Citizens’ Assembly – Royal Hospital Kilmainham

The weekend of June 24-26th, 150 randomly selected people (by MRBI) from across Ireland will meet in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham as part of Ireland’s first National Citizens Assembly. It has been a long road for all the team at We the Citizens since the launch two months ago — We The Citizens – youtube In the last six weeks we have travelled to Kilkenny, Cork, Galway, Athlone, Letterkenny, Tallaght and Blanchstown and listened to the views of those that attended which have informed what will be discussed at next weekend’s event.

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For me personally, it’s especially exciting to see an idea from a couple of columns I wrote in the Irish Times last December 2009 and February 2010 come to life, thanks to Atlantic Philanthropies who believed in the idea of deliberative democracy through a citizens’ assembly. Irish Times February 2010: Let the people have their say on type of country they want; Irish Times December 2009: Mad-as-hell Icelanders won’t be taking it any more

Massive gratitude goes to my former editor, Peter Murtagh, for his faith and trust in what I was writing about. It would have been very easy to dismiss these ideas because they challenge traditional and conservative notions of what politics is. But Ireland has changed, changed utterly, whether those in leadership positions in Irish public life like it or not. The definition of a leader is someone who does not chastise those who confront their belief system, but is instead open to the possibility that there are alternative ways of looking at things.

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Underlying many of the extraordinary citizen led initiatives across Europe and the Arab world is a changing definition by what is meant by citizenship. The dictomay between two different definitions of citizenship was very much in evidence at the regional events.

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Duty based citizenship is a traditional concept of citizenship which stresses the responsibilities of citizenship and reinforces the existing political order and authority patterns. This elitist, top-down, model of democracy envisages a limited role of the citizen.

Engaged citizenship is more progressive. It stresses the value of participation and attempts to facilitate means to influence policy preferences. Engaged citizenship believes that a more assertive role for the citizen is possible and has a broader appreciation of participation.

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This last six weeks has been an incredible opportunity. Instead of writing from a desk in Dublin about politics and society, this initiative made it possible to listen to what people from all over Ireland had to say about their country. Circumstances have forced us to think differently about once-impenetrable assumptions. This cathartic era of transformation gifts us the possibility to reinvigorate society. Everything is on the table. The storm of moral bankruptcy has blown away all lines in the sand. With adversity, there is opportunity. With opportunity, there is a responsibility to learn from adversity. This is an exciting time to effect a meaningful renewal of our country.

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Apart from these cathartic words of Henry Grattan, this phrase pretty much sums up my thinking regarding any underlying motivation to contribute to public life in these times:

The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change while the realist adjusts the sails.

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What’s the outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly?
At the end of this exercise in deliberative democracy, we hope that the government will implement their programme for government commitment to establish a Citizens’ Assembly but such a body must be given a mandate to have its proposals implemented – through referendum or the committee system. We want to show that this method of engaging with citizens in between elections not only works but is a means by which citizens can recapture trust in their political process by taking ownership of the decision making process.

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So what is a Citizens’ Assembly anyway?
More information of international examples of citizens assemblies can be found here. A Citizens’ Assembly involves rational, reasoned discussion with a cross- section of an entire population and uses various methods of inquiry such as directly questioning experts. It is not adversarial, although disagreement is inevitable and is valued, not stifled. A Citizens’ Assembly values creativity and tends to build consensus rather than creating winning and losing sides – but there is no requirement of unanimity. Deliberative processes are not meant to replace representative or direct democracy, but to enhance and support it.

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What were the common themes from the regional events?
The common themes from Kilkenny, Cork, Galway, Athlone, Letterkenny, Tallaght and Blanchstown were local government, education, the ‘big concepts’ of accountability, ethics, trust, transparency and responsibility with a parallel consensus that change was needed at national level. This was underpinned by calls for greater political participation other than voting once every five years.
As the discussions became more focused and when the facilitators asked what was meant by change, the national was transformed into the local. The theme of participatory democracy emerged over and over again in different guises. People wanted to feel empowered, that civic society mattered, that their contributions to their communities were valued. In this way, citizen participation was not defined by the mere act of voting but that there were alternative opportunities for people to make meaningful contributions to decision-making.

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