Tuesday, 4 October 2016
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
Substantial progress has been made on establishing the Citizens Assembly and its inaugural meeting will be held in Dublin Castle on 15 October next. Resolutions approving establishment of the assembly were passed in the Dáil and Seanad in July and Ms Justice Mary Laffoy was appointed chairperson. Tenders were then issued for the necessary services to support the assembly, in particular for a polling company to select the 99 citizen members who will, with the chairperson, make up the assembly. In addition, accommodation for the meetings of the assembly after its first meeting and services such as translation, live streaming and media support, have been secured.
The assembly's inaugural meeting will be an introductory session to allow the members of the assembly the opportunity to meet the chairperson and one another and to gain a better understanding of the context for the work that they will be undertaking. The assembly will meet again in late November, at which time it will commence its consideration of the first item referred to it by the Dáil resolution, that is, the eighth amendment of the Constitution.
I am sure that the House will join me in wishing Ms Justice Laffoy and the assembly well with their work.
That was a very short and scant-in-detail report on the Citizens Assembly. It seems that the Taoiseach is determined to go ahead with this charade. The word on the street is that it is a delaying tactic, a Craggy Island solution to a problem. It flies in the face of polls. The Taoiseach always eschews polls, yet the Government is using a polling company to pick 99 people. All of the other polls that have been done involved more than 99 people. The last Amnesty poll showed that 87% of people wanted an increased availability of abortion under a range of circumstances and 38% of people expressed themselves as being fully pro-choice. To another question in the Amnesty poll - I will be interested in the Taoiseach's response to this point - 68% of people stated that we should trust women when they say that they need an abortion. That is what this is about.
Will the Taoiseach join me in showing solidarity with the tens of thousands of people who struck and protested in Poland yesterday against a similar law to the eighth amendment that attempted to ban abortion in Poland completely? The Catholic church and its representatives in the Polish Parliament are behind this. There will be an outcry against it in Poland. One of the luxuries that the Taoiseach has, and one of the reasons that he has been able to sweep this issue under the carpet in his 41 years here, is that our country does not have backstreet abortions. Instead, we have the luxury of England being just one hour away. However, we do have abortion.
Three women per day carry out abortions in their own bedrooms. How do we know this? We know because the website www.womenonweb.orgtells us three Irish women contact it every day to access abortion pills online. Approximately 1,000 abortions take place illegally in this State. The real question is whether we are going to keep them illegal or allow them to become legal.
I have three questions on the citizens' assembly. The Taoiseach has outlined two meetings that will take place but will he give a clear timeline for the citizens' assembly? When will it report to a committee and this House with recommendations? The second question relates to witnesses and there is much concern about this among various groups. What will be the composition of this expert group of witnesses? For example, it is vital they not all be lawyers or constitutional experts. They must include experts in women's health, obviously, but there should be independent witnesses as well as those who have views and an input into this. For example, will the United Nations be asked to give testimony on this issue, as it has given its views on it? Will representatives of the World Health Organization be present? Will women's organisations, pro-choice groups and others with a strong view also be asked to participate? What Dáil committee will the recommendations go back to? Will the Taoiseach set up a special new Dáil committee or will it be referred to a health committee? Where will it go before coming to the floor of the Dáil?
I thank Deputy Coppinger for her question. It is not for us to interfere in any other jurisdiction's legislation. Abortion is illegal in this country and remains so except in very specific and particular circumstances that were legislated for under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act a number of years ago. With regard to the timeline that was mentioned, the assembly has 12 months to do its duty. The first item it will deal with is a reflection on and consideration of the eighth amendment to the Constitution. I expect the chairperson, an eminent Supreme Court judge, will work with the assembly in setting out the timeline that is considered appropriate. My view is that the assembly will report on the eighth amendment before the first half of 2017 and then move to the other items.
Will it be possible for outside witnesses to give evidence? Of course it will. The proceedings will be streamed live and there will be the opportunity for people in Northern Ireland or any other jurisdiction who are unable to travel or who wish to make a submission to do so. It is possible for them to do that. The expert panel will be appointed by the chairperson, and that will apply in respect of each item being considered by the assembly, including the eighth amendment. The role of the panel is to provide the assembly with impartial information. Ms Justice Laffoy will make those appointments for the different elements that will be considered.
I would expect that Ms Justice Laffoy would consider very carefully the skills, experience and nature of the character of the people she appoints. She would obviously consider the Deputy's point about whether to appoint all academics, professionals or whatever. This is about people throughout the country and reflective of the assembly itself, taking in gender, age, region and so on. We have put in place arrangements for the establishment and continued operation of the assembly and selected a venue for the post-October meetings. Once it gets down to considering its business, there will be considerable interest in the discussions taking place there.
This will come back to a committee of the Oireachtas and we will consider how best that committee should function, the same way as we did with the Oireachtas committee, chaired by the former Deputy Buttimer, which considered the implications of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.
Okay. I submitted a question on the same subject of the referendum. I will add to the Taoiseach's pain with a pile of other questions. I am wondering about the selection process of 99 citizens. Any reputable polling company would never conduct a selection of 100 people. It would rather have 1,000 people as it is much more representative of the population. I want the Taoiseach to tease out further how this was done.
Will the Taoiseach give us the name of the polling company? Is the Taoiseach saying the polling company chose the 99 people in a stratified way or was it done randomly? In other words, did it go through a scientific research process involving social class, age, religion, gender and even a history of crisis pregnancies, which is a criterion for anybody making a judgment on the future of women with crisis pregnancies in this country? Has the said polling company, whatever it is, collected data on attitudes on religion, sexuality or reproductive rights? The country should know its history and background.
If the Taoiseach is telling us this will report before the first half of 2017, which I assume is some time before June 2017, we are looking at up to nine months for it to come back with a recommendation on whether to have a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment. I assume that is what will be done and either we will have a referendum or we will not. We are not getting it any other way. Does the Taoiseach realise that by June 2017, another 3,246 women will have been exported from this country for a health procedure that they are not entitled to here? That is a lot of women.
I attended the march of more than 30,000 mainly young people and it was a much more representative cross-section of society and of where we should be going with the issue. It was a genuine citizens' assembly, as opposed to 99 people who are either selected at random or in a stratified way.
I have always been of the view that it is difficult to see how the citizens' assembly can realistically answer the question of whether there should be a referendum on the eighth amendment and what the specific proposal, including subsequent legislation, should be. It is proceeding and I wish it well in its work. It is only when we get to the detail of what people are proposing that we can have an honest debate. With simple repeal, existing legislation would stay in place, which is hardly the option that will emerge. The last time there was a consultation led by an Oireachtas committee on this subject, it was successful in the core task of at least defining everybody's positions and the exact measures required to enact each position. There is nothing worse that just having a forum that provides new debating opportunities. We need clarity on what will happen after the assembly. Will it go to a special Dáil committee that will have the task of defining everybody's position and the exact measures required to enact each position? Will the Taoiseach outline again the expertise that will be available to the chairperson?
I will keep this brief. I am troubled by two prospects. First, the delay involved in this group of 99 citizens deliberating and then us going through all the machinations of the Oireachtas. I am also a bit taken aback that the Taoiseach cannot tell us which committee the deliberations might go too. My bigger concern, however, is that there can be no question of a referendum on the eighth amendment. There has to be a referendum in respect of this provision. People can have their own views on it but I am troubled at the prospect that 99 citizens and an Oireachtas committee might be used to frustrate the clear desire for and the absolute democratic necessity of a referendum on this matter. I was a child when the eighth amendment was passed and written into our Constitution. I am now in my forties. There are generations of women and men who have not been afforded their democratic say. The forum is okay, if the Taoiseach insists on it, although I think it is a delaying tactic. However, any suggestion that we are not going to have a referendum on this matter is, quite frankly, not acceptable.
I would like to know what the role of the political parties will be in this procedure because that was essential to the successful outcome of the marriage equality referendum. People with a very wide range of views came together, put their views forward and a consensus was reached on a way forward. I fear that the excision of the political parties and politicians and the fact that they will have no presence in this process will cause that process to suffer. The assembly, as others have suggested, will end up being surrounded by experts, most of whom will not be the doctors or midwives who might attend to women and deal with all matters relating to conception, pregnancy, birth and so on but will be lawyers. Everybody will lawyer up on every side and I do not know what that will do for the resolution of this issue.
Months, if not years ago -----
The polling company Red C Research and Marketing Ltd. was appointed following a competitive tendering process to provide a representative sample of 99 members of the public for the citizen's assembly, plus substitutes. Red C Research and Marketing Ltd. was the sole company to tender for this. The live streaming company was selected following a competitive tendering process.
The proceedings will be streamed live. The competitive tendering process was won by Richard Jolly TV Ltd./ Switch New Media, which will provide the filming, live broadcasting and streaming of the assembly's meetings. Following a competitive tendering process the media company Q4 PR was selected from six submissions received to provide media liaison services for the assembly. The Irish company Beatrice.ie - Translating, Interpreting and Tour Guiding Services, was selected to provide translation services for the assembly following a competitive tendering process. A total of €2 million has been set aside by my own Department for the citizen's assembly.
I note that Deputy McDonald is troubled but I said that we would have this in place within the first 100 days of this Government and I am glad that the first meeting will take place at an early time. The Deputy must understand that these 99 citizens and their 99 substitutes are people who will, I hope, have a rational and comprehensive discussion on the eighth amendment and what it means. They will hear from witnesses of the difficulties, trauma and personal stress they experienced in respect of their pregnancies and from those who have travelled abroad. It is in here, however, that this matter will be decided. This issue will be decided by politicians, the elected representatives. When they come to vote on whatever recommendation is eventually decided upon, they will vote in a free vote according to their conscience. Times have changed since Deputy McDonald was a child or indeed, since I was a child, which was before Deputy McDonald -----
That is why, with respect, we should allow this assembly to have its deliberations, with ordinary people from all over the country giving their views on the eighth amendment. The political process will decide the matter, in here, when eventually we come to vote on the recommendations.