What is ‘We the Citizens’?
‘We the Citizens’ is an independent initiative aimed at demonstrating how Ireland can benefit from its citizens engaging in new forms of public decision making. The objective is to test whether new forms of public decision making such as the national citizens’ assembly model could work in Ireland.
‘We the Citizens’ launched on 12th April 2011 and will run until the end of 2011.
There were two stages to the ‘We the Citizens’ programme of events. Firstly, ‘We the Citizens’ held citizens’ events in seven areas of the country in May and June 2011. These public consultation events took place in Kilkenny, Cork, Galway, Blanchardstown, Tallaght, Letterkenny and Athlone. Their role was to help set the agenda of the national citizens’ assembly which took place at the end of June 2011. You can see video reports of each of these citizens’ events here. These events were completely free and entirely open to the public.
The national citizens’ assembly met on Saturday June 25th and Sunday June 26th 2011 in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. It was made up of a cross-section of Irish society and those who attended were selected randomly and independently by IPSOS MRBI – a polling company.
Citizens’ assemblies have been used successfully in other countries. They are a new and innovative way of allowing citizens to be actively involved in taking important decisions that affect our daily lives. Citizens are given the opportunity to be informed, to consider and debate all sides of an argument: they are able then to take decisions on what are often quite complex issues.
At all stages, our academic team ensured that the process was independent, objective and transparent. ‘We the Citizens’ is not a movement and not a political party.
‘We the Citizens’ – Why Now?
There is an unprecedented crisis in Ireland; a credit and banking crisis; a fiscal crisis; an economic crisis of competitiveness and job loss; a social crisis of unemployment and income loss, a reputational crisis and a moral crisis.
This is not the first time we’ve been in crisis, but never before have we experienced one so deep and so widespread; one that is exacerbated by the global downturn. We can no longer ignore the fault lines in our own governance. This perfect storm has brought to a head the failings of our political system; failings which, over the years, had not been so obvious to us as an electorate.
‘We the Citizens’ see this as a cathartic moment, which gives Irish people the possibility of helping to renew our country, to redefine the things that we value about being Irish. It is a chance to encourage the re-structuring of our out-dated institutions so that they better reflect the Ireland of the 21st century. In short, to make the system better able to serve the citizens of this state.
Who are ‘We the Citizens’?
A Board, chaired by Fiach Mac Conghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre and Independent Senator is overseeing the project. The initiative is being managed by Executive Director Caroline Erskine from an office in Dublin. Professor David Farrell of UCD is leading a comprehensive academic study of the process and the outcomes. His research colleagues are Dr Jane Suiter of UCC, Dr Eoin O’Malley of DCU and Dr Elaine Byrne of TCD. Caroline Erskine and two staff members work full-time on the initiative.
There is also a high-level international advisory board of academics with experience of best practice, successful citizens’ assemblies in other countries. The initiative is being carried out in association with the Irish Universities Association (IUA), the representative body of the seven Irish universities.
What is a National Citizens’ Assembly?
A Citizens’ Assembly is a way in which citizens can recapture trust in the political system by taking ownership of the decision making process. It is form of deliberative democracy that has had terrific results in many parts of the world.
It involves rational, reasoned discussion with a representative cross-section of the 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 seeking 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.
If Ireland were to constitute a citizens’ assembly it would mean the people could be asked about their views on policy decisions, rather than only having a say at periodic elections.
Examples/sources of information:
- Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, British Columbia Canada 2004
- The Center for Deliberative Democracy, Stanford University
- Icelandic National Assembly
- UK Power Inquiry
- UK Power2010 campaign
- America Speaks
Who was invited to participate in the National Citizens’ Assembly?
In May and June of 2011 Ipsos MRBI conducted the fieldwork element of a research project that was undertaken by We the Citizens. This survey was conducted amongst a nationally representative sample of 1,001 adults aged 18yrs+, via telephone. A random digit dialling (RDD) approach was employed and listed, unlisted and mobile phone numbers were used in order to ensure that all segments of the population were included. The sample was quota controlled using the latest CSO estimates for age, gender and region.
Upon completion of the survey, every respondent was asked if he or she would be interested in participating in the Citizens’ Assembly. All of those who expressed an interest and asserted their availability for the weekend of 24th – 26th June were then advised that they would receive a further call, in the weeks ahead, to advise on further details, outline the weekend’s events and to reconfirm their availability. These follow-up calls were managed as a separate recruitment phase within the overall research project. Within this phase also, targets were set in order to ensure that participants attending the Citizens Assembly were nationally representative. All of those contacted were given equal opportunity to express their interest in and willingness to attend the Assembly.
What were the results of the National Citizens’ Assembly?
The full results of the National Citizens’ Assembly and the extensive research work carried out before and after the Assembly will be published shortly. But you can find the Saturday recommendations of the Assembly which focused on political reform here and the Sunday recommendations which addressed the current economic situation here.
Who is funding ‘We the Citizens’?
‘We the Citizens’ is entirely funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies. The Atlantic Philanthropies are dedicated to bringing about lasting changes in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people. They have spent over $1 billion in Ireland.
Are the ‘We the Citizens’ events open only to Irish citizens?
No. Everyone is welcome to attend our events and share their ideas and views on how we can renew Ireland.
What next for ‘We the Citizens’ now that the national citizens’ assembly is completed?
The ‘We the Citizens’ team are working hard to compile the results from the national citizens’ assembly and the extensive national polling that took place before and after the assembly. The ‘We the Citizens’ team look forward to presenting these findings shortly and they will be posted on the www.wethecitizens.ie website. We hope the findings will demonstrate that deliberative democracy and in particular the National Citizens’ Assembly model could work in Ireland.