The Eighth: ‘Tone policing’ and the Citizens’ Assembly

Just because the Citizens’ Assembly has recommended a woman’s right to choose, that doesn’t mean the citizenry will endorse that position in a vote, says Michael Clifford.

On Monday last week, I was covering an event taking place in Dublin’s Smithfield Square ahead of the Jobstown trial when Solidary TD Ruth Coppinger sidled up to me. She wore a broad grin and suggested with a good nature that maybe she was owed an apology.

She was referring to a column I had written and a subsequent exchange between us on the Tonight with Vincent Browne programme a few months ago.

The column had opined that that amorphous entity, Middle Ireland, would not vote for the widespread availability of abortion in any referendum. It was written at a time when Ms Coppinger’s party had tabled a motion for a repeal of the eighth amendment with a view to introducing such availability.

We clashed on TV on the matter, with Ms Coppinger suggesting the column had engaged in “tone policing”, which was a new concept to me.

Now, she was pointing out that the Citizens’ Assembly had largely endorsed her view, giving lie to my estimation of the opinion of so-called middle Ireland. The previous weekend, the assembly had recommended that abortion be made widely available. Apart from stipulating some time limits, the recommendations largely amounted to a de facto position of a woman’s right to choose.

In Smithfield, Ms Coppinger made the point that what the result demonstrated was that when people examined the issue in detail they were swayed by the argument that abortion should be widely available. It is a valid point, but not necessarily the definitive one on the proposed amendment and what follows.

The vote at the assembly was a surprise to many and a shock to not a few. It flew in the face of numerous opinion polls, but opinion polls are not what they used to be.

So maybe there has been a major shift among a large cohort of the people. Maybe the pro-choice view is now widespread, echoing majority opinion in places such as the UK and mainland Europe. Maybe the distance travelled since the eighth amendment was inserted into the Constitution in 1983 is far greater than most of us had thought.

There are two possibilities about how the assembly reached its decision. Perhaps it is not representative of the population. It was selected by a polling company using what certainly appears to be a sound basis. But was it representative? If you were asked to take part, would you have jumped at the chance?

Unfortunately, we live in a time when civic engagement is not what it used to be. Apart from that, it was widely known that the main event at the assembly would be to repeal or not. What is not known is how many people were approached but turned down the invitation.

There is a large cohort of citizens who would run a mile from immersing themselves in the big question. There is also a large cohort that would baulk at the time commitment.

For instance, how many parents of young children who did not theretofore have strong views on the issue were approached but declined for time management reasons? The assembly was put together in a professional manner by a polling company but that does not automatically mean it is representative.

The other possibility is that the assembly is genuinely a reflection of the opinions of the population as a whole. Perhaps that is the case. In such a scenario, Ms Coppinger’s analysis that the members voted after detailed analysis and examination of the issue, including exposure to real life stories, stands up.

Having had the benefit of doing all that in a civilised and structured environment, perhaps the majority of those present were swayed by the arguments for widespread availability. If this is the case, then the assembly has worked as it was designed, eliciting a representative and informed opinion, albeit one that most had not expected.

One way or the other, the chances of the assembly’s recommendations either being included in a repeal mechanism or being carried by a vote remains remote. In the first instance, the chances of the Oireachtas facilitating such a major shift is next to zero.

Sinn Féin has set out its policy in which abortion should be made available for fatal foetal abnormality, rape, and incest. In 2013, just seven of Fianna Fáil’s 19 TDs voted in favour of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy bill.

What chance that a majority or even large minority in the admittedly greatly expanded compliment of TDs in that party would now vote for widespread availability? Ditto Fine Gael.

The cohort of Independents and smaller parties break out across the place, from Mattie McGrath at one end to the Solidarity party and its allies at the other. Unless massive public pressure — of a scale to even surpass that briefly assembled over water charges — is brought to bear, there is no chance the assembly’s recommendation will form part of a repeal mechanism.

What if such pressure is brought to bear? What if the politicians, through pressure or in concession to the assembly’s recommendations, put before the people the prospect of widespread availability of abortion?

For those campaigning for repeal, this would represent a major gamble. For one thing, the civilised and largely sealed environment in which the assembly considered the matter would not exist.

The so-called pro-life lobby would mobilise opposition that would make conflict during the marriage equality referendum look like an episode of Peppa Pig. You wouldn’t bet the house that such a vote would pass. If it didn’t, would we all be back to square one, with retention of a constitutional provision that the majority appear to oppose?

Alternatively, maybe the polls, the main political parties, large elements of the media, and well-aired opinion in the legal and medical worlds have it wrong.

Maybe the assembly is a true reflection of public opinion. Maybe its recommendations would be endorsed by a referendum conducted in conjunction with proposed legislation for widespread availability.

At the risk of being accused once more of tone policing, I still doubt it very much.

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