The Government should establish a citizens’ assembly to consider abortion
Opinion: ‘It might be better not to include politicians as members’
‘It’s not reinstatement of the Constitutional Convention that is called for it’s an entirely new process with its own mandate.’ Photograph: Eric Luke / THE IRISH TIMES
The latest abortion tragedy has put Ireland in the international spotlight once again. Most now would agree that the current constitutional impasse can’t continue. Labour government ministers openly agree that a new referendum on abortion will be required – but just not yet. There is no appetite in the senior echelons of government for yet another debate on abortion: the issue has been firmly kicked into the long grass for the next government to deal with.
Like it or not, we probably have to accept the political realities of the situation. The passing of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in 2013, supposedly to deal once and for all with the 1992 X case, was the cause of much trauma within the Fine Gael party, the full consequences of which we’ve yet to see. So, we could expect some hesitancy on the part of this government about opening up this issue again.
But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be done in the interim. The Government should take the initiative and establish a Citizens’ Assembly, made up of ordinary citizens selected at random from the greater Irish population. The Assembly should be given the task of considering the options for a fresh referendum early in the light of the next government.
Abortion is exactly the sort of issue that should be examined by a Citizens’ Assembly. By selecting ordinary citizens randomly it results in a membership that is not beholden to any electoral or sectoral interests: they have not run for office, they are not selected to represent particular advocacy groups, they are chosen solely on the basis of being Irish citizens willing to give up some time to help advise the politicians on possible solutions.
MembersIt is not just how its members are chosen that sets a Citizens’ Assembly apart: what is also very important is how it operates. There are two important features that stand out. First, there is a crucial role for experts, carefully selected to represent all sides of the argument who provide briefing documents, address the Citizens’ Assembly, and answer any questions that might arise – thus ensuring that the Assembly members are well informed. Experts can also help to contextualise and clarify any issues raised by advocacy groups who might also address the Assembly.
Second, the modus operandi is ‘deliberation’ – discussions in small groups with trained facilitators whose role is to ensure that everyone has a fair hearing. One of the first steps of a Citizens’ Assembly is for its members to agree some ground rules, common among them a willingness to recognise and respect differing opinions, to discuss in a reflective manner, keeping an open mind — all very different from the usual parliamentary-style ping pong that we’re so used to seeing. The facilitators’ role is to ensure that these ground rules are adhered to, so that once the Citizens’ Assembly members have heard from the experts, there should be plenty of time and space for calm and measured discussion about the issues raised. For an issue as important as this things should not be rushed: it may take weeks or even months, but as much time as necessary should be allowed to consider all relevant questions that might arise before coming to a considered view on what might be recommended.
ApproachNone of what is being proposed here should be seen as alien. This approach has already been tried and tested in Ireland. The Irish Constitutional Convention of 2012-14 was a form of a Citizens’ Assembly. In its discussions of issues like marriage equality and blasphemy – also heavily value-laden topics – it demonstrated the virtues of this approach.
Indeed, there have been some politicians calling for the reinstatement of the Constitutional Convention for this very reason. This is probably not realistic as it completed its work several months ago, its organisation has been disbanded and members dispersed. It’s not reinstatement that is called for it’s an entirely new process with its own mandate.
Furthermore, I would suggest that in this instance it might be better not to include politicians as members (one-third of the Constitutional Convention members were from the Oireachtas and Northern Ireland Assembly). Including politician members would run the risk of diluting the deliberative experience, of allowing party positioning to creep in. Perhaps instead there might be a panel of Oireachtas members — elected by their peers — who could act as a point of contact with and sounding board for the Citizens’ Assembly.
For this process to have a chance of success it is vitally important that the leaderships of all the parties agree to treat this with the cross-party consensus it deserves. Enough party politics has been played with the abortion question over the ages.
David Farrell holds the chair of politics at UCD and was research director of the Irish Constitutional Convention.