UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This year’s Brown Democracy Medal recognizes The Irish Citizens’ Assembly Project, which has transformed Irish politics in the past decade. This unique project, which started in 2011, led to a series of significant policy decisions, including successful referenda on abortion and marriage equality.
The project’s leaders, David Farrell of University College Dublin and Jane Suiter of Dublin City University, will receive the medal, presented by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy in the College of the Liberal Arts.
The project started with an initiative, called “We the Citizens” which operated in 2011. 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 the project 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.
Farrell and Suiter argue that “the ICC and the ICA took the politics out of the debate due to the manner in which all representative parties were included in the membership.” The ICC and ICA proved effective at persuading the government to implement some proposed policies and put other issues up for nationwide referendum votes.
John Gastil, professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Political Science and a senior scholar in the McCourtney Institute, nominated Farrell and Suiter 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.”
Farrell is head of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin, and Suiter is an associate professor at Dublin City University and director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism. They co-founded We the Citizens together with some other colleagues, they were at the core of the academic team supporting the ICC, and they advised the ICA on its operation. Both will visit University Park this fall to accept the Brown Democracy Medal and deliver a public lecture.
The McCourtney Institute for Democracy awards the Brown Democracy Medal annually to honor the best work being done to advance democracy in the United States and internationally. The award is named for Larry and Lynne Brown. Lynne graduated from Penn State in 1972 with a degree in education. Larry is a 1971 history graduate and chairs the McCourtney Institute’s Board of Visitors.