Seanad debates

Friday, 15 July 2016

10:00 am

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I call the Leader the move the motion.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann:

approves the calling of a Citizens’ Assembly to consider the following matters and to make such recommendations as it sees fit and report to the Houses of the Oireachtas: (i) the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution;

(ii) how we best respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population;

(iii) fixed term parliaments; and

(iv) the manner in which referenda are held; and

(v) how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change; andnotes that: - membership of the Assembly will consist of 100 persons as follows:

- a Chairperson to be appointed by the Government; and

- 99 citizens entitled to vote at a referendum, randomly selected so as to be broadly representative of Irish society;- substitutes may be appointed subject to the selection criteria above, who will be entitled to contribute to the proceedings and vote in their own name;

- the Assembly will agree its own rules of procedure for the effective conduct of its business in as economical a manner as possible;

- the Assembly will first make a report and recommendation on the matter set out at (i) above to the Houses of the Oireachtas, which on receipt will refer the report for consideration to a Committee of both Houses which will in turn bring its conclusions to the Houses for debate;

- the Assembly will report and make recommendations to the Houses of the Oireachtas on each remaining matter as soon as it has completed its deliberations, but in any event not later than one year from the date of the first Assembly meeting;

- the Assembly will also be asked to consider such other matters as may be referred to it;

- an Expert Advisory Group will be established to assist the work of the Assembly in terms of preparing information and advice;

- the Assembly may invite and accept submissions from interested bodies and will seek such expert advice as it considers desirable;

- all matters before the Assembly will be determined by a majority of the votes of members present and voting, other than the Chairperson who will have a casting vote in the case of an equality of votes; and

- the Government will provide in the Houses of the Oireachtas a response to each recommendation of the Assembly and, if accepting the recommendation, will indicate the timeframe it envisages for the holding of any related referendum.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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It is a long time since I was last here, so I am glad to get a chance to address the House again.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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The 61st Member of the Seanad.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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It is all about Seanad reform.

I am grateful to the Acting Chairman and to the Members of Seanad Éireann for the opportunity to speak on the resolution before us today about the proposed citizens' assembly. The resolution deals with the setting up of a citizens’ assembly. We had this debate in the Dáil during the week also.

If the Members agree, I will refer to the events that took place last night. Given the proud record of France in the development of the rights of citizens, I want to express my revulsion at what happened in Nice last night and my sympathy, and that of the Government, which I am sure is shared by every Member here, to the Government and the people of that great country and to the families of those killed and injured. What happened was atrocious and it is important that we mention it today.

A programme for a partnership Government promises that the Government will establish a citizens’ assembly with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues over an extended time period. As the programme states, these issues will not be limited to those directly pertaining to the Constitution and may include issues such as, for example, how we as a nation best respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population. That said, the citizens’ assembly will be asked to make recommendations to the Dáil on further constitutional changes, including on the eighth amendment, fixed term parliaments, the manner in which referenda are held - for example, should super referendum days, whereby a significant number of referenda take place on the same day, be held - and how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.

The assembly will be very similar to the Convention on the Constitution. Senators will be aware, especially those who may have served on it, that the convention was an important and imaginative exercise in the direct involvement of citizens which worked very well and with which everybody was happy. A number of significant measures have been accepted on foot of recommendations made by the convention, for example, that the Ceann Comhairle be elected by secret ballot, that provision be made for the proportionate allocation of committee chairs using the d’Hondt system and that an electoral commission be established. In addition, two referendums were held on foot of recommendations from the convention, most significantly, the referendum on marriage equality. As the House is aware, that referendum was passed by a decisive majority, the first occasion on which a proposal for constitutional change put forward by a constitutional convention resulted in actual constitutional change. It was also the first time that marriage equality was carried by popular vote anywhere in the world.

I mentioned earlier that the citizens’ assembly will be very similar to the convention. Despite some scepticism about the convention at the beginning, the convention model worked very well. Like the convention, therefore, the citizens’ assembly will be independent of Government. As with the convention, resolutions of both Houses of the Oireachtas will approve its establishment and it will report back directly to the Oireachtas.

The resolution before the House today is closely modelled on the resolution approving establishment of the convention; it is a very similar process. The assembly will comprise 99 citizens and an independent chairperson. A polling company will be engaged to select 99 people entitled to vote in a referendum to be members of the assembly. They will be randomly selected and will be broadly representative of Irish society. In order for the electoral register to be used in the selection process, legislation is required. The Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2016 is before the House later today and I am grateful to the Members of the House for agreeing to discuss it on the same day as the resolution. A similar process was followed in the Dáil during the week.

One difference from the convention is that politicians will not be members of the assembly; this is so as to allow for as broad a representation as possible from the general public. The citizens will have ownership of the process and I appeal to anyone who is contacted to take the opportunity to participate in this initiative. Politicians will have the opportunity to give their views as each assembly report comes before the Oireachtas.

As in the case of the Convention on the Constitution, the chairperson will be independent and will be key to the success of the assembly. The Taoiseach has already promised to consult with the Government and Opposition leaders on potential candidates for chairperson.

The topics the assembly will consider are set out in the resolution. The assembly will be asked to consider the eighth amendment of the Constitution; how we best respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population; fixed term parliaments; and the manner in which referenda are held. It will also consider how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change, a suggestion made by Senator O’Sullivan’s colleagues, Deputies Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin, in the other House. The assembly will also be asked to consider such other matters as may be referred to it in due course.

One point I want to make clear is that the resolution specifically states that the first item the assembly will consider is the eighth amendment of the Constitution. When completed, the assembly’s report on the eighth amendment will be sent to a committee of both Houses of the Oireachtas, which will in turn bring its conclusions to the Houses for debate. As that first part is finished, the report will come here and the assembly will then continue its work in the other areas. When the assembly’s report on the eighth amendment is completed, but not until then, the assembly will turn its attention to the other items listed in the resolution. I know there are concerns here but I want to be clear that the process will be one at a time; the report will be sent here while the assembly continues its work in the other areas.

It is intended that the assembly will hold its first meeting in October. The resolution gives it a 12-month deadline from its establishment to complete work on all its items. As I mentioned, consideration of the remaining topics will start only when the assembly has completed its consideration of the eighth amendment.

The Government will provide a response in the Oireachtas to each recommendation of the assembly. We will arrange for a debate in the Oireachtas in each case and, in the event that the Government accepts a recommendation that the Constitution be amended, the Government’s public response will include a timeframe for the holding of any such referendum.

The Convention on the Constitution benefitted from the use of experts; that was a key feature of the way it worked. Likewise, the assembly members will presumably wish to have expert advice available to them about the assembly’s work. For this purpose, an expert advisory group will be established to assist the work of the assembly. The composition of this group will be a matter for the chair. The expert group’s membership may change at different stages of the assembly process to reflect the particular issue under consideration.

In carrying out their work, the chairperson and members of the assembly will no doubt be anxious to hear a wide variety of viewpoints. Following the convention model, interest groups can be invited, at the discretion of the chair, to present their views when topics relevant to them are being discussed. The general public, along with interest groups, will be able to make written submissions for consideration by the assembly. I commend this resolution to the House. I am sure the House will join me in wishing the assembly well in its work in the months ahead.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
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The Fianna Fáil Party will abstain on the vote to set up the establishment of the citizens' assembly. We believe the issue is of such sensitivity and complexity that it cannot be adequately dealt with by putting together 100 citizens.

Fianna Fáil favours a judge-led commission which would be able to call and listen to various interested groups. It could provide a coherent report carrying the weight of members of the superior courts. A citizens' assembly will not be as effective. A report produced by a judge in respect of the issue would be intellectually coherent and would allow us to examine the options and choose one.That is the view of the Fianna Fáil Party.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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Senator McDowell has eight minutes. He is speaking on behalf of the Independent Group. Senator McDowell's group has been allocated eight minutes and Senator Mullen has indicated that he wishes to speak as well. I can only allocate eight minutes by order of the House.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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We will share time.

I want to indicate in a personal capacity that I am totally opposed to the establishment of a citizens' assembly along these lines. I regard it as a pointless exercise and demeaning in a democracy of our kind, in which we have a Parliament established by the people whose function is to consider such topics. The notion of assembling 100 persons at random using a polling company and superimposing a so-called independent chairman, with an advisory service attached on top of that whose staff are in effect chosen by the chairman, means that the chairman's agenda will effectively run the assembly.

The eighth amendment is one issue here, but the other issues, such as how we respond to the challenges and opportunities of an aging population, are the business of this House and the other House. They are not the business of an ad hocassembly of 100 persons convened to consider that subject. They are in no better position than 100 persons chosen at a football match or anything else to consider these issues, and the suggestion that there is some authenticity or authoritative character put on them by reason of the fact that they are assembled at the behest of the Houses of the Oireachtas is false.

We have a Constitution. We do not need fixed-term parliaments. We want it to be the case that when TDs in Dáil Éireann decide they no longer have confidence in the Government, it goes, no questions asked. The Taoiseach of the day is obliged to resign if he or she has lost the confidence of a majority of the Dáil. That is a sacrosanct principle of the Constitution. This is a half-thought-out proposition that has no basis in public opinion. I have never seen coherent articles written in the newspapers by authoritative persons stating that we should have fixed-term parliaments and scrap the right of Dáil Éireann to have an election when necessary. The manner in which referendums are held seems to be code for an underlying Government agenda to revisit the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court to the effect that there should be no use of public funds to influence the result. The people of Ireland vote in referendums. They understand what the issues are. They use their votes intelligently and we do not need a change in our constitutional approach to these issues. We do not need the views of 100 persons assembled for this purpose.

Climate change is hugely important, but 100 persons assembled at random are in no better position than 200 persons elected by the people to make decisions on these subjects in these Houses through discussion with expert persons brought before committees, considering reports and considering all of these issues. This assembly is a sham. It should not be accepted for what it is. If, as the previous speaker stated, there is a desire to examine in depth the problems arising from the eighth amendment and how it should be dealt with, that is a one-off issue to be dealt with in a sensible way and not through a ridiculous sham of an assembly convened on the basis of a polling company's random sample of persons.

Finally, there is no such thing as a random assembly of this kind for the simple reason that the persons who can take time off to participate in it are a different subset from those who must go to work every day. They are a different subset from the self-employed - including myself, if I were not in this House - who could not possibly agree to participate in this kind of arrangement. They knock out those who have family obligations and caring obligations. Persons of that kind all are swept aside and it is a self-selecting group.

I am wholly opposed to this idea. It is an exercise in political cowardice by a Government that is in office but not in power.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome Deputy Jim O'Callaghan and his guest to the Visitors' Gallery.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I agree with every word that Senator McDowell has said.

It is no wonder people have such little respect for politicians when we show such little respect for ourselves. We are the citizens' assembly. We are the persons who have been given a mandate to tease through all sorts of issues, difficult and less difficult.

One of the most serious issues of our time, one of the most difficult and neuralgic social issues - although at least the Irish people have been given an opportunity to speak on it at various times, unlike those in other countries - is now to be put to a randomly chosen group of persons. The deficiencies in that process have been eloquently described by Senator McDowell. It is also reasonable to suspect that this is really about giving an appearance of public legitimacy to the demand for some kind of initiative. When one hears people such as the Minister of State, Deputy Regina Doherty, already speculating about the outcome of the deliberations and looking forward to the eventual legislative and constitutional initiatives that will follow, that gives the game away. The cat is out of the bag. It is a put-up job. It is about pretending there is some kind of public demand for something for which there may or may not be a public demand, which should at least be discussed here and nowhere else before being put to the people.

The Minister of State, Deputy English, stated that the previous convention model worked well. He was not well briefed. If there were to be an examination as to how persons came to be on the convention and the number of former and present party hacks who were on it, I believe it would show there were a couple who found themselves on the convention, which is, to say the least, mathematically surprising. Indeed, some who were involved in the organisation of that convention and its activities would be embarrassed. I believe there were persons on the inside who asked awkward questions and it caused a certain measure of embarrassment, although the issue never really took off in the public mind.

I would like to know whether we will be entitled to know the precise history of how each person in the assembly gets to be on it. If, as Senator McDowell advises us, there will be all sorts of situations in which people, when contacted, simply refuse to participate, how long will it be before the organisers start to ask for suggestions? Is that not what will happen? There will be this self-selecting and mutually recommending activity going on. Will we be allowed to find out? Will be allowed to have a tracker on how each and every person who ends up on this assembly actually gets on it?

It should not come to this. Whatever one's views on the issues that are being discussed, we should have more respect for ourselves, as the Oireachtas, and we should not support the motion today for that reason.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I wish to share time with Senator James Reilly. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House.

Notwithstanding the remarks of Senator McDowell, some of which I agree with, I very much welcome the composition and creation of the citizens' assembly. It is a good idea, not least because the decision-making rests in the Houses of the Oireachtas and with the people. Ultimately, the people will decide what happens emerging from the reports of the assembly.

Unlike Senator Mullen, I was a member of the previous Constitutional Convention and missed no meeting. It was an extraordinary success, given the number of people involved. There were self-employed, working people and unemployed, and they were young, old, gay, straight or whatever. As for this notion that persons of different subsets could not participate, they were all there in the pot pourriof Irish life.

I must disagree with Senator McDowell in this regard. The chairman of the Constitutional Convention, Tom Arnold, was an impeccable chairman and the agenda of the chair did not drive anything. Where I agree with Senator McDowell is on fixed-term parliaments. Personally, I would not like to see that happening. However, there was no agenda from the chair in the Constitutional Convention. The panel of experts were from all sides of life - academic and wherever. They were absolutely impartial and they worked to arrive at decisions. I would contend that one could find no fault with the enthusiasm, commitment, knowledge and participation of the citizen members in the last Constitutional Convention.Senator Mullen suggested that different types of people were involved. He was right when he spoke about the transparency of the process. I have no problem with that. There were people with different viewpoints at the convention. That never changed. People came in with open minds and participated in a debate. I could go a step further by mentioning the groupthink that existed on one side of the House. I do not think that should happen on this occasion, as it would undermine the role of the citizens' assembly. We should welcome the assembly with open arms. We should allow this motion to pass. I agree with Senator McDowell that we should make decisions. We will do so, but the people will make the final decision when they are asked to participate in a ballot, if they are asked to do so.

Senator Mullen spoke about the Chief Whip. I remind him that she was referring to an outcome that could happen, just as outcomes happened previously on foot of the work of the Constitutional Convention.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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It was pre-emptive.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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There was no pre-emption, in fairness. I believe the only downside of the Constitutional Convention was that the Government failed to come back in a timely manner with a report on the proceedings of the convention. I say that as one of just two politicians who did not miss any of the days of the Constitutional Convention. I travelled to various events as part of the convention. Notwithstanding the remarks of the two Senators who have said that changes need to be made to this proposal, I think it is a good idea and I believe the Constitutional Convention model was a wonderful one. People from other countries are coming here not to ask politicians about this process, but to ask academics such as Professor David Farrell, Dr. Jane Suiter and Dr. Conor O'Mahony about it. Those academics are not political people at all. They cannot be described as liberal, conservative, Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. I would also mention the chairman and secretary of the convention, Mr. Tom Arnold and Mr. Art O'Leary, who were impartial and beyond reproach. I hope the model we are providing for in this case will be as good as that. While I regret that there are no politicians on the citizens' assembly - I hoped we would be represented - I understand the Government's reasons for that decision.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I would appreciate it if Senators would not mention people who are not present in the House or Members of the House.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I am sure those who have been mentioned in a positive light will not object. I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and I welcome this resolution. When I spoke on this matter last year, I did not ask for this specific approach to be taken, but I did call for a forum to be established to allow people to discuss a sensitive issue that has divided this country for decades. People need to be given time to discuss and consider these matters in a non-pressurised environment.

I do not accept what Senator McDowell said about ordinary Irish citizens. He seems to have very little faith in them. It has already been made very clear that the citizens' assembly will send a report to the Oireachtas, which will consider what it will do and decide what to put before the people. In such circumstances, the people will make a decision. There is no question whatsoever of democracy being undermined here. I do not want to be overly critical when I respond to the contention that people who have to work or who are self-employed will somehow be excluded from this process by saying I would have thought that Senator McDowell, as a former Attorney General and a practising senior barrister, would have faith in this country's jury system. The exigencies being provided for here apply to each and every juror who attends-----

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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They are obliged to turn up when summoned. These people will not have such an obligation.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Fine Gael)
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These people will be encouraged to do so. I hope those who are called on will take the opportunity to participate. If they do not, they will be leaving it to others to do so. That is a valid point to make. I will be interested to hear what those who speak after me have to say. I may have overheard heated conversations among some of them in the Members' bar earlier when people were having coffee. Some of them will have opposed this-----

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I remind Senator Reilly that what happens in the bar remains in the bar.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I know. I am merely anticipating that the argument that will be made by some of those who speak after me, in setting out why they oppose this motion, will differ completely from the type of argument that might be made by Senator Mullen.

The point I am trying to make is that this is a reasonable middle-ground position to take. We are allowing for a reasoned debate to take place, following which a situation will arise whereby we will further examine and consider an issue that is hugely controversial but on which I stand firm. As I have said previously, it is unconscionable that women in this country should have to leave their families and loved ones, at a time when they most need support and are at their most vulnerable, to terminate a pregnancy that has absolutely no hope of resulting in a surviving child. It is a wrong that we cannot allow to continue. I appeal to those who oppose this proposal because they want to do something more quickly, or because they feel there is a better way, not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. I ask them not to delay this. They should allow the assembly to be formed and to get on with its business so that it can get back to us and let us get on with legislating for these circumstances, which is what the people have elected us to do, as Senator McDowell pointed out earlier. At that point, the sovereign people of Ireland will be able to decide what should happen.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister. I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on this motion, which relates to the proposed citizens' assembly. I want to begin by saying that any and all mechanisms that afford citizens further opportunities to participate in the democratic process are to be welcomed and commended. We have had witnessed a number of successful endeavours of this type in Ireland. The Government’s proposal clearly models itself on the 2011 We the Citizens initiative, which was particularly successful. Citizens' assemblies have proved successful in many other countries, including Canada. I have no doubt that a similar proposal in this State would prove useful. Having said that, we have an example of a deliberative assembly that has worked very well. I refer to the Constitutional Convention, which sat between December 2012 and March 2014. I believe that rather than trying to reinvent the wheel for various reasons, we should seek to replicate the Constitutional Convention model. If it is not broken, why fix it? The convention, its secretariat, its chair and especially the citizens who participated in it did an excellent job and produced a series of first-class reports and recommendations.

The Sinn Féin representatives who played their part in the Constitutional Convention felt this democratic process was an uplifting and enjoyable experience. Sinn Féin would prefer it if the convention were reconvened and re-established with a new remit. In addition to the issues set out by the Government, a re-established convention should examine the issues affecting the entire island in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. This is the most important matter facing our country in the coming years. Consideration should also be given to the outstanding recommendations of the previous convention and other issues, including political reform. Sinn Féin made its position clear to the Taoiseach when Teachta Adams wrote to him just before he went to the Cabinet with a memo on the current proposal. I am disappointed that the Taoiseach has not taken those suggestions on board. Teachta Adams encouraged him to consider the appointment of elected representatives, as was done in the previous convention. One of the reasons the convention worked so well was that political representatives worked together with citizens in a holistic way to arrive at positive and worthwhile conclusions. The all-Ireland structure of the convention, involving Members of the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly, was also very positive. It is particularly regrettable in the aftermath of the Brexit vote that this is being abandoned in the Taoiseach’s current proposal. It is important to acknowledge the contributions of other Deputies in recent weeks with respect to the inclusion of residents who are not entitled to vote in referendums. We would like this matter to be discussed in any future convention or assembly. Sinn Féin is of the view that there is a broad consensus in the Dáil and within our citizenship that the eighth amendment needs to be repealed.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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Many polls have shown that more than 87% of citizens are in favour of repealing the eighth amendment. It needs to be repealed. We do not believe there should be a further delay in dealing with such an urgent issue. For that reason, we are supporting amendment No. 1, in the names of Senators Ruane and Higgins, which calls for a report and a recommendation on the eighth amendment to be returned to the Houses of the Oireachtas within three months of the date of the assembly’s first sitting. Such a report and recommendation would probably be received by Christmas. Any further delay would be unacceptable. This is clear from public opinion on the matter. We can no longer continue to kick this extremely important social issue down the road.It is worth reminding ourselves that the Government has thus far failed to implement many of the other recommendations of the previous convention. It proposed a range of constitutional changes, including extending voting rights to citizens in the North and the diaspora for presidential elections. I am aware that Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh, made remarks in recent days indicating a referendum on voting rights may be held next year with respect to the diaspora, but there was no specific reference to the citizens from the North. There were also proposals for other referenda, including, for example, to amend the Constitution to remove the reference to blasphemy and to provide a constitutional right to housing. There was also a proposal on the article that refers, laughingly, to women’s life within the home. A new convention should be allowed to give its view on when such questions should be put to the people. The previous Constitutional Convention worked well, so why change it?

I urge all Senators to support amendment No. 1, which proposes a return with a recommendation on the eighth amendment within three months of the first sitting. Society, including women, needs this dealt with once and for all. We will be supporting the proposal on climate change.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “in as economical a manner as possible;” down to and including “from the date of the first Assembly meeting;” and substitute the following: “

- the Assembly will first make a report and recommendation on the matter set out at (i) above to the Houses of the Oireachtas within three months from the date of the Assembly’s first sitting;

- on receipt of the report and recommendation on the matter set out at (i), the Houses will refer the report for consideration to a Committee of both Houses which will in turn bring its conclusions to the Houses for debate;

- the timeframe for the process whereby the report and recommendation set out at (i) is made to the Houses of the Oireachtas, its referral to a Committee of both Houses and its conclusions to the Houses for debate shall be no longer than three months in duration;”.

I would like to have acknowledged my anger and disgust over the fact that we have 60 minutes in which to discuss the very important issue of a citizens’ assembly. Three hours were allowed for a water services debate this morning in which absolutely no amendments were being proposed. There are three on the citizens’ assembly, yet we have but 60 minutes. It is an absolute disgrace.

I am proposing this amendment to the motion on the creation of the citizens’ assembly because I do not believe action on the eighth amendment can wait any longer. While I welcome the inclusion of a reference to dealing with the eighth amendment in A Programme for a Partnership Government, I would argue that the consideration of this issue by a citizens’ assembly should be permitted only if there is a clear timeline for the delivery of its report and recommendations, and eventual action on them by the Government.

The motion, in its current form, does not provide that clear timeline. It currently states that a citizens’ assembly is not required to deliver a report and recommendation on the eighth amendment until one year after its first sitting. It then states that if the assembly recommends the holding of a referendum, the Government will set a timeframe in which such a referendum will be held, without any reference to whether this would involve weeks, months or years. The Government has indicated the assembly will be up and running in October. This means it could be 2018 before we even have a referendum on the eighth amendment, if one is recommended by the assembly at all. This is absolutely unacceptable.

I do not believe there is a person in this room who is not aware of the impact of the eighth amendment on women in this country. We have all seen, heard and read the bravely recounted accounts of women who were forced to leave Ireland because what they needed could not be legally provided here. We have read the heartbreaking accounts of women who were delivered diagnoses of a fatal foetal abnormality and who could not be helped by a country that exported dealing with their devastation to other jurisdictions. Laws that have been criticised by Amnesty International and the United Nations for violating our international human rights obligations, and even by our own Minister for Health, are completely unacceptable. Some 160,000 women have been forced to travel out of Ireland for an abortion since the passage of the eighth amendment in 1983. Every year, 4,000 still travel. Every day that we put off addressing the eighth amendment is another on which 12 women will travel abroad because their country forces them to do so. 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. This is why I am pushing this amendment today.

A six-month timeframe will allow for an assembly to deliberate on the many complex issues surrounding the eighth amendment and ample time for us, as legislators, to act on these recommendations. We cannot allow this issue to be kicked to touch any longer. If we are going to allow an assembly of our citizens to decide how to make progress on the eighth amendment, let us ensure we get a well-considered but timely decision and that we can act on that decision. I call on all parties to recognise the public wants a say on this issue, and we should allow it that. I call on everyone present to consider supporting this amendment and dispel criticism that the citizens’ assembly is a delaying tactic.

Had we more time today, I would elaborate on the expert group that will advise the assembly. Who will decide on its membership? How will it be constituted? Will there be legal experts or medical experts? Will it draw on international best practice? Ultimately, it will be the experts that frame the discussion of the assembly. These issues are extremely important. I will be voting against a citizens’ assembly if our amendment is not accepted today.

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I am very delighted to second the amendment moved by Senator Ruane, and I will be proposing an additional one. Both are constructive and reasonable and they seek to tighten the timeframe and focus of the citizens’ assembly.

It is important to note that while a citizens’ assembly may have value as one part of a national conversation on and response to the issue of the repeal of the eighth amendment, it must not bracket or confine that conversation and it is not sufficient. A citizens’ assembly is not sufficient to answer Ireland’s obligations under UN law. When the Government presents on the universal periodic review in September and responds to the UN ruling on the case bravely taken by Amanda Mellet, it cannot hide behind the citizens' assembly. It will be asked for a much more comprehensive response and it will not be sufficient. Neither is the citizens’ assembly sufficient to respond to the urgent public demand for action to repeal the eighth amendment. It will not be sufficient to address the urgency felt by the thousands of women who will travel abroad this year, or even those couples who are considering starting a family but with the shadow of fear over them in regard to the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities and the cases we have sadly seen paraded through the courts. It is owing to this urgency that I am seconding the amendment tabled by Senator Ruane to ensure a tighter, clearer timeline for the delivery of recommendations and for responding to those recommendations within our committee system.

I will be tabling an amendment on the focus of the citizens’ assembly. A specific issue requires a specific discussion and a special mechanism, and it should not be diluted. I propose the removal of paragraphs (ii), (iii) and (iv). Beside the facts that the issues referred to in these paragraphs are effectively apples and oranges and that they are completely different issues thrown together without a clear case being made as to how or why they were chosen, there is genuine concern that they could serve to delay the further delivery of action. Given the prevarication and the failure acknowledged by the Government to respond in a timely manner to the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention, anything that will bundle or widen the discussion and lead to an excuse for further delay must be scrutinised. I am particularly concerned that the imperative to hold a referendum should not be delayed further by a discussion on how referendums should be held. I can see how this could serve as an excuse for an additional three months, six months or year. We cannot risk that.

The discussion of the challenges and opportunities resulting from an ageing population would be laudable if we had not already had this conversation. With Older and Bolder, I had the privilege of working with over 1,000 older people across the country who participated in a consultation on the national positive ageing strategy. They contributed their ideas on delivering what is recognised as a blueprint for addressing the challenges and opportunities facing them. They are concerned. I have spoken to people from Active Retirement, for example, who are extremely concerned that this assembly will be used as an opportunity to delay the implementation of the plan to which they devoted energy as citizens and to which they made a contribution. I do not understand how moving that issue back to the drawing board, with 99 new people, in any way serves the older people of the country. In fact, it is an act of disrespect. I ask that older people be respected, in addition to the women who are making difficult decisions and counting the days, weeks and months. This is why I am asking the Minister to remove these items and support my amendment.

Out of respect for the fact that the climate change provision was put through by the Lower House, I am not proposing its removal, although the assembly may not be the best place to discuss it.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator’s time is up.

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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The time constraints have been unacceptable.There are those who will get a call from a polling company-----

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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Excuse me, Senator Higgins.

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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-----who will have had an abortion and who will not feel free to participate in this assembly.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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Respect the Chair, please.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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Every other Senator stuck to his or her time. I ask the Senator to do the same.

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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The time allowed is not sufficient.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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The time was allocated by order of the House.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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The Chair must implement the order of the House. I ask the Senator to respect that.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and, like all of us, join him in expressing my revulsion at the horrific attacks in Nice last night.

On behalf of the Labour group, I wish to speak against this motion to establish a citizens' assembly. We will be opposing it in the Seanad as we did in the Dáil. Our primary reason is that, 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. We want that referendum and placed this issue in our manifesto. We in the Labour Women group published legislation that the Oireachtas should put in the place of any text in the Constitution. The Constitution is no place to regulate as complex and sensitive an issue as abortion.

We are concerned that no timeframe is provided for the deliberations of the assembly on the first issue listed, that of the eighth amendment. The motion provides that when the assembly reports, that report will go first to a committee of both Houses and only then will be brought to the Houses themselves for debate. This could significantly delay the holding of a referendum on repeal of the eighth amendment. For 33 years, which is too long, we as legislators have shirked our duty to repeal that amendment and legislate on this issue. We should not need to kick the can down the road any further. However, we will of course work with any process that brings about the holding of a repeal referendum. For this reason, we will support the sensible amendment proposed by Senators Ruane and Higgins providing for a tight timeframe within which the assembly should report on the eighth amendment.

We also support the sensible suggestions proposed by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, in its blueprint for a citizens' assembly. We are concerned that, as constructed, the motion does not provide for the tight timeframe that is required. That said, the citizens' assembly is a better model than the judge-led commission that Fianna Fáil is proposing. I see no need for that.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I wish to echo the words of Senator Buttimer and my colleagues in Sinn Féin who were positive about the Constitutional Convention. As someone who not only participated in it, but led the Labour delegation, I viewed it as a positive process. Its recommendation on marriage equality paved the way for the holding of the relevant referendum in 2015, among other changes. The model proposal in this motion differs in three significant ways from the Constitutional Convention, however, and that is why we are opposing it. I have with me the motion on the convention that we passed in 2012.

First, much tighter timeframes were provided for in the convention model. In particular, the convention had to report to the Oireachtas within two months on the first matters for deliberation.

Second and significantly, the convention included 66 citizens and 33 politicians chosen from north and south of the Border. Therefore, its recommendations did not need to be taken back to Oireachtas committees for deliberation before being acted upon. I have expressed concern about the anti-politician tenor of the proposed assembly. The Constitutional Convention was a different creature.

Third, the first issue proposed for this assembly is different. The eighth amendment has been in place since 1983 and we have been dealing with its implications ever since. We have held four further referendums on the issue along with a flurry of constitutional cases, a series of tragic cases and the recent passage of protection of life during pregnancy legislation. I was one of a number of Trinity and other students union leaders threatened with jail and bankruptcy in a 1989 case taken under the referendum seeking to restrain the provision of information by us to women in crisis pregnancies. Although I have been personally affected, I was too young to have voted in 1983. The eighth amendment has cast a blight on my generation. Many of us have daughters of our own, as I do, and we are anxious to ensure that the eighth amendment will not blight their lives as it has those of so many women down the years.

Let us be clear, in that the effect of the eighth amendment has been negative and, in some cases, devastating. It has not prevented one crisis pregnancy, as we know that more than 160,000 women have travelled from Ireland to England to terminate pregnancies since the amendment was passed. It has compounded the crisis of pregnancy, particularly for those women for whom the journey to seek abortion abroad is particularly difficult - young women, women in poverty and asylum seekers. It symbolically portrays women as vessels, equating our lives to those of the "unborn". Above all, it has endangered women's lives by having a "chilling effect" on the practice of obstetrics in Ireland. We heard compelling testimony from doctors to that effect during the excellent debates in this Chamber that were held by the health committee and chaired by Senator Buttimer on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, which is another indication that we as legislators should be able to deal with this issue without the need for further assembly or delay mechanisms.

Calls for repeal have grown strong in recent years, in particular since the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, the prolonging of life support for a pregnant young woman against her family's wishes in a midlands hospital in December 2014 and the recent case of Ms Amanda Mellet before the UN Human Rights Committee. We have heard tragic testimony from couples and individuals in the Terminations for Medical Reasons group, TFMR, more and more groups have joined the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and we have heard powerful testimony, like that made for Amnesty International by Graham and Helen Linehan last year based on their own experience of fatal foetal abnormality. We know by now that there is a need to repeal the eighth amendment. This is accepted by most right-thinking people. For this reason, we as legislators must take on our responsibility to debate and pass a Bill to hold a referendum on the eighth amendment. We should put that referendum to the people without further delay. We must take the initiative.

Labour Women has published framework legislation that we believe should replace any constitutional text. It would allow abortion on four medically certified grounds: risk to life; risk to health; rape; and fatal foetal abnormality. Our sensible legislation is the sort of legislative framework that we in these Houses are best placed to debate. We need to put the referendum on repealing the eighth amendment to the people without further delay. There is a groundswell of public support for this. Let us achieve repeal and end the chill for our daughters and future generations.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I will try to answer some of the questions and address the two amendments. I welcome everyone's views on this motion. That we still have time left proves that enough was set aside, but that decision was not mine. The issues picked for the assembly reflect the programme for Government and the partnership arrangement. Others can be added in due course, but the concern might be that too many would be picked. If the work is carried out quickly, we can refer more issues to the assembly. For example, climate change was added for discussion during the Dáil debate. At the end of this process, people can decide whether the citizens' assembly or the Constitutional Convention works best.

I am conscious of Senator McDowell's concerns with the assembly, but he will not be prevented from discussing the same issues in the Chamber. He can discuss them all day.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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Only for four minutes today.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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No. That is-----

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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The Senator is being unfair to citizens. This is a citizens' assembly, and it will not stop Senator McDowell or any other Member from discussing the same issues. The assembly will be brought together. Most people would accept that the convention process worked and got results. Senator McDowell might not like it, but other people did. This is not all about him. He is being unfair. It is his strong view that we do not need a fixed-term Parliament. I might share his view, but this is not about him or me. This is a citizens' assembly in which they can give their views. There is nothing wrong with that. There is no harm in having an assembly. I am not sure as to why he is so set against it, and it is fair enough that he is, but plenty of time can be arranged by the Houses to discuss the issues in question and feed those discussions into the Government.

Senator Bacik stated that the Constitutional Convention originally had a two-month timeframe. The issues were probably not as complex. The first session was on lowering the voting age and shortening the term of President. I am glad that the convention did not decide to do the latter, because we have a great President. We set aside two months, but that deadline was not met; it took four months, given that the session occurred over the Christmas period. The convention first met in December and its first report arrived in March. This is a complex issue and there are reasons for it. I will address the motion directly in that regard.

I was asked whether the chairperson would be independent. The Taoiseach has made it clear that he will consult and try to achieve the agreement of all Members on this point. Hopefully, we will find a chairperson who is independent, but I accept the Senator's concern about a chairperson rolling in and taking control. It happens in other environments, but I assume that the assembly's 99 other members will not let it happen in this case. I cannot guarantee it, but if I were picked and spent my weekends travelling to attend a citizens' assembly, I would not let the chairperson dictate to me. I would not do that in any part of my life and I presume that the Senator would not either. I hope that the 99 people will be strong willed and will not be dictated to by the chairperson. A good chair facilitates debate and brings everyone on board. The convention had a good chair.

Senator Ruane asked about the expert advice and who would or would not be picked. The assembly will be totally independent of the Government.We will not tell it who it can or cannot consult as experts. The chair, along with the 99 members of the assembly, will decide what expertise they need and whether they need to bring in former Attorneys General who are now Senators to give them advice. That will be their choice. They can bring in anyone they want for advice, opinion and direction and there will be a budget provided for this. It will be open to anybody to communicate with the assembly and make submissions, and the assembly can invite in groups to make submissions. It will be a similar process to that for the Constitutional Convention. There is no diktat on who the experts will be or regarding what side they will be on. I hope this is helpful.

With regard to amendment No. 1, I appreciate that Senator Higgins and others wish to have the report of the citizens' assembly on the eighth amendment as soon as possible and have the subsequent Oireachtas committee conclude and send its report to the House within a short timeframe. We do not think it is a good idea to put these time limit requirements into the resolution. The assembly has not yet been established and the eighth amendment is not a simple issue, as I stated earlier. Other issues are more simple to approach. This can be quite complicated. While one might say the majority want it removed, there does not seem to be consensus on what should or should not go in and there is much to be teased out. This is why there is no time limit. It is the Senator's opinion that it is not complicated, but others find it complicated and think it might need-----

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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To correct the Minister of State, it is not my opinion that it is not complicated.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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That is fine. The Senator was shaking her head. Everyone would agree it can be a complicated issue, so it would be unfair to impose a short time limit on the assembly's consideration of the eighth amendment, which will clearly need careful consideration. Nothing in the resolution states it cannot come back after a month. If the work is completed in a month the report will come here and nothing will stop this. We are just saying we will not state it must report within three months. There is a limit of 12 months, and priority is given to the eighth amendment. It must be dealt with first. This is the only request. There is no effort to put it down to a line or make sure something else takes its place. There is no reason for the work to be delayed when the assembly comes together.

When completed, the assembly's report on the eighth amendment will be sent to the committee of both Houses of the Oireachtas which, in turn, will bring its conclusions to the Houses for consideration. The amendment also proposes putting a time limit on this. The committee of the Houses can decide on this in due course. There is no reason to decide it now. Perhaps the Senator is right with regard to three months when it comes to the committee, or perhaps it will be a shorter timeframe, but it is probably a decision for that stage.

With regard to the follow on report by the Government, there is criticism that previous Governments did not react quickly enough to other recommendations. Because of the minority Government and the make up of both Houses, there will be much joint decision making. A decision on when a referendum would be held will not just been made by the Government. Both Houses will have influence on and a fair say in this. There is no reason it would be left sitting there for three or four years. I doubt either House would let this happen. It is not something in my control or in the control of the Government. Because of the make up of both Houses, there should not be a fear that it will be left to sit there. I suppose it remains to be seen.

The effect of amendment No. 2 would be to remove from the agenda of the citizens' assembly all other items apart in the eighth amendment. However, the topics the assembly will consider are detailed in the programme for Government. They were agreed by-----

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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On a point of information, it is all other items except-----

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State without interruption.

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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On a point of order-----

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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Does Senator have a point of order?

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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The amendment is to remove all items apart from the eighth amendment.

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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And climate change.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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It does not read that way in the amendment. I understand this is what the Senator said in her speech and I accept that. To be clear, climate change was added in by a Dáil decision. The other issues were picked by the partnership arrangement. Those who wanted to form a Government came together and made decisions on a range of issues and put them in a programme for Government. This generally dictates what a Government tries to do.

The Senator might appreciate it was by agreement and consultation among the people who formed the Government, and others who are supporting it, that those issues were picked. It would not be right or proper to take them out again. That is what a partnership Government is there for, and that is why we have a programme for Government, to set an agenda. That is what it is doing. I assume the Senator's concern is that having other issues included will distract the assembly from the eighth amendment, but I want to make it very clear it is the first issue to be discussed and this is set out in both resolutions and was set out during discussions in the Dáil this week. I do not think this will happen.

It is specifically stated that the assembly will consider the eighth amendment first, and that when the report is finished it will come to the House immediately. It does not have to wait for all of the other reports. The House will then decide how it progresses from there. I hope this brings clarity. I know the Senator has concerns and that she might want to press the amendments, but I am not sure if they will achieve anything on the time frames. I do not know whether they would delay it. I urge the Senator to understand there is a genuine effort to consult the citizens assembly in a process in what we think is quite a reasonable timeframe. To be clear, it does not need to take 12 months. I thank the House for its time.

Amendment put:

The Seanad divided: Tá, 16; Níl, 19.



Tellers: Tá, Senators Alice-Mary Higgins and Lynn Ruane; Níl, Senators Maria Byrne and Gabrielle McFadden.

Amendment declared lost.

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I move amendment No. 2:

To delete all words after "(i) the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution;" down to and including "(iv) the manner in which referenda are held;".

Amendment put:

The Seanad divided: Tá, 9; Níl, 20.



Tellers: Tá, Senators Alice-Mary Higgins and Lynn Ruane; Níl, Senators Maria Byrne and Gabrielle McFadden..

Amendment declared lost.

Question put: "That the motion be agreed to."

The Seanad divided: Tá, 19; Níl, 16.



Tellers: Tá, Senators Maria Byrne and Gabrielle McFadden; Níl, Senators Rose Conway-Walsh and Máire Devine..

Question declared carried.