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From political crisis to profound change

38 minutes

October 21, 2019

Last week, we heard from Andrew Sullivan about the challenges facing the future of democracy in the United States and around the world. This week’s episode offers a glimpse into what can happen when a country emerges from a political crisis with stronger democratic practices in place.

About 10 years ago, Ireland found itself facing an economic recession, distrust in government, and polarization about how to move forward. Our guests this week, David Farrell of University College Dublin and Jane Suiter of Dublin City University, proposed using deliberative democracy to bring citizens and politicians closer together. The approach worked, and it’s garnered attention from other places around the world who want to do the same thing.

Farrell and Suiter are the winners of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s 2019 Brown Democracy Medal, which recognizes new and innovative work in democracy. We are now seeking nominations for next year’s medal; please email if you know someone who might be a good fit.Thank you to our sponsor, Penn State World Campus. Learn more about their Master of Professional Studies in the Psychology of Leadership at

Additional Information Interview Highlights [7:12] What was the political climate like leading up to the Citizens Assembly Project?

Farrell: It was bad. It’s hard to imagine almost a decade later just how bad things were, but it was a severe economic crisis. Almost overnight our unemployment doubled, our national debt just went through the roof, our banks, all our banks collapsed, all international banks just left. Buildings were being boarded up, public employees had their pay cut,  private employees lost their jobs, emigration went through the roof, and then major protests against governments. Trust in government plummeted. So this was about as existential a crisis as you can get.

[9:13] What was the reaction when you introduced the idea of a citizens assembly?

Farrell: What we were saying at that time, it sounded quite bizarre. We were saying, “Imagine a scenario where you bring a bunch of regular citizens into a room and you give them a chance to talk about the future of Ireland. Why don’t we give that a go, and other’s have done it, why don’t we try it?” We had senior journalists from all the media organizations and many senior politicians saying, “You’re daft, you know. You academics really don’t have a clue. That’s how how politics is run here. We have a citizens’ assembly, it’s our Parliament. Citizens are not for that role, you know. You can’t trust citizens to take tough decisions, that’s the job of professional politicians, so just forget about it.”
Suiter: At the same time, they knew they had to rebuild trust with the citizens It was a real, it was a real moment of crisis, and those crises can go either way. Politicians obviously preferred the shift that could do something positive, that would rebuild relationships, rather than keeping going down the same path increasing distress, marches, and protests.

[12:35] What did citizens think about the idea?

Farrell: There was a lot of cynicism and uncertainty, you know. Effectively what you are saying is, “You should trust a regular citizen who’s selected randomly, like jury duty.” We’ve all been through the process of jury duty, where you get picked randomly, and that same principle applies here. You’re saying “We’re going to get a hundred regular citizens into the room together,  who’ve never met before, and the only reason they’re in the room is because they run the lottery, they got selected.” They’re not there to represent sectors, they’re not there to represent communities, they’re not there because they got a mandate because they ran for office. There are there as individual citizens just to represent themselves about the issues that they’ve been asked to consider.

[15:45] How did the citizens assembly change the relationship between politicians and their constituents?

Suiter: I think that’s really crucial. A lot of the time, politicians don’t hear from regular people about these kind of issues. Someone will contact a politician about their local school, or traffic with the road, but they don’t contact them about these kind of big issues like abortion or marriage equality. On those issues, they hear from interest groups and lobbyists who are quite polarizing. There would have been a very strong pro-life force that would have been campaigning in Ireland since the early 1980s, and unbalance on the media, it would always be somebody from that group who’d be heard against other people. So this gave the impression, I think, to a lot of politicians, that the country was as divided.

[26:20] Were there other factors that made this approach work in Ireland?

Farrell: The country’s small size helps, but it doesn’t have to be a factor. The other thing is that you really need a good crisis. We can only hope that you have something that just gives that seed bed for something like this to be tried. You need a receptive year so there was a degree of courage on the part of the leadership of the government in 2011 to go down this road they had no idea where this was going to go, but they, they took a punt with us.

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