deliberative approach that respects difference and  seeks common ground  was despite the fact that the assembly included a marginal majority of those who voted ‘Leave’. The Assembly’s first preference was for a bespoke trading relationship with the EU. Failing that, most opted to remain in the Single Market.  For the full report along with annexes, click here.

Neal Lawson from Compass Think-do tank has recently argued that any future second referendum ought to adopt the Irish model and have a government commissioned citizens assembly.


Annex: how do citizens juries and assemblies work?

This is an ideal approach than needs to be adapted to time and resource constraints. There are a couple examples I know of, of local campaign groups who adapted this approach to their own needs.

  1. Planning and recruitment. Usually, an Independent Advisory Committee (or Stewarding Committee oversees the process to ensure its quality and fairness. It may include academics and public figures from a range of backgrounds and opposing viewpoints. Mini-publics usually deal with divisive topics and their legitimacy depends on the buy-in from a range of voices across divides.
  2. Learning phase. Participants are supported to learn about the topic from diverse perspectives. Time for  individual learning (e.g. citizens receive  information packages checked by the Independent Advisory Committee (IAG)  to minimise bias),with group learning. During the latter, they are exposed to a range of evidence, views and testimonies covering the topic from various angles. Depending on the topic, this may include experts, officials, politicians, activists, and stakeholder representatives of various sorts. Participants are empowered to interrogate these ‘witnesses’, and sometimes to choose them from a list prepared by the IAG in order to ensure that assembly members are exposed to a balanced range of evidence and views.
  3. Deliberative phase. Aided by impartial facilitators and recorders, participants then engage in small group face-to-face deliberation where they reconsider their initial ideas on the topic in the light of the evidence and testimonies from the learning phase, but also with respect to the arguments and experiences of their fellow deliberators.
  4. Decision-making phase. The learning and deliberative work from previous stages enables participants to engage in considered judgement and informed decision-making. Depending on the topic, this may lead to a particular recommendation or set of recommendations which are articulated through reasoned arguments in the final report statement.

Follow up. The focus in this stage is impact. Ideally,the citizens assembly has already been in the ‘public eye’ from its inception. One way to ensure impact is to involve key public figures and broadcasters in the process and Stewarding Committee/ Independent Advisory Committee. The outcomes of the citizens assembly are shared through all relevant networks, thus informing broader public deliberation and decision-making.

These notes are taken from Forms of Mini Publics by Dr Escobar and Dr Elstub published on the New Democracy Website


2 thoughts on “Doing democracy differently: lessons from the Irish Referendum

  1. This is very interesting, Gavin. I wonder how we might set up deliberation on an issue or two that Shaping our Future has identified. The ‘co-production’ workshops haven’t worked in the same way.





    1. Hi Peter can you tell me more? Which co-production workshops are these? I have been in touch with Cornwall Council and there is interest in this approach…..


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