Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly is shifting its focus to gender equality. Over the next six months, it will examine issues like the gender pay gap, sexual assault and how to increase women’s participation in business and politics. The issue of childcare is also expected to face serious scrutiny.
The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) has said it’s crucial that specific outcomes on care are reached, and hopes for a commitment to hold a referendum on removing the contentious ‘women in the home’ provision from Ireland’s constitution. Orla O’Connor, Director of NWCI, has also stated that the housing and homeless crisis and the “epidemic of violence against women” are “critical barriers to gender equality”, and that the “voices and experiences of women” must be central to discussions.
Focus Ireland has recently blogged about the shocking numbers of women who are homeless in Ireland, and latest statistics from the European Commission clearly show that, while “Irish women have more rights than their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers”, gender equality is yet to be achieved in many areas including employment, career advancement, politics, and gender-based violence.
Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly consists of a chairperson (Dr. Catherine Day will chair this assembly) and 99 citizens who are randomly selected to represent the Irish electorate in terms of gender, age and regional spread. Over a series of weekends, its members hear and deliberate expert evidence which is presented to them. At the end, they vote on proposed recommendations to be made to the State.
In recent years, citizens’ assemblies have considered the issue of the Eighth Amendment and Marriage Equality with great success, as both sets of recommendations ultimately led to landmark legal breakthroughs in this country. Issues such as climate change and voting reform have also been deliberated, albeit with varying levels of success (though the recommendations on climate change did play a crucial role in shaping Ireland’s Climate Action Plan).
There are divergent views regarding the efficacy of the citizens’ assembly model. News organisation Politico recently wrote that citizens’ assemblies are a “complex and limited democratic tool that can be used well – or badly”.
One glaring issue relates to the actual implementation of their recommendations. While there has been notable success regarding certain issues (abortion and marriage equality in particular), many recommendations of Ireland’s citizens’ assembly have not progressed very far – and this is something which clearly needs addressing.
Other issues include the hidden participation costs, including time costs, for members, something which also feeds into the ‘representativeness’ of the sample (for instance people with weekend work or care obligations are unlikely to be able to participate). One particularly interesting critique which has been levelled at the citizens’ assembly is that the model allows the Irish government to outsource responsibility for issues it should really be dealing with itself – and allows TDs to distance themselves from issues with might potentially alienate their voters.
On the other hand, commentators like George Monbiot have recognised that these kind of democratic platforms provide citizens with a meaningful voice outside of the polling station and encourage greater public ownership of the political process. The citizens’ assembly process also arguably provides a useful feedback mechanism which can encourage progressives within Ireland’s government to take action and create meaningful change.
STAND will be closely following all developments regarding the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality over the next few months. Stay tuned!
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