July 10th, 2019
Last May, a major UN
biodiversity report gave a stark warning that nature is
declining at unprecedented rates globally. Ireland’s National
Biodiversity Conference Report lays bare
the urgent challenges of protecting biodiversity nationally.
In May, the Dáil committed to establishing a
citizens’ assembly on biodiversity loss. What lessons can we learn from
Ireland’s recent citizens’ assembly to enhance this proposed deliberative
Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly followed on from We the Citizens
(2011) and the Constitutional Convention
(2012-2014). These forums have spearheaded some of the most prominent political
and societal reform in Ireland, including referendums to amend the constitution
on same-sex marriage and abortion.
Irish ventures in deliberative democracy have
internationally for their innovation, approach and
achievements. The appeal of citizens’ assemblies is spreading. For example, in the UK, Extinction Rebellion
includes the creation of a citizens’ assembly as part of their demands for
governments to act on the climate and ecological emergency. Recently, six
committees of the UK
Parliament announced that a citizens’ assembly on climate change will be
held in autumn of this year.
Lessons from the Irish experience can provide
guidance for Ireland’s proposed citizens’ assembly on biodiversity loss as well
as other jurisdictions that are considering running similar initiatives. We focus
here on three themes: who was involved, how the process worked and what happened
to its recommendations.
First, the 2016-2018 Citizens’ Assembly chose
citizens at random and utilized the input of experts, but a wider range of
experts could be included in the proposed assembly on biodiversity.
Ireland’s Citizen’s Assembly included the
random selection of 99 citizens, stratified across gender, age, social class
and regional backgrounds. This selection was broadly representative of the
Irish electorate. Expert presentations ensued and citizen deliberation was moderated
by trained facilitators.
Expert speakers were chosen primarily based on
their professional expertise and ability to communicate to a diverse audience.
While expertise is crucial, the use of well-known TV or radio personalities
engaged in environmental issues could aid communication on the biodiversity
A citizens’ assembly on biodiversity could also capitalise on the growing global youth movements for climate action, including Greta Thunberg, Fridays For Future and Schools Strike 4 Climate. These voices should not be marginalized and could be included as impactful testaments.
Second, the process urged the wider public to make
submissions prior to the deliberation process, but more use could be made of received
Over 12 weekends between 2016 and 2018,
Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly deliberated on five topics. Of the five topics
covered, the Eighth Amendment received five weekends. How Ireland tackles
climate change and the challenges and opportunities of Ireland’s ageing
population received two weekends each. Finally, the manner in which referenda
are held and the nature of fixed term parliaments were both allocated one
Submissions by the public and interested
stakeholders were invited for all topics, extending the Assembly’s public
engagement reach beyond the 99 individuals. 1,185
submissions were received on climate change.
Participating citizens were encouraged to
access a summary ‘Signpost’ document of public submissions prepared by the
Secretariat and made available online. However, we do not know whether
participants accessed and utilised it. Indeed, the citizens were already
overloaded with reading material. They had 21 expert papers to review during
their deliberations on the climate change topic alone.
Public submissions could instead be better
integrated into the deliberative proceedings for biodiversity loss. A dedicated
session alongside the expert presentations outlining the views of publics’
could help give them more prominence and the attention that they deserve.
Third, citizens’ assemblies can increase
legitimacy of political decisions and actions, but clarity regarding how their
recommendations will be handled is important.
The Irish Citizens’ Assembly represented a
structured forum for citizen inclusion. It helped to democratise
decision-making, co-design solutions and include societal voices in national
However, there has been varying follow up
across the five topics regarding implementation of recommendations that
resulted from the Assembly process. Three
of its five topics—ageing population, referenda and fixed term parliaments—have
received no government response to date.
with the timelier and purposeful deliberations on the Eighth Amendment and
climate change. Both of these resulted in the establishment of dedicated
parliamentary committees to respond to suggested recommendations and bring them
further into policy and decisions making processes.
On the one hand, if the exact recommendations
of citizens’ assemblies are automatically enacted in law, they would likely run
into accountability issues because the outcomes would not come from an elected
body. On the other hand, if their recommendations simply gather dust on a shelf,
participants as well as the wider public may question the purpose and cost of
The dedicated parliamentary committee model
used for the Eighth Amendment and climate change topics represents an
appropriate balance and one that the assembly on biodiversity loss could follow.
Ireland’s Citizen’s Assembly was not flawless.
However, applying lessons learnt from its process, while
also being cognisant of individual topic nuances, can provide best practice models
for future assemblies.
By Martha Coleman, Diarmuid Torney, Laura Devaney, and Pat Brereton
authors are academics at Dublin City University. One of the authors, Diarmuid
Torney, was a member of the Expert Advisory Group to the Citizens’ Assembly for
its deliberations on climate change.
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