Politicians will still have the final say on decisions reached by assembly

Unlike the Convention on the Constitution that preceded it there were no politicians appointed to the Citizen’s Assembly, writes Alison O’Connor

Politicians will still have the final say on decisions reached by assembly

WHAT comfort this week’s outcome of the Oireachtas Water Committee must be giving to the members of the Citizens Assembly who have devoted so much of their energies, on our behalf, to the mind bending ramifications of the 8th Amendment.

Why should it matter to them you might wonder — well it is to just such a committee that their carefully considered recommendations are due to be sent. The question must surely now be: if this is what our national politicians do with water, then what hope for abortion?

As a mere observer of the hard yards undertaken at the assembly it would make your blood boil to think of the assembly conclusions ending up in such a political mire in Leinster House. It can only be imagined how the carry on would be viewed by those who have put in the really hard yards — not just the 99 citizens, but also Judge Mary Laffoy and the assembly secretariat.

Unlike the Convention on the Constitution that preceded it there were no politicians appointed to the Citizen’s Assembly. It was certainly no poorer for that fact.

It had been the plan from the start that whatever the assembly proposed would be returned to Leinster House to be considered by a committee. But why not question that plan given the utter failure of Irish politicians over decades to address the abortion issue. There is a legitimate argument that whatever is proposed by the assembly should simply be done automatically — provided it is legally sound — and facilitated by the Oireachtas. On the basis of how the Assembly has been run thus far, and guided by the secretariat, I would be very surprised, if the eventual proposals weren’t sound.

Anyway a Special Joint Committee, just like the water committee, was voted through in the Dáil on Wednesday to “consider the Citizen’s Assembly Report and recommendations on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution” and to report back to the Dáil and Seanad on its conclusions and recommendations within three months of its first public meeting. The Seanad will vote on the motion next week.

The plan is that by the end of June, in a deadline set by Judge Laffoy, the assembly’s report will go to this Dáil committee. But what we also learned this week is that this committee can, if it wishes, call expert witnesses. Now you could take a benign view of this, but surely only someone who has not witnessed the long running events surrounding the 8th Amendment to our Constitution would do that.

The legitimate fear is that there could be a ridiculous, pointless and harmful level of duplication, all aimed at further muddying the waters. After all what was the point of the Citizens Assembly if an Oireachtas Committee attempts to re run the same territory. There is no doubt but the Taoiseach Enda Kenny put forward the idea of the assembly as a further procrastination to delay dealing with abortion. But that does not mean it has not been of considerable value. What would utterly devalue it’s work now would be if an Oireachtas Committee took hold of its recommendations, and made a pigs dinner out of them.

The citizens who previously took part in the Convention on the Constitution can look with pride on the success of the same sex marriage referendum, which occurred directly as a result of their work. Their proposals did not return to a specially established Oireachtas Committee. Granted it was in many ways a more straightforward issue.

Being given the job of dealing with the most contentious social issue in Irish society for decades was by far the harder station for the members of the Citizens Assembly.

Whatever about the moral aspects, the legal situation which they’ve attempted to grapple with is mind boggling — no matter how many legal experts you’ve heard on the matter. Regardless, the members applied themselves assiduously during their weekend deliberations in Malahide, Co Dublin.

What a kick in the teeth it would be for them to see whatever they propose tossed around like a political football. Earlier this week speaking to people in Leinster House the special Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services was being touted as a model of its kind, an excellent prototype for the 8th Amendment. But in the space of a few hours the water committee apparently went from having a report that was 99.9% signed off to all hell breaking loose. The various political positions adopted on the water issue are almost beyond parody.

Now the 8th Amendment Committee will be established in a similar way using the d’hondt method with 16 members, mostly TDs but also senators. There will be five Government representatives, four Fianna Fáil, two Sinn Féin, one Labour, one People Before Profit/AAA, one Independent for Change, and one rural independent, one Social Democrats/Green Party Group. As you can see that makes for a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil majority. How might that potentially affect the wording of any referendum to be put before the people?

We already know that Taoiseach Enda Kenny is utterly disinclined towards change on this issue. The majority of the Fianna Fáil party, not least party leader Micheál Martin, are similarly disinclined. The Fianna Fáil leader has said there is freedom of conscious on any abortion votes which means party TDs and Senators are not whipped into voting a particular way.

On one hand is the possibility of Fine Gael using the recommendations of the Assembly as a fig leaf, as in, “shure what can we do, this is what the citizens recommended”. But there is also the prospect of them having an absolute conniption at the prospect of recommendation of an outright repeal of the 8th Amendment.

W

HAT many are hoping for, including Fianna Fáil, is minimal change, and only then because they are forced into it — such as having a referendum for very limited access for fatal fetal abnormalities. In this instance you could end up with a panel of obstetricians similar to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. Their hope would be that this could be added to Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, rather than replacing the principle of protecting the life of the unborn. Even having observed the assembly closely it is difficult to predict what the 99 citizens, present at the assembly representing all of us, and having sat through all the evidence, and having had their own diligent discussions, will ultimately propose. What if they do end up suggesting a repeal — what happens then?

The assembly’s last weekend of considering the 8th Amendment is on April 22; that is crunch time. It is during those two days they will decide what they want on the ballot papers, and subsequently vote on them.

As addressed in this column last week the state of our public life is rather pitiable at present, with our plethora of ongoing investigations, none of them ever seeming to go anywhere, except deep into the public purse. It will be a further deep blow if proper respect is not shown to the Citizens Assembly and the decisions it arrives at. The politicians may be our elected representatives but the consistently diligent and workman like approach evident at the assembly, and the absence of even one raised voice, contrasts sharply with much of what we see in Leinster House, particularly this week’s shenanigans.

If the assembly recommendations are turned into a political football once they hit Leinster House, well then the State should never again have the neck to ask a citizen to come forward and give of their time, energy and commitment. If I was an assembly member I think that if that happened I’d abandon ship for the discussions on the subsequent subjects such as how we hold referendums or the challenges of an ageing population. Why would you bother?

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