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Democracy Works

The Citizens' Assembly, properly chaired and acting on disinterested expert opinion, reached progressive conclusions on abortion and climate that serve the common good

It’s been a bad couple of years for democracy. The Brexit fiasco was the most humiliating British retreat from Europe since Dunkirk, but this time, entirely self-inflicted. Yet, rather than an alarm, Brexit instead turned out to be a blueprint for the bloodless US coup that followed, where right-wing extremism seized the world’s most powerful political office.

Some 95 million Americans didn’t vote in November 2016. “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”, is how Greek philosopher, Plato presciently put it.

And while not riven by such gaping wounds of xenophobia and extremism, Irish democracy is also profoundly dysfunctional, and nowhere is this clearer than in its record of abject failure on climate policy. A decade ago, it looked like Ireland was beginning to get its act together, yet by the time Enda Kenny led Fine Gael into power in 2011, the environmental agenda hadn’t so much been scrapped as bleached.

Fast forward to 2017. Ireland is now the third worst per-capita greenhouse-gas emitter in the EU and one of only four countries certain to miss its 2020 targets. Massive EU compliance fines are looming, and our only plan is to try to weasel out of paying, rather than tackling our underlying carbon-pollution crisis.

It didn’t have to be like this. Professor Andy Keen of Edinburgh University told the Citizens’ Assembly earlier this month how Scotland, with cross-party political support, in 2009 set the highly ambitious target of cutting its national emissions by 42% by 2020. This is more than twice Ireland’s 20% target for the same period.

While we will struggle to achieve a maximum 4-5% cut, Scotland actually hit its 42% target in 2015, five years ahead of schedule. It is now pushing hard to achieve 100% renewable electrical production by 2025, and will probably succeed. Scotland has no natural advantages over Ireland. That’s the difference between politics that works and politics that is broken.

Any notions that Irish people are innately unconcerned and indifferent to climate change were well and truly scotched by the outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly, which sat again over two weekends in October and November, under the gimlet legal eye of Justice Mary Laffoy.

Instead of the usual circus of lobbyists and their client politicians, the Assembly instead only heard from disinterested experts, and its round-table format allowed the 99 citizens to discuss what they had heard among themselves, and then ask searching questions of the experts.

I sat through almost eight hours of presentations and discussions on a Saturday in November, and watched these volunteer citizens, young and old, from all walks of life, as they engaged with the process for hour after hour. No fiddling with phones, dozing or absent-mindedly gazing into the distance. This is what direct democracy looks like up close. In a word: inspiring.

Even more impressive was that the citizens agreed and then voted in a secret ballot on 13 recommendations and, incredibly, all were carried – in most cases, by thumping majorities.

Everyone knows Irish people won’t accept paying new carbon taxes. Wrong. This idea was carried by an 80% majority. Everyone knows that agri-emissions are a special case. Wrong again. Some 89% of Assembly voted in favour of taxing carbon-intensive agriculture, and rewarding farming methods that cut carbon.

On industrial peat burning, a whopping 97% of citizens voted to end all State subsidies supporting this madness. And despite our supposedly unbreakable love affair with the private car, 92% of citizens voted for the State to favour developing public transport ahead of new road infrastructure at the rate of no less than 2:1. A recommendation allowing micro-producers of clean (solar) electricity to be allowed sell their surplus back to the grid was backed by 99% of citizens.

Meanwhile, ‘Climate Action’ Minister Denis Naughten, has once again excluded small-scale rooftop solar from even being considered in the national consultation on renewable energy.

The Citizens’ Assembly may have been set up by the government in the hope it would become another dull talking shop. If so, its radical recommendations, first on abortion rights and now on climate change, have shown that, given half a chance, we Irish are entirely capable of sober civic engagement with complex issues. Who would have guessed?


John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and tweets @think_or_swim