Was Citizens’ Assembly best way to deal with abortion question?
Oireachtas group row looms after shockwaves over liberal abortion law suggestions
How did we get here? A Government led by a socially-conservative Taoiseach set up a Citizens’ Assembly, which eventually creates shockwaves by recommending extensive liberalisation of abortion laws.
The establishment of the 99-member body in 2016 was widely dismissed as a strategic way for Enda Kenny to delay dealing with the contentious issue from which generations of Irish politicians have averted their gaze.
“I suspect he knew he would be accused of kicking the can down the road, but he showed a little bit of vision. This is a conservative, west of Ireland man who knows change is happening and is facilitating that in a respectful way,” one political insider said.
“People were taken by surprise by the assembly’s recommendations. Does it reflect where Ireland is exactly? I don’t know. Ireland is on the move socially. Assessing the pace at which it’s moving is the tricky part.”
The Taoiseach’s assessment was that the assembly’s predecessor, the Constitutional Convention, which took the temperature on marriage equality and effectively paved the way for a historic Yes vote, was also initially criticised as a stalling mechanism.
A convention or assembly to examine the Eighth Amendment, which enshrined the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn into the Constitution in 1983, was a key pledge in the 2016 Fine Gael manifesto.
During the negotiations ahead of the formation of the minority Government last spring, Fine Gael Ministers Frances Fitzgerald and Leo Varadkar dismissed objections to the assembly from anti-abortion Independent TDs.
Ms Zappone, now Minister for Children, said she could not have continued in the talks process if the programme for partnership did not commit to establishing an assembly.
“I never viewed it as a kicking-the-can-down-the-road situation. As for the Taoiseach himself, I believe he also thought this would provide a calm and respectful way to debate the issues,” she said.
“A good number of people, young and old, are still working their way through this issue from an ethical perspective. But we’ve really crossed the Rubicon in terms of these issues, in terms of the separation of church and state. We’re in a new era.”
However, the consensus in the Oireachtas is that the assembly’s recommendations were an overly-liberal interpretation of the current thinking of middle Ireland on the issue.
Some point out that those who vote in a referendum are likely to do so on “instinct” and are unlikely to be as informed as the assembly members were after digesting hours of expert evidence, testimony and debate.
The assembly approved by wide margins the availability of abortion in all 13 circumstances they considered, and members voted 50-39 to recommend the reform or amendment rather than repeal of the Eighth Amendment.
Whether or not the assembly managed to locate the middle ground on abortion, the issue is no longer one for Government but for the Oireachtas.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Oireachtas members have been granted a free vote, which allows them to vote according to their own beliefs rather than following a party line.
TDs and Senators, already under pressure from campaigners on both sides, will eventually find themselves in a position of having to take a position on the issue, for the first time, in some cases.
A few may miss the protection of the whip.
The next step will be the formation of a new cross-party committee, to be known as the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which will be tasked with considering the assembly’s report.
After the assembly’s chairwoman Ms Justice Mary Laffoy sends her report to the Oireachtas in June, the “big ticket” item on the committee’s agenda is expected to be an attempt to formulate an unambiguous wording of a referendum that will not be open to misinterpretation.
The Oireachtas committee must report to the Government with its recommendations before the end of the year, although it has to do so within three months of holding its first public hearing.
The longer-term prospects for the process in the event of an early election are difficult to assess, although Fianna Fáil is participating in the new committee and has already nominated four TDs.
Independent TD Mattie McGrath, who is hoping to sit on the committee, said he was sure the assembly’s “disappointing” recommendations did not reflect the views of most Irish people.
“There’s no way in God’s name that the public are in favour of unrestricted abortion. Opinion polls have found that. Normal people will be incensed,” he said.
Mr McGrath, who represents Tipperary, challenged the assembly’s claim to be made up of a representative sample of the population.
He complained a number of counties and constituencies, including his own, had “no representation” on the 99-strong membership of the assembly. “How could they be representative?” he asked.
Mr McGrath said he was convinced the cross-party committee would be “made up predominately of people on the other side of the debate”.
He also said he hoped it “won’t be as big as a charade as the last one”.
This was a reference to the health committee in the last Oireachtas which, under the chairmanship of Fine Gael’s Jerry Buttimer, held extensive hearings four years ago ahead of the drafting of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013.
Mr Buttimer is being mooted as chairman of the new committee. He has confirmed his interest in the role, while saying he had not been asked and stressing his workload as Fine Gael leader in the Seanad, and said a referendum on abortion could be held by next spring.
He cautioned against criticising the work of the assembly. Holding a referendum was a “political imperative”, he said, and he called for a “focused, sharp, reflective period” during which the committee would examine the assembly’s recommendations.
“From spring on next year we could perhaps have a referendum. I think a referendum needs to be held. A generation hasn’t voted and has a right to vote,” he said.
Already a row over the composition of the committee has erupted, with wrangling between the Dáil and Seanad over the numbers from each House due to serve on the body.
The Upper House has nominated seven Senators, rather than the expected four, to sit on the committee with 16 TDs.
Meanwhile, a prominent Government TD has disputed the consensus in political circles that the Irish electorate would not endorse the assembly’s recommendations.
Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell, who also hopes to serve on the new committee, insisted the assembly’s position would resonate with broader Irish society.
“There will be uproar if this is modified beyond recognition. This is one of those things that people expect us to deal with now. We’ve done the god-fearing society bit,” she said.
“The average age in the Oireachtas is about 50, give or take. The average age in Ireland is 34.7, which is my age, give or take. You’re looking at a big difference between the age in the Oireachtas and in wider Irish society.
“The Citizens’ Assembly bridged the gap between the Oireachtas and the rest of Ireland. There’s very little between what Ireland thinks and what the Citizens’ Assembly has come up with.”
Ms O’Connell was originally sceptical about the Government’s motivation for setting up the body. At first she thought it was a ploy designed by the Fine Gael leadership to stall further discussion about the issue.
“My initial reaction was, ‘ah, come on’ but now when I look back on it with a little more understanding and knowing Enda Kenny better, it was a very clever way of dealing with it.”