A Citizens’ Assembly is a form of deliberative democracy: a process through which citizens can engage in open, respectful and informed discussion and debate with their peers on a given issue.
The Irish Citizens’ Assembly was established in 2016 by a parliamentary resolution and tasked with deliberating on a number of issues, including the Eighth Amendment.
The Citizens’ Assembly followed the model of its predecessor, the Convention on the Constitution, which ran from 2012 to 2014 and whose recommendations had led to the 2015 marriage equality referendum.
The Assembly was composed of a chairperson, appointed by the government, and 99 ordinary citizens ‘randomly selected so as to be broadly representative of Irish society’ in terms of age, gender, social class, and regional spread.
The assembly deliberated on the Eighth Amendment over the course of five sessions from November 2016 until April 2017. Members were given information on the topic, heard from 25 experts and reviewed 300 submissions (out of around 12,000 received) from members of the public and interest groups.
Members adopted the following key principles to guide their debate: openness of proceedings; fairness in how differing viewpoints were treated and of the quality of briefing material; equality of voice among members; efficiency; respect; and collegiality.
By the end of the deliberations, the Assembly members overwhelmingly agreed that the constitutional provision on abortion was unfit for purpose and that article 40.3.3 should not be retained in full (87% of members agreed).
A majority of members (56%) recommended amending or replacing article 40.3.3, and 57% of members recommended that it should be replaced with a provision authorising the Oireachtas to legislate on matters relating to termination of pregnancy.
The Assembly members also made a series of recommendations about what the legislation should cover and about the gestational limits that should apply.
As per its terms of reference, the Assembly submitted its recommendations and final report to the Oireachtas in June 2017. The Assembly’s findings were reviewed by the Joint Committee of both Houses of the Oireachtas, which agreed with the need to remove article 40.3.3, but advocated a simple repeal (without inserting a new provision in the Constitution).
The final Referendum Bill, however, accorded with the ‘repeal and replace’ recommendations made by the Assembly.
Read full article on Electoral Reform Society website