ALISON O'CONNOR: Assembling right mix of people to discuss abortion issue will be hard

Minister for Health Simon Harris TD called this week for an 'informed, inclusive, mature and respectful debate' on abortion.

How can that elusive balance be achieved with a sort of random selection? Yet how can it not be done that way either? ask Alison O’Connor

The proposed Citizen’s Assembly is looking increasingly like nobody’s child. Apart from Taoiseach Enda Kenny, it’s difficult to find anyone summoning up what might pass for genuine enthusiasm for the body which is due to tackle the thorniest issue in Irish society.

The search will shortly be on for “a representative sample of 99 members of the public” who are willing to venture into the torment and heartache that is the abortion issue in Ireland. Perhaps there are scores of responsible and enthusiastic citizens out there who have just been waiting for this opportunity, but that seems somehow unlikely.

The Government has awarded the tender to Red C polling company to find those amongst us who wish to be involved in this potentially very important gathering.

The clock is ticking as it’s due to commence in October, and somewhat worryingly there isn’t even a secretariat in place. According to the Department of the Taoiseach in the absence of one they are working on the preparations.

This will not a randomly chosen 99 people. The Taoiseach has said there will be diversity with respect to age, gender and location among those chosen.

That is logical and sensible, but it is also curious as to how is it going to work in practice. Both sides have their own concerns — will there be a pre-dominance of strong Catholics with an anti choice position, or a possible majority of militant pro-choicers who would want abortion clinics opened on our high streets.

It was a polling company that chose the participants for the previous Constitutional Convention. While that dealt with the then thorny issue of same sex marriage, it was actually a far less contentious issue than abortion.

Obviously these polling companies have methods for choosing people — hopefully from all walks of life — but how much transparency will there be in the selection process?

Indeed how much transparency can there be allowed in terms of the privacy of the citizens involved? How can that elusive balance be achieved with a sort of random selection? Yet how can it not be done that way either?

This is one issue where you are almost guaranteed that the chance of finding someone with a neutral attitude is non existent.

Reading the tenders relating to the Assembly the plan appears to be that it will be held for up to 10 weekends – all day Saturday and until mid afternoon on Sunday - averaging one a month, beginning in October.

The eighth amendment of the Constitution is not the only issue on the agenda, although it will be the first to be considered. Others are fixed-term parliaments, dealing with an aging population, the manner in which referenda are held and tackling climate change.

That last one has stumped some of the finest minds on the planet but it will likely seem a walk in the park compared to sorting out the termination of pregnancy in Ireland issue.

Health Minister Simon Harris puts his best face on when discussing the Assembly. He called this week for an “informed, inclusive, mature and respectful debate” on abortion.

However if I was a citizen asked to partake I reckon one of the first questions I might ask myself would be around the necessarily public nature of the Assembly.

Another one of those Government tenders relates to the live streaming of the event. I

’d wonder about the possibility of being targeted, in this instance given their form over the years, by the pro-life movement.

Early on in the Constitutional Convention there was a discussion lead by the chairman Tom Arnold on whether the names of those participating should be released.

It was agreed they would release the names of the 66 participants and their county of origin.

We don’t know what will happen this time around but if a name was published on the Assembly website and the county in which a person resides, would it not be relatively easy to find out where that person lived too?

Some might consider this paranoia but others, myself included, would consider it a sensible consideration.

What would the chance be, you could further wonder, of there being protests outside whatever hotel is chosen as a venue, with chanting and lots of placard-wielding as participants went inside.

Might footage of these end up on the RTÉ 6’ o’clock news on a Saturday night or on Youtube? Would you be spotted by your neighbours? Would that bother you?

Would you find it a comfort to know that the Constitutional Convention laid down a rule that any group who attempted to lobby a member outside of the Convention would be precluded from being involved in it.

Having dealt with all of that, if you were approached, you might then consider what will happen the presumably good work that yourself and your fellow 98 assembly members had undertaken, under the stewardship of Judge Mary Laffoy.

The Assembly has a 12-month deadline to complete all its work and submit its reports.

There is a widespread assumption, rightly or wrongly, that the Assembly will recommend a referendum to remove the 8th Amendment from the Constitution.

As an Assembly member you would need to consider that after all your considerations it is the intention of the government to send the Assembly proposals to an all-party Oireachtas committee.

That Committee will come to its own conclusions.

The Assembly has been dismissed by both sides but since we’re stuck with it, it would be great if it became part of a positive process on abortion.

The Assembly could learn a lot from its predecessor which took what is described as a deliberative approach.

Once gathered together people were divided into small groups of up to 8 people with each table having a trained facilitator who took notes.

There were others walking around the room monitoring the conversations and how they were progressing.

Every citizen member received the same information, heard from the same experts and were lobbied by all sides.

Members were surveyed regularly as to their opinion on what they had heard or been told. Throughout there were satisfaction ratings in the high 90s.

This approach proved a very effective way to deal with the gay marriage referendum issue, which had many complexities and considerations.

On a Sunday morning, after a weekend discussing a particular issue, there would be a ballot paper on that issue, on which each member would vote. Then at 1pm on Sunday it would be announced what had been agreed.

Prof David Farrell was research director of the Convention, working in a voluntary capacity. He points out that out of 8 topics there were a total of 40 subsequent recommendations, including many of the changes we are seeing now in Dail reform such as a directly elected Ceann Comhairle.

Unlike so many others his gut instinct on the new Assembly is positive. He says there is plenty of experience from the previous conventions to show how something like this can be done successfully.

But first they will have to find the Assembly members willing to serve.

More on this topic

How a brave few are breaking Ireland’s abortion tabooHow a brave few are breaking Ireland’s abortion taboo

UN says UK violates women's human rights by criminalising abortions in Northern IrelandUN says UK violates women's human rights by criminalising abortions in Northern Ireland

Women march in Poland to demand Abortion rightsWomen march in Poland to demand Abortion rights

Readers' Blog: Pro-abortion agenda affected 8th committeeReaders' Blog: Pro-abortion agenda affected 8th committee


As UK legend John Surman gets ready to play at Cork’s jazz fest, he tells Philip Watson about his well-travelled career and why he’s so angry about Brexit.Jazz legend John Surman on a well travelled career and why he's angry about Brexit

Dr Naomi Lavelle answers a weekly science question.Fish live in water all their lives but does that mean that they never get thirsty or do they even drink at all? To answer these questions we need to look at where the fish live.Appliance of Science: Do fish ever get thirsty?

More From The Irish Examiner