Blueprint for a Citizens’ Assembly – May 2016
“We will establish a Citizens’ Assembly, within six months, and without participation by politicians, and with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues over an extended time period… [W]e will ask the Citizens’ Assembly to make recommendations to the Dáil on further constitutional changes, including on the Eighth Amendment, on fixed term parliaments and on the manner in which referenda are held...”
A Programme for a Partnership Government, May 2016
Under A Programme for a Partnership Government – May 2016, the Government has proposed the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly within 6 months (i.e. by November 2016). The Assembly will be mandated to look at a limited number of key issues over an extended time period. This will include matters such as the Eighth Amendment, fixed term parliaments and the use of ‘referenda days’ to hold multiple referenda together. The proposal for a Citizens’ Assembly is reminiscent of the Convention on the Constitution which ran from December 2012 to March 2014 and which considered nine distinct thematic issues. The Convention on the Constitution resulted directly in the conduct of two national referenda on 22 May 2015 including the historic Referendum on Marriage Equality.
Given the complexity of the issues proposed to be considered and the potentially significant outcome of a new Citizens’ Assembly, including proposals for constitutional reform, it is imperative that the structure, composition, timeframe and terms of reference of the Assembly reflect best international practice. The Citizens’ Assembly should be guided by principles identified internationally as legitimising a model of meaningful engagement in constitutional reform. These principles include, but are not limited to: participation, representation, inclusion, transparency, a sense of ownership, the timely completion of its work and a commitment to reform. This document sets out a Blueprint for a best practice Citizens’ Assembly.
Blueprint for a Citizens’ Assembly
This Blueprint for the Citizens’ Assembly includes guidance on: the structure and composition of the Assembly; access to information and expertise; the programme of work; funding and resources; outcomes and recommendations; commitment to reform.
Structure and composition
People who wish to engage in the work of the Citizens’ Assembly must be afforded a genuine opportunity to participate fully. This will require that the Government employ a multifaceted approach including civic education initiatives and public consultation. This should include providing information on the nature and scope of the Assembly, how members of the public and their political representatives can engage, opportunities to publicly debate the issues and a mechanism to provide feedback in a constructive manner. Participants in the Assembly should benefit from the knowledge and experience of stakeholders who have both professional and direct personal experience on each of the topics being considered. In addition, the selection process for participation in the Citizens’ Assembly must be open, transparent and fair, ensuring the widest possible participation and the inclusion of voices from all sections of society, including non-citizens living in Ireland. Furthermore, the work of the Assembly should be guided by a Chairperson who is wholly independent and supported by an Assembly Secretariat with adequate and sufficient means to complete the programme of work in a timely fashion.
Access to information and expertise
To assist the Citizens’ Assembly to conduct its work, those selected to participate and those who engage in the process should have access to the knowledge of a pool of experts who have demonstrable expertise in the issues being considered by the Assembly. The pool of experts should be drawn from suitably qualified persons in fields related to the topics being considered including, but not limited to, medical and legal practitioners as well as academic experts in medical ethics and constitutional, legislative and regulatory law. Academic experts should be selected from amongst those whose work in a specific area has been subjected to peer review and/or demonstrably meets academic publication standards. Participants should also have access to experts, including practitioners, from other countries who can provide insight into models of international best practice and experiences from other comparable jurisdictions of engaging with the issues being considered by the Assembly. The mechanism for the selection of experts should be transparent, open to scrutiny and verifiably independent.
The programme of work
The development of the Programme of Work of the Citizens’ Assembly should be open and transparent and foster a sense of inclusion and ownership among citizens and stakeholders alike.
Care should be taken to ensure that all discussions are conducted in an open and respectful manner, promoting genuine public engagement on the issues being considered. Work should be completed in a timely and efficient manner and within an identifiable timeframe set out in advance.
Funding and resources
The resources available to the Citizens’ Assembly, both human and financial, should be commensurate with the complexity of the issues being considered by it. Where issues for discussion encompass significant legal, social and/or moral complexity, significant resources may be required. The necessary budget should be made available in advance and should remain under the effective control of the Chairperson and Secretariat of the Assembly, subject to adherence to robust governance and financial procedures.
Outcomes and recommendations
The work of the Citizens’ Assembly should be structured in a way that is clear and facilitates a meaningful outcome from deliberations. The Assembly should be empowered to make or refrain from making recommendations, including by majority consensus, on issues being discussed and to decide what form such recommendations should take. To facilitate this, the Terms of Reference for the Citizens’ Assembly should include provisions to enable it to provide guidance on other steps (e.g. legislation, regulations) that may be required to give full effect to its proposed reforms.
Commitment to reform
At the outset of the work of a Citizens’ Assembly, a political commitment should be given that, should the Assembly make concrete recommendations to hold national referenda on issues of constitutional reform, the Government will, in principle, propose to the Houses of the Oireachtas that referenda will be held promptly and within a specified timeframe, not exceeding six months from the conclusion of the Assembly’s work.
In light of the experience of the recent Convention on the Constitution, renewed efforts should be made by Government to engage members of the public and key stakeholders in meaningful discussion around the preferred framework and structure for a Citizens’ Assembly. This must include recognition of the need to allocate adequate funding and resources; conduct the work of the Assembly in an efficient manner within an agreed timeframe; ensure an open and transparent process of selection and participation of stakeholders and experts, foster meaningful engagement among participants and the wider community and ensure a sense of inclusion and ownership on behalf of citizens of both the process and outcome.
Above all, it must be made clear from the outset that the Citizens’ Assembly will be established in such a manner, consistent with best international practice, as to provide an identifiable path to constitutional reform on the issues it considers.