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Dublin: 11°C Friday 25 June 2021

Column: We need a new politics – and here’s how it might work

Any new system must transform public anger at politicians into real engagement. Senator Fiach Mac Conghail writes about how We The Citizens did it.

Fiach Mac Conghail

THE DEPTH AND nature of the economic crisis has dramatically reduced trust in politics.

Moreover, according to the RTÉ exit poll on the day of the 2011 general election, the main reason people voted the way they did was because they felt angry and let down by politics. As a result of this growing disconnect, individuals and groups have emerged in the civic space to give voice to calls for reform and renewal.

We the Citizens was one such initiative. It was set up for just one year to explore whether our democracy could be enhanced by a more participatory form of democracy, between elections. The model it tested was a citizens’ assembly which is a form of deliberative democracy.

Based on an idea raised initially by members of the Political Science Association of Ireland and funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies, We the Citizens has proved that deliberation works. Give a randomly selected cross-section of people objective information and the time to deliberate, not only do they make informed decisions, they also feel a greater connection to the democratic process. This form of democratic engagement is being used successfully elsewhere in the world. We the Citizens has proved conclusively that it can work in Ireland.

On 25th and 26th June this year, one hundred people of all backgrounds and from all over the country, independently and randomly selected, came to the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin, to take part in the pilot Citizens’ Assemby which we organised. Each brought to it their own life experience to addressing some of the big questions facing Ireland in 2011.

‘The results were conclusive’

To ensure that any of the changes and effects observed were as a result of the deliberative process of the Citizens’ Assembly, a comprehensive series of polls were conducted by independent polling company Ipsos/MRBI. The results were analysed by our own academic team and were conclusive.

As a result of their participation in the Citizens’ Assembly weekend, the Citizens’ Assembly members showed significant shifts of opinion both in terms of feelings of trust and interest in politics, and also with regard to key substantive issues in politics. Participants had become me more aware of the complex trade-offs to be made in coming to political decisions.

An important part of the integrity of this pilot Citizens’ Assembly was the concept that the agenda be set, not by a group of academics, but by the people of Ireland. To do this, We the Citizens organised seven meetings around the country in May and June 2011 in Kilkenny, Cork, Galway, Blanchardstown, Tallaght, Letterkenny and Athlone. The prominent themes to arise from the seven events were collated and helped to determine the agenda of the Citizens’ Assembly, an agenda which was truly citizen-led.
Ireland has changed and people are looking for new ways to engage in the civic and democratic life of their communities and their country. That was the message we heard as we travelled through Ireland this summer of 2011.

To those who say that people, who are not members of political parties or of advocacy or sectoral groups, could not have anything meaningful to offer to political decision-making were not on the journey which We the Citizens undertook this year. What we found was that a great deal of common sense is generated when people of all backgrounds get together to work things out. People came together at our events, not because of vested interests or political persuasions, but as individual citizens willing and ready to contribute to the future of our country. Many of them had never before considered connecting in this way.

Certainly, many who attended our events were rightly angry about the economic and social crisis they did not create. But significantly, they were ready to park that anger, to step up and become part of the solution.

We the Citizens’ report, published this week, provides a manual for any government, group or organisation on how deliberative methods can help give citizens a greater influence on decision-making and policy formation.

‘There is an appetite for national renewal’

We want to stress that a citizens’ assembly is not intended to replace our representative democracy, rather to enhance it. It must be set up for a specific purpose, and once that purpose has been achieved, it ceases to exist. In other words, the assembly cannot and should not act as another House of the Oireachtas; its work and membership is limited by time and purpose

A citizens’ assembly can be used nationally, regionally or locally. What is important is that citizens have a voice, not just a vote.

The regional citizens’ events and Citizens’ Assembly showed that despite the blows which have shaken our economy, society and political system, there is a strong spirit of determination among the people and an appetite for national renewal. Participatory democracy can and should be part of this drive for national renewal.

We are grateful to every man and woman who engaged with We the Citizens at our events around the country, at our pilot Citizens’ Assembly in Dublin and online through our website and social media. We owe it to them and to all citizens to ensure that the Government and other political parties see the value of this form of participatory democracy. After all, this model would support politics at both national and local level.

Above all, it would help to restore trust.

We the Citizens will step down at the end of this month. However, we are already encouraged by the response from the Government. In launching our final report this week, the Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore TD, described the We the Citizens’ research as ‘heartening’ and said that it ‘provides valuable lessons for how we can improve our democracy in practical and meaningful ways’.

The citizens’ assembly model may well become part of the political fabric, sooner rather than later.

Independent Senator Fiach Mac Conghail is the chairperson of We The Citizens.

About the author:

Fiach Mac Conghail

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