Citizens’ Assemblies: Gimmick or Gambit?

In light of recent and increasing calls for a Citizens’ Assembly on Irish Unity, “All mouth and no trousers” is how we might paraphrase the increasingly familiar refrain from various detractors – their counter-demand being, as Elvis put it, “A little less conversation, a little more action.” Less charitably (and less nostalgically), however, the very idea of a Citizens’ Assembly has at times, in some quarters, been characterised in northern political commentary as a mere ‘Sinn Féin talking shop’, but is that fair characterisation?

Of course, perhaps it is tempting, and easy, for some to imagine calls for a Citizens’ Assembly as nothing more than a mere Sinn Féin ploy – to be dismissed out of hand as such. Yet the Irish Government would appear to think otherwise, and in pretty strong terms too. Only this week, for instance, the current coalition government has agreed to establish a Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use. Indeed, upon closer examination, we soon find that Citizens’ Assemblies are quite the mainstay of Irish politics, with a good track record – far from the ‘distant’, ‘vague’, and ‘ambiguous’ thing that they are so often portrayed to be; far from something Sinn Féin has any kind of monopoly over.

The 2012 Convention on the Constitution, for instance, while not officially a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’, adhered very closely to the blueprint. Comprised of 100 members, these included 66 randomly selected citizens of Ireland, and – notably – 4 representatives from political parties in the North of Ireland. Quite an achievement, looking back from our current post-Brexit vantage point, where many north-south bodies appear to have died a death…

Detractors often argue, and indeed Citizens’ Assemblies often make no secret of the fact, that the government of the day is not obliged to proceed with any recommendations they propose. However, the aforementioned example does demonstrate their soft power (something Ireland does so well) in the sense of a ‘gambit’ – “a remark intended to start a conversation”, according to one definition. Most notably, the referendum on the 34th Amendment on the Constitution of Ireland – legalisation of same-sex marriage – can be attributed in large part to conversations around this topic that the Convention on the Constitution sparked, or helped to spark.

Other, more explicit Citizens’ Assemblies have since been held in Ireland – the 18-month Citizens’ Assembly of 2016/17, for instance, which was tasked with considering a range of issues: Abortion, fixed term parliaments, referendums, population ageing, and climate change. We then saw the 2020-2021 Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality. 2022 saw two further Citizens’ Assemblies, covering loss of biodiversity as well as a directly elected Dublin mayor. Even in the north of Ireland, a Citizens’ Assembly remains in place, which has previously looked at important issues such as adult social care.

In light of their wide-ranging remits, the insight of their reports, the overwhelmingly positive feedback of participants (something we would not anticipate from people being ‘taken for a ride’), their simultaneous capacity to start conversations and affect meaningful social change, and the high esteem in which the Irish government appears to hold them, it is therefore evident that Citizens’ Assemblies simply cannot be written off so cavalierly as has often been the case hitherto. And yet, this is precisely what happens when calls are made for a Citizens’ Assembly to look at the specific issue of Irish Unity.

A Catch-22 soon comes into view: Advocates for Irish unity are criticised for their lack of planning, their lack of detail, their lack of conversation, their lack of costing. Yet it is precisely these same critics who tend to boycott, naysay, downplay, the very thing, very near to hand, that advocates are calling for which can remedy at least some of these alleged shortcomings – a Citizens’ Assembly. “Only some?” says our hypothetical detractor, but why let the perfect be the enemy of the good?

While some might give into temptation and conjecture, uncharitably, at the motivation behind the aforementioned boycotting and naysaying, it would be more prudent to rise above it and stick to the facts. Firstly, that the merit of Citizens’ Assemblies in Irish politics, as an important tool in our democratic toolkit, is no longer in any real or serious doubt. And secondly, given their previous track record of examining, exploring, and affecting some of the most contentious issues in Irish politics (north and south) – not least same-sex marriage and abortion – there is no serious reason to doubt or oppose their suitability in grappling with what is perhaps the most contentious Irish political issue of all in the here and now: Irish Unity.

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