A citizens’ assembly of 100 people picked at random using a polling company are in no better position to discuss constitutional issues than “100 people chosen at a football match”.
Dismissing the Government’s plan for an assembly to debate repealing the eighth Amendment on abortion, Independent Senator Michael McDowell said the assembly would be a “pointless exercise and demeaning” in a democracy with a parliament to debate such issues.
Legislation to create the assembly using the electoral register, was however accepted and the Seanad rejected an amendment requiring it to report back within three months on the abortion debate.
Minister of State Damien English, who introduced the legislation which has already been passed by the Dáil, said nothing in the resolution setting up the assembly stops it from reporting back after a month.
However, he said, it would be unfair to impose a short time limit on a complicated issue. There was a 12 months’ limit and the Eighth Amendment had to be dealt with first.
Independent Senator Lynn Ruane called for the three-month time limit. "I do not believe action on the eighth amendment can wait any longer," she said.
Otherwise it could be 2018 before there was a referendum, if the assembly even voted for one, she said. “That is unacceptable.”
She said every year 4,000 women travel abroad for abortions. “If we wait two years for a referendum on the eighth amendment, 8,000 more women will have travelled. We do them and all the women in this State a disservice by not acting decisively to help them.”
Independent Senator Ronan Mullen also rejected the assembly and questioned whether the previous constitutional conventions were actually independent. He said the Dáil and Seanad were the citizens' assembly.
Mr Mullen described the assembly as a “put-up job” and was about “pretending there is some kind of public demand for something there may or may not be such a demand for”.
Fianna Fáil Senator Jennifer Murnane O’Connor said her party would abstain in the vote to set up the assembly because the issue “is of such sensitivity and complexity that it cannot be adequately dealt with by putting together 100 citizens”.
Sinn Féin Senator Maire Maire Devine welcomed the assembly as another mechanism to allow people to participate in the democratic process but she supported calls for a report within three months because "we can no longer continue to kick this extremely important social issue down the road".
Ms Devine reminded the House that “the Government has thus far failed to implement many of the other recommendations of the previous convention”.
Labour Seanad leader Ivana Bacik opposed the legislation because "as a pro-choice party, we are against the establishment of any mechanism that would delay the holding of a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment".