Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss highlights State’s failure to address crisis

Members call for a referendum on an amendment to the Constitution to protect biodiversity

Citizens’ Assemblies have an impressive record of accurately reflecting the appetite within the Irish public for radical societal change and for prompting big redirection within government.

They have, for instance, prompted urgent action on gender inequality and acted as the catalyst for Ireland adopting the most ambitious climate targets in the world. Addressing a worsening biodiversity crisis on our doorstep has been added to the list.

The Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss, the first to be staged anywhere, concluded with a bold request for a referendum on an amendment to the Constitution to protect biodiversity.

The call, backed by 83 per cent in favour, is not a vague recommendation as it includes a demand for a range of protections “to deliver substantive and procedural environmental rights for both people and nature”.


This is the progressive course being pursued by countries conscious of accelerating species decline and collapse in nature.

The 99 randomly selected members of the public, under chairwoman Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, did not shirk in highlighting a pattern of failure by Government including State agencies to date and deplorable enforcement.

They concluded the State “has comprehensively failed in relation to biodiversity” and made specific recommendations for fundamental change to the funding, implementation and enforcement of national policies, EU biodiversity-related laws and relevant directives.

All this is reinforced by a demand for extensive overhaul of the national approach to managing biodiversity loss but also, critically, with big emphasis on nature restoration.

After seven meetings – including seeing first-hand Irish ecosystems under growing pressures due to human activities – they showed a profound understanding of undermining factors and how biodiversity decline is interlinked with a climate crisis that is getting closer to a tipping point of planetary catastrophe. In both cases, the spectre of irreversible impacts is on the immediate horizon.

The final session on Sunday hit a midmorning bump as participants felt they needed more time to consider sectoral issues, notably on agriculture; freshwater, marine and coastal environments; peatlands; forestry/woodlands/hedgerows; protected sites, invasive species and built environments.

In preliminary discussions, there were indications a majority would favour a recommendation that people consume “a more plant-based diet” rather than urging they eat less meat.

Equally, there was strong support for “a sustainable level of livestock management” consistent with “high nature value farming” – the clear implication being that current livestock numbers are environmentally damaging.

The option of wrapping up with an online vote on issues under these headings was rejected. One participant recalled, “You have asked us to be ambitious”, another noted, “We’re not able to finish what we’ve taken on”.

So, subject to Oireachtas approval on extending the assembly’s deliberations, it will resume for a day early in the new year to discuss and vote on sectoral headings before their final report is submitted to the Oireachtas. Deliberative democracy is never straightforward.

Ní Shúilleabháin told participants that because of putting back their final votes they were liable to being lobbied, though she did not indicate on what topics. She underlined their decisions should be based on submissions, presentations and work conducted in the room together and “not be based on private conversations”.

She strongly backed the deferral: “It is right that we do so if we are to fulfil the mandate given to us by the Oireachtas.”

More than 150 recommendations were agreed, however, ranging from curriculum reform to explicitly incorporate biodiversity at primary and secondary level, to penalties for transgressing businesses linked to company turnover, to empowering communities eager to make their contribution.

A proposal to “create, publish and maintain an integrated habitat, species and land usage map of the island of Ireland” has considerable merit as a transparent progress indicator.

Speaking at the conclusion, Ní Shúilleabháin said: “We have made significant and big decisions, including inserting a specific commitment to protecting biodiversity into Bunreacht na hÉireann. This demonstrates the level of priority that we believe needs to be afforded to environmental protection.”

She strongly endorsed the call for new centralised structures for co-ordinating and implementing national policy on biodiversity loss to ensure that those laws and regulations to protect the environment already in place are properly enforced.

The renowned conservationist Jane Goodall told the assembly’s final meeting that nature was resilient but biodiversity must be given a chance to return – “it can and will thrive in those environments that have been impacted by biodiversity loss”.

She also had a positive message on resetting the course: while habitation destruction, pollution, intensive agriculture and poverty have caused extensive biodiversity loss, she said that through proper environmental management, funding, rewilding, green corridors and other initiatives, “nature will display its inherent resilience, will return and will thrive”.

The Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss has set out how Ireland should embark on a course to allow nature reassert itself and to sustain future generations.

It has put it up to the Government to respond with far greater urgency to an emergency that will quickly undermine quality of life for its citizens and economic prosperity within decades if not properly addressed. Failure risks combining with inevitable climate impacts to deliver a double blow in quick succession that no one will escape from.