Why Ireland’s citizens’ assembly is a model for Europe

Unthinkable: Deliberative democracy experiment shows Ireland ‘trusts its citizens, instead of fearing them’

Irish citizens may be surprised to hear they belong to "the most innovative democracy in Europe", but that's the verdict of political commentator David Van Reybrouck in an open letter published last week in several European newspapers.

The Flemish Belgian author of Against Elections: The Case for Democracy believes that in the wake of the UK Brexit vote and the allied rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic, the European Union has roughly "one year" to avoid collapse.

In the letter to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, he says our democracies are in crisis because they rely on elections as a means of giving citizens a voice.

“Come on, take Europeans seriously. Let them speak,” he writes. “Why educate the masses if they are still not allowed to talk?


“Look at Ireland, the most innovative democracy in Europe. A few weeks ago, a random sample of one hundred Irish citizens, drafted by lot, was brought together into a Citizens’ Assembly. This is a country that trusts its citizens, instead of fearing them.”

Speaking to The Irish Times, Van Reybrouck explains what he sees as the way forward for European democracies: the greater use of deliberative procedures first trialled in Ancient Greece, including the selection by lottery of citizens to sit on legislative bodies.

He applauds Ireland for incorporating such procedures in the Constitutional Convention which led to the referendum on same-sex marriage as well as the new assembly – set to examine legislative issues surrounding abortion, population ageing and climate change.

Reflecting on the outcome of the UK referendum and US presidential ballot, he says: “If people are only allowed to vote they will behave as voting cattle but if people are allowed to speak – and you treat them as adults who are responsible – then they start behaving like responsible adults.”

Most people assume elections are the defining feature of democracy but you disagree?

David Van Reybrouck: “If you look at it from a historical perspective, we have been trying to do democracy for the past 3,000 years; we have only been using elections in that system for the past 200 years. So we should stop thinking that democracy always boils down to having elections.

“Elections came at the end of the American and the French revolutions at the end of the 18th century but the procedure that was used before for democracy for many, many centuries was the use of lottery . . .

“This happened in Ancient Greece, in city states of Renaissance Italy and in different cities in Europe. Parliaments were made by drafting people by lot, believing that a cross-section of society was quite apt at talking about that society and for that society rather than those who had been elected.”

One point of resistance to lotteries could come from citizens themselves. Getting people to trust and accept a decision made by a random sample of peers could be difficult.

“I understand that but we use juries when it comes to a court trial, and very rarely is the verdict given by a jury distrusted by society. I think the same basically holds true when it comes to citizen juries making policy decisions.

“The Irish case is very interesting. People feel frustrated because it [the Constitutional Convention] was a one-off thing – like, ‘Hey, I wasn’t drafted in, I was left behind; Why would I trust what those lucky ones are going to decide for me?’ – but what we are seeing in Ireland, and this is the first country doing this, is the second form of deliberative democracy, the Citizens’ Assembly.

“Two is still not a lot but if you use this procedure of random sampling more often then more and more people will get involved and it will be more easy to accept a subset of the population can make a sensible decision for you.”

You quote the African proverb: ‘What you do for me without me, you do to me’. Does that sum up the EU’s problem: it does well-meaning things without the public’s ownership of those decisions?

“That is pretty much what the EU does to most of us. I think the Irish experiment going on now is quite important and I think it would be quite easy to upscale them to European level.

“I am very critical of the EU myself but being without an EU it seems to me much more problematic. And I think an interesting way to let citizens have their say, apart from elections and referendums, is if the EU would draft by lots 100 citizens in every EU member state and ask them to come up with the top five, or top 10, ways of how to democratise the EU.

“You would get a very different dynamic than you would get now with just elections and referendums, which are in my view very primitive and arcane instruments for letting people speak.”

Would you recommend selecting a president or prime minister by lottery?

“No, that seems crazy. When it comes to the executive branch of government you need people who are really competent and have a technical expertise.

“Every democracy is seen as consisting of three pillars: the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. We have lottery use in the judiciary right now. I am only claiming that we should use some of that in the legislative branch as well.

“When it comes to appointing ministers I would not change anything in the next couple of decades but I can imagine, perhaps in about 20 years, we might say: ‘We will draft by lot 50 citizens of the Irish Republic and they will decide who will become minister for defence in Ireland’; they will become like an appointment commission with any job interview. That could be a possibility.”

How do you see things evolve for democracy in the years ahead?

“I think we stand at a crossroads. Democracy has to evolve from a state of government in which the people have the right to vote to a form of government in which the people have the right to speak.

“But we might be too late because other forces are at work, and I am really worried. If you are not going to update democracy to the 21st century by sticking to procedures from the late 18th century, it might be the very end of democracy for a very long time to come.

“We are running our democracies on MS-DOS – primitive software – and we think this is the only available software. If we refuse to update that software a profound system crash lays ahead of us in the very near future.”

More than 50 speakers are lined up for the fifth annual conference of the Society for Women in Philosophy Ireland, which takes place on December 2nd-4th at NUI Galway on a theme of: "Feminist Ethics in Theory and Practice". For more details see: www.swip-ireland.com/


Question: Does any ballot that offers just two options produce a rational result?

George Bernard Shaw replies: "The minority is sometimes right; the majority is always wrong."