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Assessing the merits of deliberative processes in engaging and informing citizens: a case study of a deliberative event on Irish women’s voices on Europe

Clodagh Harris,* and Emmanuelle Schön-Quinlivan,*



Deliberative democratic innovations can provide answers to some of the perennial problems of democratic theory, such as informing and educating the public, creating opportunities for citizens to shape policy and the restoration of citizen trust and engagement.
The challenges of informing and educating the public and restoring citizen trust and engagement have been evident in Ireland’s difficulties in successfully ratifying the Nice and Lisbon treaties. Academic research has shown that, after the farming community, Irish women have benefitted most from EU membership. Yet it also shows that Irish women are more likely than their male counterparts to reject EU treaties. With this in mind a one-day public consultative conference on Irish women’s voices in Europe was held in University College Cork, one month before the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Bringing academic and community perspectives
together it assessed how Irish women have benefitted from EU membership and their concerns on the possible impact of the EU on issues of Irish neutrality and family/ethical matters. Tools such as consultative polls and expert-informed workshops were used to inform, educate and gather opinions and recommendations.
This paper critically evaluates the deliberative processes and outcomes of this conference, examining survey data gathered from participants and analysing the content of the workshop deliberations.


It is argued that the traditional institutions of democratic decision-making are less and less successful in involving citizens in political processes, despite higher levels of education (Fishkin, 1991: Dryzek, 1990). Deliberative democratic innovations can provide answers to some of the perennial problems of democratic theory, such as informing and educating the public, creating opportunities for citizens to shape policy and the restoration of citizen trust and engagement in politics.

Using mechanisms such as citizens’ juries, consensus conferences and deliberative polls, deliberative democratic approaches can bring affected citizens into partnership as decision-makers through dialogue-based processes of policy-development that include agenda setting, policy design and implementation.

Emphasising refined and reflective preferences, deliberative theorists such as Habermas, Barber, Elster, Fishkin, Young and Dryzek argue that democratic processes and institutions should be built around ‘reasonable’ political judgement. As Iris Marion Young states;

‘Through the process of public discussion with a plurality of differently opinionated and situated others, people often gain new information, learn of different experiences of their collective problems, or find that their own initial opinions are founded on prejudice or ignorance, or that they have misunderstood the relation of their own interests to others’ (2000:26).

The challenges of informing and educating the public and restoring citizen trust and engagement have been evident in Ireland’s difficulties in successfully ratifying the Nice and Lisbon treaties.

Academic research has shown that, after the farming community, Irish women have benefitted most from EU membership. Yet it also shows that Irish women are more likely than their male counterparts to reject EU treaties. With this in mind a one-day public deliberative conference on Irish women’s voices in Europe was held in University College Cork, one month before the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty which was held on 2nd October 2009. Bringing academic and community perspectives together it assessed how Irish women have benefitted from EU membership and their concerns on the possible impact of the EU on issues of Irish neutrality and family/ethical matters. The conference endeavoured to take a deliberative approach through the use of a deliberative poll and expert ‘empty chair’ working group sessions.

This paper evaluates the deliberative processes and outcomes of this conference. It takes a multi-dimensional approach by examining data gathered from polls conducted on the day and semi-structured interviews with participants, facilitators and expert witnesses.


There is ‘considerable consensus’ among deliberative democrats on many of its ‘regulative ideals’ (Mansbridge et al, 2010:65).Theorists such as Habermas, Barber, Elster, Fishkin, Young and Dryzek emphasise refined and reflective preferences, arguing that democratic processes and institutions should be built around ‘reasonable’ political judgement. They argue that it is not majoritarian support that renders a political decision legitimate but that it can be deemed legitimate if it can be agreed to after withstanding scrutiny by those that are bound by it. Under the deliberative model, collective decisions are made through reflective public reasoning which its proponents believe encourage more informed rational decisions, fairer and more publicly-oriented outcomes and improved civic skills (Hendriks, 2006:491). For them to succeed, deliberative practices need to be open, inclusive and ‘reasonable’ (also known as recognition and respect). They also need to be public, include on equal terms all affected members of a community, and they must be justified to all in a free, tolerant, respectful debate.

First articulated as theory of democratic legitimacy, deliberative democracy contends that ‘decisions are seen as legitimate to the degree that the individuals subject to them (or their representatives) have the right, capacity, or opportunity to participate in deliberation about their content, and as a result grant their reflective assent to the outcome’ (Dryzek, 2007: 242).

Deliberative theorists recognise that many political problems necessitate the creation of public fora in which ‘private preferences are treated not as fixed but rather as amenable to transformation in the light of ‘the discovery of generalizable interests’ through argument and justification’ (Dryzek cited in Held, 2006:236) and call for an ‘imaginative rethinking of democracy offering a new kind of participation, one that not only gives citizens more power, but also allows them more opportunities to exercise this power thoughtfully (Fishkin cited in Held, 2006:235).’

Deliberative forms of democratic governance can have substantive and procedural benefits. It is argued that they improve the quality of decision making by: sharing information and pooling knowledge, revealing the connection between certain preference formations and sectional interests (Held, 2006: 237-238), promoting legitimacy, encouraging ‘public spirited perspectives on public issues’, promoting mutually respectful processes of decision-making and ‘correcting previous mistakes’ (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004: 11-12).

Thus theorists broadly agree that deliberative democracy emphasises inclusion, equality and reasonableness and that it is public. To the extent that it is open to all citizens affected by a decision it is inclusive (Mansbridge at al, 2010: Steiner, 2010: Held, 2006). It is also argued that the participants have equal opportunities and resources to influence the process (Mansbridge et al, 2010:65). Another defining feature of deliberative processes is the focus on ‘reasonableness’, where participants give reasons/justify their positions in a truthful and respectful manner from the perspective of the common good and where the force of the better argument prevails. Finally the process should be conducted publicly.

Yet, as Steiner notes, there has been controversy in recent years about the exact definition of deliberative democracy (2010). Furthermore, as research in the area grows, there is the ‘danger of concept stretching’ (Bachtiger et al, 2010:33). Bachtiger et al note that ‘this dual tendency to construe deliberation both too broadly and too narrowly can lead to serious confusion (ibid). This is captured to an extent in the debate that has emerged between the ‘impartialists’ and their critics which highlights competing views of the theory and in Bachtiger et al’s typology of deliberative theory.

Impartialists contend that deliberation must be open to all points of view before coming to a decision and argue that a political decision is right in terms of impartiality if it is defensible to ‘all significantly affect groups and parties if they had participated as parties in public debate’ (Held, 2006:239). It can be found in Habermas’s ideal speech situation and Barry’s formulation of impartialist reasoning (ibid).

It is similar to Bachtiger et al’s type 1 of deliberative democracy which focuses on rational discourse and process and is ‘rooted in the Habermasian logic of communicative action’ (2010:33). It emphasises rational discourse, deliberative intent and ‘the related distinction between communicative and strategic action, and has a strong procedural component’ (ibid).

Both impartialism and Bachtiger et al’s type 1 are criticised for their emphasis on consensus (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004) and for being too ‘abstract and narrow’ in their conception of the good argument (Held, 2006:241). Recognising that it is not always possible to achieve consensus on public choice, particularly on ethical/moral issues, Gutmann and Thompson refer to the principle of reciprocity which argues that citizens develop a form of reasoning that is ‘mutually justifiable and mutually accommodating’ (cited in Held, 2006:242).

Bachtiger et al’s second type of deliberative democracy which emphasises deliberative institutions and outcomes involves more flexible forms of discourse. It does not ‘directly repudiate’ type 1 views but is more problem-driven in its approach, paying more attention to overcoming ‘real world constraints on realizing normative ideals’ (2010:33). It is, they argue, ‘less fully a coherent program than a series of interdependent departures from the narrow type 1 model of rational discourse’ (2010: 42).

It includes Dryzek and Niemeyers’ (2008) study of the reconciliation of consensus and pluralism which proffers metaconsensus in the place of simple consensus as well as Gutmann and Thompson’s (2004) concerns around ‘moral disagreement’. Tully (2002) and Young’s (2000) critiques of the impartialist focus are also incorporated in this model as it includes other forms of communication such as storytelling and rhetoric in its definitions of deliberative discourse. For Bachtiger et al (2010:34) this definition, to the extent that it relaxes the sincerity criterion’, risks ‘overstretching’ the concept of deliberation.

Yet Young argues that criticism is the ‘only remedy for false or invalid arguments’ and advises that listeners to ‘greetings, rhetoric and narrative should be critically vigilant, and should apply standards of evaluation to them as well as to argument. Is this discourse respectful, publicly assertable and does it stand up to public challenge?’. Similarly theorists such as Miller and Dryzek make proposals to protect sincerity and authenticity in type-two deliberations. They argue that communications should be void of coercion or the threat of coercion and that communications should be able to connect the particular to the general.

For their part Bachtiger et al propose a sequential approach which they argue is reflective of Habermas’s more recent position ‘where alternative forms of communication could occur in earlier stages of communicative processes to counteract power inequalities and to further deliberative capacity building. Such inputs would then be integrated into canonical forms of argument in later sequences, involving a systematic weighing of counterarguments and proposals and a connection of particular preferences to more generalizable interests’ (2010:59).

This paper assesses the conference according to deliberative democracy’s regulative ideals: inclusion, equality, reasonableness and public. It is informed by Bactiger et al’s (2010) sequential approach as well as Miller and Dryzek’s proposals to protect sincerity and authenticity.


The conference was held on 8th September 2009, a few weeks before the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The first referendum which had been held in June 2008 was rejected by 53.4% of those who turned out on the day (Laffan and O’Mahony, 2009:119). Research conducted after the event revealed that 42% of those who voted ‘No’ did so due to lack of information (Sinnott et al, 2009:14). Sinnott et al’s research showed that there were two dimensions of knowledge at play (2009). The first related to people’s perceptions of what was in the Treaty that was in the treaty, the second concerned perceptions of what they thought was in the Treaty but was not in the Treaty, e.g. conscription and abortion. The ‘No’ voters were far more likely to believe that erosion of Irish neutrality, end of control over abortion and conscription to a European army were part of the Lisbon Treaty.

Their research revealed that the main demographic groups that opposed the Treaty were: 25-34 year olds (59%), the C2 and DE socio-economic groups (63% and 65%) and women (56%) (Sinnott et al, 2009:15-16). It also found that low levels of information were not confined to the ‘No’ voters alone and that this was cited as the main reason for abstaining from the referendum. With this in mind a deliberative conference on Irish women’s voices in Europe was organised with support from the Communicating Europe initiative of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

At the start of the conference the participants answered a survey that included questions based on their knowledge of and attitudes to European issues. After the poll was completed and collected the participants engaged in dialogue with the academic experts, Professor Yvonne Galligan (Queen’s University Belfast) and Dr. Gavin Barrett (University College Dublin) who made presentations on ‘Women shaping a gender-equal democracy: Europe and Ireland’ and ‘The Irish Guarantees – what is their value?’ respectively. Following a wider plenary question and answer session, the participants were broken into small round-table groups where they discussed in greater detail the two key topics: the Lisbon Treaty and the Irish guarantees, and the future of Europe and the role for Irish women within it. A chair was kept free at each table for the experts who moved from one group to another to answer any questions, engage in discussion etc. The round-table sessions were chaired by impartial facilitators who recorded the issues discussed on flip charts. The issues discussed and recommendations suggested were fed back at the end of the day in a wider plenary session. After the debates, the participants were asked to answer the original questions again, to ascertain if there had been a shift in their levels of awareness and their opinions on the EU as a consequence of the day’s deliberations.

The questionnaire used drew upon the academic literature on deliberative democracy and on survey methods. It was also informed by surveys used by Eurobarometer and the European Citizens’ Consultation exercise. The survey gathered data on the participants’ profile, voting behaviour, knowledge of the EU and perceptions of and attitudes to the distribution of EU/member state competences.

In keeping with other deliberative processes this conference invited participants to complete surveys at the beginning and at end of the day’s proceedings. Although the total number of participants on the day was over 30, the number who attended the full proceedings and completed both surveys was 14. With such a small n it is not possible to draw firm conclusions about the impact of the day’s deliberations on participants’ knowledge of and attitudes to the EU. However it is possible, using an analysis of the results, to note trends and assess the project as a pilot study.

The vast majority of the people who participated in the full day and completed both surveys were aged 45 plus (10 out of the 14), while those aged 55 and over accounted for almost half (6 out of 14) of the participants. Also of the 14 who participated in all of the day’s events only 1 was male.

Less than half of the participants (6 out of 14) had voted ‘Yes’ in the 2008 Lisbon Referendum, and one person indicated that she was out of the country that day. All of those who participated in the full day’s events were on the electoral register and 12 of them had voted in the 2009 elections to the European Parliament.

When participants were asked how informed they considered themselves to be at the time of the referendum which took place on 12 June 2008, two-thirds of them answered that they were very-well or well-informed. Among the people who rejected the Treaty, this proportion was reversed with two-thirds considering that they were only ‘somewhat’ or ‘not at all’ informed.

The one-day nature of the conference meant that the participants had little input into the agenda-setting in advance of the event. However they were free to add topics to the debate through the plenary question and answer sessions held after each expert presentation. They also had the opportunity to do so during the round-table sessions which contained 4 participants, a facilitator and a rotating expert (Each group has an empty chair in it for the expert to ‘slip in’ and join them). The session on the Lisbon Treaty and the Irish guarantees focused mostly on the sharing of information and opinions on the impact of the Treaty on the EU institutions and policies as well as the legality of the Irish guarantees.

Interestingly during the course of the day the overwhelming majority of those who had voted ‘No’ in the first Lisbon referendum agreed that the information provided in the presentations as well as the more in-depth small group discussions with the experts changed their views on the Treaty and many admitted that they were going to vote ‘Yes’ in the October 2nd referendum.

The second round-table session took a more brainstorming approach as the participants shared their visions for the future of the EU and for the role of Irish women within it. It produced concrete suggestions and recommendations that could be incorporated into existing policies or form part of a new policy in this area


In the spirit of deliberation the conference endeavoured to be inclusive, equal, public and reasonable.


Invitations and information was circulated and re-circulated to targeted groups such as the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the Irish Countrywomens’ Association, Women for Europe and the Soroptimists, as this event specifically targeted Irish women. Yet it was not exclusively for Irish women. Letters of invitation were also sent to schools and local council representatives and officials. Information was placed in the regional newspapers and freesheets to reach people of all ages, socio-economic status and educational background. It was a free event that offered refreshments and lunch to those who participated on the day. However it did not have the funding to offer child-minding facilities or to pay participants’ expenses.


As already explained, the vast majority of the people who participated in the full day and completed both surveys were aged 45 plus (10 out of the 14), while those aged 55 and over accounted for almost half (6 out of 14) of the participants. Also of the 14 who participated in all of the day’s events only 1 was male. In terms of education half of those surveyed had completed second level schooling, the remainder having graduated from third level. Interestingly 6 of the 14 had completed postgraduate studies.

Every effort was made to include all in the working group/roundtable discussions. Feedback from the facilitators noted that they did not face any challenges in stimulating debate. The groups were by and large very willing to participate. However as some of the participants held very strong opinions on the issue, it was a challenge to ensure that all could engage and to prevent one or two people from dominating the discussion. For example, in one of the groups there was one participant (a local county councillor) who tried to monopolise the group. This group’s facilitator noticed that two of the participants retreated when the politician interrupted. She tried to overcome this by going around the circle and giving everyone a chance to voice their opinion/make their suggestion but later admitted that it was difficult to do so.

Such challenges notwithstanding, the format did facilitate participant-engagement on the Treaty. In particular the more reserved/shy participants liked the opportunity to ask questions in smaller groups. In one of the working groups some of the participants had taken the women’s studies course at the Centre for Adult Continuing Education and were used to small groups. In conversation with their facilitator they remarked that they were not comfortable with big/plenary group questions and that they were less worried about asking what they referred to as ‘embarrassing questions’ in a small group.

Certainly, in the plenary question and answer sessions those with the greater levels of education and familiarity with the University spoke up more than those who did not. A participant, familiar with the University, noted that ‘for some the University and round-table sessions might be intimidating’. Yet this was not mentioned in the interviews with the participants after the event, many of whom were not that familiar with the University. It appears that many took the opportunity to ask their questions in the afternoon workshops. As one participant observed, ‘it was possible to ask questions in the informal workshops’. Another participant noted that ‘the groups were small and, at least in my group, it was very balanced. Everybody spoke and nobody was intimidated’.

Feedback from the facilitators and the participants found that the empty chair for the so-called expert hugely contributed to the discussion. According to the facilitators, the participants enjoyed engaging directly and informally (on a first-name basis) with the experts. This was helped by the experts’ open and facilitating approach. One facilitator noted that they were ‘very down to earth’ and the group felt like they had contributed to something’. Another facilitator stated that the experts ‘genuinely listened’ to the participants’ concerns and queries. As one participant remarked, they didn’t make people feel small’. Another commented: ‘The fact that there was no jargon and everything was explained in plain language also made it easier’.


A defining feature of deliberative democracy is that ‘individuals participating in democratic processes are amenable to changing their minds and their preferences as a result of the reflection induced by deliberation’ (Dryzek cited in Cohen, 2007: 221). For their part, Offe and Preuss define a rational judgement as one that is fact, future and other regarding (1991)

The tone set by the conference chairs, the expert speakers and the facilitators ensured free debate, respect for diversity of opinion and a disposition to understand others’ opinions and interests through debate, argument and deliberation. We were aware in advance that there could be ‘moral disagreement’ among the participants on some aspects of the Lisbon Treaty and the Irish Guarantees as the research conducted by Sinnott et al (2009) revealed concerns around ethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia. The conference adopted Gutmann and Thompson’s principle of reciprocity. The fact that the participants were not asked to come to a decision on the Treaty on the day facilitated this. However they were asked to make recommendations/suggestions on the future of Irish women in Europe.

The pooling of information/sharing of knowledge had an impact on the participants’ opinions/decisions. The event led to an improved understanding of and information on the EU as measured by the greater numbers of participants answering question 15 correctly (a series of statements on the EU which participants were asked to mark as true or false). This was particularly the case for those who had voted ‘No’ in the 2008 referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

When asked to judge whether a series of statements on the European Union were true or false the majority of the participants answered all statements correctly. This figure increased slightly when they retook the survey at the end of the day. The differences in levels of knowledge of the EU between those who voted ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in the 2008 referendum were reflected in their responses to this question. All of those who had voted ‘Yes’ answered the questions correctly in period 1 (P1 – the first time the participants answered the survey), while the majority of those who had voted ‘No’ gave incorrect answers. However by the end of the day (P2 – the participants answered the same survey again in the afternoon) the majority of the ‘No’ voters answered the questions correctly.

In three of the round-table sessions there was feedback that the information provided on the guarantees had an impact on how they were going to vote. In particular some of those who had voted ‘No’ in the first referendum indicated that, having learned more about the Treaty and the guarantees, they were going to vote ‘Yes’. Statements from the participants included:

The participants were keen to get information on the Lisbon Treaty. The facilitators noticed that many within their groups changed their views on the EU and their positions on the Lisbon Treaty in the course of the day. In particular their perceptions on the loss of the Irish Commissioner, control over abortion and erosion of Irish neutrality changed. Two participants indicated that they were ‘No’ voters but that they were going to read more about the Treaty after the event as they felt they had not had enough information. After the event, another participant revealed that she had rung her brother and told him to vote ‘Yes’. She explained that she was already a ‘Yes’ voter but that she had been worried about the protection of Irish neutrality. She had voted ‘Yes’ the first time because she had ‘nieces and nephews (living) abroad but, when it (the referendum) didn’t go through, she was happy’. After the conference she was comfortable voting ‘Yes’ and told others to do so.

The survey analysis showed that, by the end of the event, there were greater levels of awareness of Ireland’s weaker position after the rejection of the first Lisbon referendum. This was true of both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ voters. However, it was more marked amongst the ‘Yes’ voters.

Responding to the question on impact of the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty on Ireland’s influence in the EU, half of the participants indicated that Ireland’s influence was fairly weak. Although none of the participants described Ireland’s position as very weak in P1, three of the respondents did so in the second survey. Similarly the numbers of those who indicated that Ireland’s position was fairly strong dropped from P1 to P2. Different perceptions were noted amongst those who had voted ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in the 2008 Lisbon referendum. Those who had voted ‘No’ saw Ireland’s influence in the EU post the 2008 referendum as fairly strong or the same. This changed slightly by the end of the day where the majority of this group described Ireland’s influence as the same or fairly weak. By comparison the ‘Yes’ voters overwhelmingly defined Ireland’s influence as fairly weak in P1. When surveyed at the end of the day’s event they saw it as even weaker, describing it as fairly weak or very weak.

Some of the participants referred to gaining an understanding of certain sectional interests and how this influenced their opinions/decisions by the end of the day. One participant noted that the expert presentation on the Lisbon guarantees ‘punctured the misinformation that had been circulated about the Lisbon Treaty in a relatively balanced way’. Another participant stated that there had been ‘a lot of misinformation on the Treaty’ with one contributor stating that ‘some groups play on fears, for example abortion’. Concerns were also expressed on the power of money and resources in the Lisbon campaigns. Both of the above were critical of certain ‘No groups’. However another participant was annoyed that the second referendum was ‘being presented as a contest on whether we want to be part of the EU or not’.

It was a mutually respectful process. One facilitator specifically noted that all in his group were ‘respectful of each other’s viewpoints’. Comments from the participants included:

There was some ‘moral disagreement’ as a participant in one of the groups clearly saw the Lisbon Treaty as anti-Christian with negative implications for Irish abortion law and family values. She was not supported in this view by the rest of the group but, in keeping with the principle of reciprocity, her opinions were listened to and treated with respect.

The event did encourage some public-spirited perspectives on public issues. The recommendations were ‘other’ and ‘future’ regarding to the extent that the participants argued that working mothers should have more options and more support. Better and more affordable childcare as well as increased social benefits were discussed. Participants also called for more widespread flexible working hours. It was also argued that financial support should be increased for mothers who would like to give up work to look after their children but cannot do so because of economic necessity. Their suggestions and recommendations were forwarded to the Department of Foreign Affairs. Finally, to the extent that they sought further detail from the experts, the recommendations were also fact-regarding.


It was an open, free event and all members of the public were invited to attend. National and local broadcast and print media coverage (the Irish Times, the Cork Independent, the Evening Echo, TV3, Newstalk and Red FM) ensured publicity before and after the event. Also participants were informed that the information gathered on the day would be made available to them in hard or electronic copy.


Yet to what extent was the event deliberative? Its levels of inclusion and equality were limited by the low number of participants and the absence of senior officials. Furthermore, budgetary constraints limited the amount of publicity for the event.

The event was ‘reasonable’ to the extent that a sequential approach was observed as participants moved from discussion on the good wine and chocolate that could be bought in Lidl, to stories of families’ positive experiences of studying and working in the EU, to the particulars of the Irish guarantees and issues of childcare and social protection. Furthermore it incorporated the principle of reciprocity to overcome ‘moral disagreement’ and satisfied Miller and Dryzek’s criteria of sincerity and authenticity as the discussions were free of coercion and the threat of coercion. One of the experts observed that the people involved were ‘honestly trying to inform themselves’ and express ‘genuine fears’. Also the communications connected the general to the particular.

While the participants did not have to come to a joint decision on the Treaty on the day and did not have any direct ‘impact on the exercise of power’ (Dryzek cited in Cohen, 2007: 223), they did as registered voters have the power to influence the outcome of the second referendum. Moreover, as indicated by at least one of the participants they did influence others among their friends and family. This was also noticed by one of the experts who mentioned that the event probably had ‘a greater radiated effect’.


As a pilot study, this deliberative conference reveals the potential of deliberative processes in informing the public on a policy area and increasing levels of public awareness and understanding of the nuances and complexities of political decisions as well as the possibility of facilitating considered public input into the policy agenda. This approach on EU matters has become even more relevant in post Lisbon II Ireland.

Ireland’s increasing reliance on the EU, following the December 2010 intervention of the IMF/EU/ECB ‘Troika’, means that it is undergoing substantial shifts in its relationship not only with the EU but with some of the Union’s larger member states. Navigating this new relationship will require not only clear leadership but also the need to keep citizens’ informed of decisions at the EU level and also to facilitate their input. The closing of the National Forum on Europe in April 2009 has removed an important forum for these discussions and debates. It is now time to develop other public fora, in particular deliberative fora, to inform and engage Irish citizens on EU issues.


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