The Irish abortion referendum: How a Citizens’ Assembly helped to break years of political deadlock

Michela Palese
Author:
Michela Palese

Posted on the 29th May 2018

In a historic referendum on Friday, the Irish electorate voted with a resounding Yes in favour of removing the Eighth Amendment (article 40.3.3) from the Constitution.

Citizens were asked whether or not to replace the Eighth Amendment, which banned abortion in almost all circumstances by recognising the constitutional right to life of the unborn, with a provision enabling the Oireachtas (the Irish Parliament) to regulate the termination of pregnancy by law.

With a turnout of 64%, all constituencies bar Donegal voted in favour of repealing.

In addition to the salience of the issue (this was the first time since 1983 that citizens had a direct say on this high-profile and divisive topic,) the referendum was significant because of the process that led to its occurrence.

The decision to call a referendum was, in fact, based on the recommendations made by a panel of 99 ordinary people, who deliberated in a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’. Click To Tweet

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.

The Irish example shows how bottom-up citizens’ input can complement and enhance representative democracy, and act as an impetus for constitutional renewal. Click To Tweet

Despite increasing pressure for change, politicians of all stripes had been reluctant to engage with the issue of abortion directly and to place it firmly on the political and legislative agenda.

But it only took 99 ordinary citizens to help break years of political deadlock and reach a consensus on this highly polarising issue.

Ireland has provided a concrete example of the benefits of a well-structured Citizens’ Assembly. Politicians from across the UK – and the political spectrum – should now reflect on whether they should play a greater role in our democracy. 

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