Citizens’ Assembly is an example to the world, says chairwoman

Two changes to the constitution were made following deliberations by 99-person juries

Chairwoman of the  Citizens’ Assembly Ms Justice Mary Laffoy. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Chairwoman of the Citizens’ Assembly Ms Justice Mary Laffoy. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The chair of Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly has said other countries should seek to emulates the model in deliberations on important issues.

Ms Justice Mary Laffoy said Ireland was now only the county in the world where two changes to the constitution resulted from the deliberations of citizens.

She was referring to the Constitutional Convention which in 2014 recommended a referendum on same-sex marriage which was passed in May 2015 by 69 per cent to 32 per cent; and the fact that in April 2017 the Citizens’ Assembly recommended that the Eighth Amendment on abortion should be removed from the constitution.

The assembly was criticised by anti-abortion campaigners who accused it of being biased in favour of repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Anti-abortion campaigners also claimed the make-up of the 99 members of the assembly was unrepresentative of the country at large but its final outcome mirrored that of the referendum.

Some 64 per cent of the members of the assembly voted for abortion without restriction up to 12 weeks. In the referendum last month, 66 per cent of the population voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the knowledge that the Government intended to introduce legislation which would allow for abortion up to 12 weeks on request.

In her concluding remarks about the assembly on Thursday, Ms Justice Laffoy described both exercises in deliberative democracy as a “unique and novel process”.

“It is hoped that they will be of benefit not only to the political system, but to others involved in exercises such as those in other jurisdictions,” she said.

Five issues

Ms Justice Laffoy praised the members of the assembly who stuck with the process from the beginning to end. The assembly lasted 18 months and considered five subjects: abortion, climate change, Ireland’s ageing population, how referendums are conducted and fixed term parliaments.

The judge said she had been “astounded by their commitment, energy, openness and hard work.

“Members continued to willingly give up their weekends and worked hard to ensure that they understood the issues before making carefully considered, informed recommendations.

“All members have embodied the spirit of the assembly since they joined with no exceptions. They have been alive to the key principles of the assembly at all times - openness, fairness, equality of voice, efficiency, respect and collegiality. I have found their level of commitment to public service over the last 18 months extraordinary.”

On the issue of future referendums, 94 per cent said there should be a permanent referendum commission. They also voted overwhelmingly that the Oireachtas should develop and effectively limit spending in referendums.

In respect of multi-option voting in a constitutional referendum 76 per cent voted that it should be permissible to have more than two options on a ballot paper in a constitutional referendum - the so-called preferendum.

The members also voted by a narrow majority (51 per cent) in favour of a changes to the current constitutional position on the dissolution of the Dáil. This would allow for fixed-terms parliaments such those that operate in the UK.

However, 95 per cent also voted that, if the current constitutional position as regards the dissolution of Dáil Éireann is changed, there should be a fixed term that can be cut short subject to certain conditions.

The final report of the assembly can be found here or at www.citizensassembly.ie