The Irish Citizens’ Assembly Project to receive 2019 Brown Democracy Medal Honours jointly shared by DCU and UCD academics 

This year’s prestigious Brown Democracy Medal will recognise the Irish Citizens’ Assembly Project, an initiative which has transformed Irish politics over the past decade. The project which started in 2011 has led to a series of significant policy decisions, including being a precursor to successful referenda on abortion and marriage equality.

It was jointly led by Dr Jane Suiter, Associate Professor at DCU’s School of Communications and Director of FuJo (Institute for Future Journalism) and Professor David Farrell, Head of School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin (UCD).

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy awards the Brown Democracy Medal annually to honour the best work being done to advance democracy in the United States and internationally. It is named in honour of Larry and Lynne Brown. Lynne Browne graduated from Penn State in 1972 with a degree in education while Larry is a 1971 history graduate and chairs the McCourtney Institute’s Board of Visitors.

The project started with an initiative in 2011, called “We the Citizens” co-founded by Dr Suiter and Professor Farrell. Its aim was to test whether a more deliberative form of democracy could work in Ireland at a time when people felt adrift and disconnected from power. Participants in the project showed a greater interest in politics, expressed more willingness to discuss issues, and felt more positive about the ability of ordinary people to influence politics.

The success of this was influential in the Irish government’s decision to establish the Irish Constitutional Convention (ICC) and the Irish Citizens’ Assembly (ICA). The ICC and ICA allowed citizens to deliberate on controversial subjects like abortion in a way that was civil and productive. Two-thirds of the ICC’s members were chosen at random from the public, with the other third made up of elected legislators. The ICA was composed entirely of a random sample of Irish citizens. The ICC and ICA proved effective at persuading the government to implement some proposed policies and put other issues up for nationwide referendum votes.

Professor David Farrell from UCD commented: “It is quite an honour to have received this prestigious award, but more than anything it recognises the incredible Irish experience of using citizens’ assemblies to deal with difficult constitutional problems — an experience that is attracting a lot of international interest."

Speaking about the award Dr Jane Suiter said: “We are delighted and deeply honoured to receive this award. The Irish people are international exemplars when it comes to deliberation and many countries are looking to us as setting the standard for debating difficult topics and giving citizens a powerful voice.”

John Gastil, Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Political Science and a senior scholar in the McCourtney Institute, nominated Suiter and Farrell for the Brown Democracy Medal and said their work exemplifies the innovation the medal aims to recognize.

“The success of the Irish model has drawn notice from around the world,” Gastil said. “Considering the recent history of political conflict in Ireland, if this kind of deliberation worked there, it could work anywhere.”