Thursday, 11 July 2019
Citizens' Assemblies Bill 2019 [Seanad]: Second and Subsequent Stages
I apologise for missing the Minister's remarks but I have had a quick look at them here. Sinn Féin is supporting this proposition. I have to say that I was a sceptic when the Constitutional Convention, as it was then called, was initiated. I thought at the time that it was the Government of the day not being willing to grapple with issues and, therefore, subcontracting them out to assemblies. I have to say I was wrong. The experience has proved to be a useful tool for our democracy. I am referring to getting a group of citizens, with or without politicians, deliberating with experts and accurate information in the round. I am also referring to the reports produced by the Constitutional Convention and the subsequent Citizens' Assemblies. On that basis, I am more than happy to support this proposition.
It is also important that we look at the issue of gender equality and find sensible, practical and workable solutions to remove the many barriers that continue to exist preventing women's full and equal participation in social, political and business life, as well as economic inequalities. In that context, I am happy that Deputy MacDonald's amendment concerned with examining the structural barriers to pay equality for women is an important addition to this Bill. That has to be welcomed and, indeed, already has been by many. The Minister also mentioned in his remarks that there is going to be a subsequent motion on a directly elected mayor for Dublin. I do not think that can come soon enough.
When the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, introduced the legislation for the plebiscites in Limerick, Cork and Galway cities, some of us reflected on our experience of being councillors in what was then the mayor's forum. It was established to look at the issue of directly elected mayors by the former Deputy and Minister, Phil Hogan. I represented South Dublin County Council. One of the major problems we had as elected members was trying to grapple with the idea of a plebiscite on a directly elected mayor when we did not know what we were talking about. We did not know what the powers would be, if powers would be lost from the local authorities up to the new mayors' offices or if powers would devolve down from central government or State agencies. We were having a debate on directly elected mayors in a vacuum.
We repeated that mistake with the late publication of the legislation for directly elected mayors in Cork, Limerick and Waterford cities. While this time around people had information beforehand, it was only for a short time. If and when this motion is published, I urge the Government to give the maximum amount of information regarding what the mayor's office would look like, what powers and funding it would have, its relationship with existing Government structures, local and central, as well as its relationship with the statutory agencies. That would be a welcome move for those of us minded to support directly elected mayors, with real executive powers devolved downwards from central Government, as an enhancement of democracy.
Concerning the citizens' assembly, I echo Deputy Darragh O'Brien's questions regarding timelines. I would also like to get a commitment from the Minister that the recommendations of the assembly will be implemented. We have had some good reports from the Constitutional Convention that are now sitting on shelves gathering dust. The most obvious one is the eighth report of the Convention on the Constitution concerning social ,economic and cultural rights. Those were important recommendations. In fact, many of them would have greatly enhanced gender equality if they had been implemented. I have no doubt those recommendations will be among some of things that this new citizens' assembly will discuss. Looking, for example, at the recommendations of that report, some 85% of members of the assembly said "yes" when asked if, in principle, the Constitution should be amended to strengthen the protection of economic, social and cultural rights. When asked specifically about housing, social security, essential healthcare, rights for people with disabilities, linguistic and cultural rights and rights covered in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, between 75% and 90% of assembly members voted to support those rights.
On enshrining the right to housing in the Constitution, some 84% of the constitutional convention supported that right in 2014. The Minister is willing to look at that but the Government has not yet stepped up to the plate. That right was not supported as some kind of knee-jerk reaction. The members of the convention looked at, considered, deliberated over and decided on those issues. We are going to ask these 100 citizens that will be selected to do the same on gender equality. Despite such a resounding endorsement of the proposal to enshrine economic, social and cultural rights in the Constitution in 2014, the Government is still not willing to act on that recommendation all these years later. Let us not have a citizens' assembly on gender equality for the sake of it. Let us not have it do a good job and report back to the Government and the Oireachtas with a set of recommendations only for the Government to do with that report what it has done with a number of previous reports. That would be an insult to the people we asking to spend time, effort and energy on this convention, as well as to those of us in this House who would genuinely like to see this citizens' assembly do its work.
The Minister has our support. We would like to assist him and the Government in whatever way we can. In return, however, we want a commitment that recommendations, particularly those which have a clear majority, from the citizens' assembly will be implemented. If the Minister has time to make concluding remarks, I would like to know the answer to a question. My enquiry speaks to the amendment that Sinn Féin tabled in the Seanad but which was voted down. I tried to table it in this House but it was not allowed because of the more restrictive rules regarding amendments.
At some point the Government should produce a report listing the reasons it has not acted upon recommendations in the reports of earlier Constitutional Conventions or Citizens' Assemblies, or provide a timeline for when it will do so. Not doing so will undermine public confidence in the overall Citizens' Assembly project. While we have had some really big wins, marriage equality and repeal of the eighth amendment being the obvious ones, there are lots of other examples where the Government could have moved on very important proposals supported by vast majorities in the Citizens' Assemblies and Constitutional Conventions and chose not to do so.