Background, initiator and participants
In May 2016, the Programme for a Partnership Government committed the Irish Government to the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues over an extended time period. One of these issues was to consider whether to repeal or replace the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which prohibited abortion.
A number of tragic cases that ended up in court had put increasing pressure on the Irish government to address this controversial issue. In 2013, the death of a woman from sepsis after being refused assistance to abort a pregnancy following partial miscarriage triggered campaigners calling for the repeal of the amendment.
The chairperson of the Citizens’ Assembly was appointed by the Government and a representative group of 99 citizen members were chosen at random to broadly represent the views of the people of Ireland.
To give advisory recommendations for consideration in a parliamentary committee, which in turn would make a recommendation to government.
The Citizens’ Assembly held five weekend-long meetings between October 2016 and April 2017 during which time legal and medical expert witnesses were invited to give evidence and be questioned. A final report and recommendations were prepared and then considered by a committee of parliamentarians from both Houses which, in December 2017, recommended a citizens’ referendum on the removal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. A referendum is required to amend the Constitution, which the Irish government proposed. This referendum took place on 25 May 2018 and passed by a clear majority of 66.4 per cent to 33.6 per cent in favour of removing the Eighth Amendment.
Notable features and lessons learned
The Citizens’ Assembly was composed of private citizens; politicians did not participate in its deliberations. The government defined its parameters, and the Parliament responded to its report.
The consensus-building techniques facilitated greater engagement and mutual respect. The tone of the proceedings in the Citizens’ Assembly was non-aggressive and the information presented to it was intelligible for the lay person.
The parliamentary committee largely mirrored the tone and approach of the Citizens’ Assembly and was thereby inquisitive rather than adversarial.
The ‘Yes’ and’ No’ campaigns for the referendum were largely built outside traditional political party structures.
Although politicians were prominent in both campaigns, the main parties allowed their members to support either side.
Decision making was deliberately slow to allow debate in the public and within the parties.