Policy issues

  • A citizens’ assembly on the future of the Northern Ireland Protocol would consider whether the Protocol should be retained as it is, revised, or replaced with something else.
  • A citizens’ assembly on the future of integrated education would consider what, if any, policies Northern Ireland should adopt to increase the number of integrated schools and places in integrated schools.
  • A citizens’ assembly on measures to tackle climate change would consider what, if any, policies Northern Ireland should adopt to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
  • A citizens’ assembly on the law regarding abortion would consider whether there should be more or fewer restrictions on access to abortion, or whether the law should be kept as it is.

Design choices

Size: This refers to the number of participants in a citizens’ assembly. A citizens’ assembly with 20 members is relatively small; a citizens’ assembly with 150 members medium-sized; and a citizens’ assembly with 500 members rather large.

Community representation: This refers to whether the citizens’ assembly is set up proportionally so that it reflects Northern Ireland’s adult population as it is or to ensure that there are equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant members.

Membership: This refers to whether the citizens’ assembly includes a mix of ordinary citizens and elected politicians or only ordinary citizens.

Financial reward: This refers to the level of renumeration participants in the citizens’ assembly receive for their participation.

Transparency: This refers to whether the citizens’ assembly meets in public or behind closed doors; and whether the citizens’ assembly makes its decision via secret ballot or through a show of hands. In a secret ballot, nobody can know how individual assembly members decided. With a show of hands, everyone can see, including the broader public.

Decision rule: This refers to the type of the majority needed for the citizens’ assembly to reach a decision.

Output: This refers to whether the citizens’ assembly makes a binding decision that is directly implemented or makes a non-binding policy recommendation. If a citizens’ assembly makes a non-binding recommendation, the final decision lies either with elected representatives or with the people as a whole in a referendum. 

Trade-offs between different design choices

  • Larger citizens’ assemblies can be more representative of the wider public. But they are also more complicated to run.
  • A proportionally selected citizens’ assembly mirrors the Northern Irish adult population as it is. But this will mean that there are more Protestant and fewer Catholic members.
  • The inclusion of elected politicians can make it more likely that a citizens’ assembly has an impact on policy. But politicians could also drown out the voices of ordinary citizens.
  • Providing a financial incentive to participants can help make sure that people from all walks of life are able to participate. But doing so also makes citizens’ assemblies more expensive.
  • Allowing anyone from the wider public to observe a citizens’ assembly and how its members vote makes the process more transparent. But it may make members of the citizens’ assembly less comfortable to freely engage.
  • If only a simple majority (50%+1) is needed to reach a decision, this makes it more likely that the citizens’ assembly is able to reach a decision. However, the decision may not be supported by all communities.
  • Letting citizens’ assemblies make binding decisions risks undermining established forms of political decision-making. On the other hand, non-binding recommendations may never be implemented.