An in-depth study of the “Irish Model” by Dimitri Courant

In “Citizens’ Assemblies for Referendums and Constitutional Reforms: Is There an “Irish Model” for Deliberative Democracy?” Dimitri Courant analyzes the recent Irish citizens’ and constituional assemblies in a nuanced and contexuatlized way. This must be one the better treatments of the subject for anyone intersted in the “trans-localization” of the model itself and for those intersted in the design issues for citizens’ assemblies. To me it is a sober evaluation of the “Irish case” and gives us much food for thought on what might happen going forward.

Among democratic innovations, deliberative mini-publics, that is panels of randomly selected citizens tasked to make recommendations about public policies, have been increasingly used. In this regard, Ireland stands out as a truly unique case because, on the one hand, it held four consecutive randomly selected citizens’ assemblies, and on the other hand, some of those processes produced major political outcomes through three successful referendums; no other country shows such as record. This led many actors to claim that the “Irish model” was replicable in other countries and that it should lead to political “success.” But is this true? Relying on a qualitative empirical case-study, this article analyses different aspects to answer this question: First, the international context in which the Irish deliberative process took place; second, the differences between the various Irish citizens’ assemblies; third, their limitations and issues linked to a contrasted institutionalization; and finally, what “institutional model” emerges from Ireland and whether it can be transferred elsewhere.

Interestingly, it mentions a sortition-based minipublic, the French “High Council of the MIlitary Function,” which Courant asserts was the FIRST modern and ongoing iteration of an alloted minipublic, dating to 1969.

First, the High Council of the Military Function (HCMF, Conseil Supérieur de la Fonction Militaire) established by the French Parliament in 1969, still active today, brings together 85 randomly selected representatives and deals with all matters related to soldiers’ working conditions; it is the first and the most durable mini-public in modern history, as well as the first permanent randomly selected institution in the modern world (Courant, 2019a). Secondly, the Citizens’ Juries and Planning Cells, created in the 1970s by Ned Crosby and Peter Dienel, involve ordinary citizens in drafting a report to inform public policy decisions, spread throughout many countries but without strong institutionalization (Crosby and Nethercut, 2005Hendriks, 2005Vergne, 2010). Third, the Consensus Conferences on techno-scientific issues were launched in the 1980s by the Danish Board of Technology and spread in various EU countries as well as in Switzerland, where the TA-SWISS was officially established by Parliament to produce impartial evaluations of contested new technologies (Joss and Bellucci, 2002). Fourth, Deliberative Polling was invented by James Fishkin in the 1990s and has been tested around the world since. It aims at showing “considered opinion” contrary to traditional opinion polls that capture only “raw opinions” (Fishkin, 2009Mansbridge, 2010). Fifth, the Citizens’ Initiative Review was set up in Oregon in 2010 to have a panel produce impartial information on upcoming referendums that is sent to the voting population in order to help it cast an informed ballot (Knobloch et al., 2015); since then, the device has spread to Arizona, Colorado, Washington State, Massachusetts, and California. Finally, the new trend of this family of democratic innovations are the Citizens’ Assemblies(CAs), launched in Canada in 2004 (Warren and Pearse, 2008) and then replicated with various changes in the Netherlands (Fournier et al., 2011), Australia (Carson et al., 2013), Iceland, Belgium, Ireland (Reuchamps and Suiter, 2016), and the United Kingdom (Flinders et al., 2016Renwick, 2017Hughes, 2018). According to Böker and Elstub (2015), deliberative polls tend to have the greatest representativeness but the least impact; citizens juries, planning cells and consensus conferences have moderate representativeness and impact; while CAs tend to have a high representativeness and the greatest impact (see also: Harris, 2019). Very often, the HCMF and the CIR are left out by scholars comparing mini-publics, but those cases display a high level of embeddedness in their respective political system.

Regarding future use and abuse of the “Irish Model,”

Clear evidence of this institutionalization of citizens’ assemblies in the minds of the social actors was the call for a “new citizens’ assembly” by three pro-life Irish MPs. Even though they were opposed to the ICA’s recommendation, they did not criticize the innovation itself but asked for another one to explore “the means whereby positive alternatives to abortion can be explored so as to fully respect and defend the rights of unborn children and their mothers and partners” (Edwards, 2017). Moreover, there is a contagion effect, as many voices are calling for a citizens’ assembly to be implemented in Northern Ireland (Press Association, 2018b) and an opinion poll commissioned by an Irish senator reveals that there was a resounding response to the question of whether an all-island citizens’ assembly should be established to “plan for unity and the future of Ireland.” A huge 64.34% said “Yes” (Hickey, 2018). Moreover, the recent Programme for Government pledges to establish new CAs on various topics (Government of Ireland, 2020).

The ICAs are also a source of inspiration for democratic innovators, academics, and activists, notably for the creation of a civil-society-led citizens’ assembly on Brexit in the UK (Renwick, 2017), for a future State-supported device on the question, as some politicians hope (The Irish World, 2018Brown, 2019), and more recently for the citizens’ assemblies, especially dealing with climate change, in France, Wales, Scotland, and in the UK both at the local and national level. However, empirical research on the French CA reveals many differences with the Irish deliberative design, even on features that were common to all of Irelands’ mini-public; for instance, the absence of facilitators at the tables, or the fact that experts’ presentations in France were not of equal lengths, some speakers having 50 min while others only five (Courant, 2020a). Hence, there is a risk of other DMPs claiming to take inspiration from Ireland only in words but not in actions.

An uncertainty remains: will the institutionalization of deliberative mini-publics be a synonym for democratization or for governmentality? On the one hand, the greater the institutionalization, the lesser the politicians’ influence and arbitrariness. Moreover, to follow Talcott Parsons, institutions are “activities governed by stable and reciprocate anticipations” (Lécuyer, 1994, 111). Stability, predictability, and continuity are necessary conditions for the development of a new form of citizenship or “civic culture,” one based on participation and deliberation rather than merely on elections; thus permitting the construction of an actual “deliberative system” (Parkinson and Mansbridge, 2012). On the other hand, institutionalization could also potentially “de-democratize” democratic innovations. In studying participatory budgeting, Anja Röcke points out the risk that this participatory institution “will be drained of its political content to be reduced to a mere ‘tool’ for public authorities to use as they see fit.” She wonders: “is participatory budgeting destined to become a simple participatory mode of public spending without fundamentally overturning the existing power relationships nor the institutional hierarchy?” (Röcke, 2010, 58–60).

He suggests how we might go forward in evaluating the use of mini-publics.

Summarizing the different elements presented in this paper, a suggestion for getting out of the “incomplete institutionalization” of DMPs and moving toward an institutional deliberative system could be the following:

1. Input: allowing the maxi-public to have a say in the agenda, possibly through binding initiative petition.

2. Throughput: formalizing the “role” of the organizers, especially the Chair, and implementing “meta-deliberations” on the procedures and conditions of the deliberation itself.

3. Output: rendering systematic the articulation between the DMPs’ deliberations, special parliamentary committees, debates in Parliament and, more crucially, binding referendums.

In the end, if the institutionalization of democratic innovations remains uncertain, it is due to the very nature of an institution itself. According to Rawls (1999), an institution is not the means with which to achieve a common goal but to reach different ends for different actors. Elites might agree to the creation of deliberative institutions to get a better informed and more competent demos, while radical democrats might support those same institutions to empower the people (Courant, 2018b). However, the inclusion of novel permanent or regular democratic institutions could potentially deeply democratize current political systems and even change the “spirit of democracy.”

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