Saturday 22 October 2016

Citizens' Assembly a cop-out in search for solution to bitter abortion debate

Published 19/10/2016 | 02:30

Why is this Government throwing €400,000 at a committee designed to tell us what we all already know – which is that we don’t actually know how a vote would go?
Why is this Government throwing €400,000 at a committee designed to tell us what we all already know – which is that we don’t actually know how a vote would go?

They used to say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. In Ireland, however, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that when the going gets tough, the tough form a committee.

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If people thought the gay marriage referendum was full of rancour from both sides, it was as naught compared to what we can expect from the inevitable referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment.

Yet, despite the fact we have had numerous debates in the Dáil, two referendums and the explicit advice of an Attorney General that any change to the current laws would require another visit to the voting booth, our tough, visionary leaders have decided that the situation is so dire we need a . . . Citizens' Assembly.

Because sometimes having an actual parliament just isn't enough.

Having had its first meeting last Saturday, this newly convened Citizens' Assembly composed of 99 'ordinary' people will meet over the next few months to discuss a range of issues, such as climate change, our rules on referenda and the notion of fixed-term governments. But it's really about abortion.

Why is this Government throwing €400,000 at a committee designed to tell us what we all already know - which is that we don't actually know how a vote would go?

The old Hollywood maxim about nobody knowing nuthin' about nuthin' springs to mind, but what's truly striking is the openly cynical cowardice of this delaying tactic.

Enda Kenny obviously doesn't want to go down in history as the Taoiseach who introduced abortion to Ireland.

But these ham-fisted attempts at kicking the can down the road for as long as possible are simply pathetic.

It's fitting that 99 members of the assembly were picked by the Red C polling company because that is all the Citizens' Assembly is - an opinion poll.

And, incredibly, because it's a poll based on the opinions of fewer than 100 people, it wouldn't normally even merit a mention in the media.

Also, if the assembly's recommendations are taken on board - and what is the point of forming it if they're not? - will that mean that unelected, but selected, citizens get to have an undue influence on how our legislation is framed?

Isn't that what we used to elect politicians for?

The people who will gather for the next 10 weekends are to be congratulated, I suppose. But it's hard to escape the impression that you should never trust anyone who volunteers for jury duty, and that principle applies here as well.

Before the first meeting had even concluded, there were allegations of bias from the pro-life side, which claims there was a pro-choice campaigner included in the assembly.

But if it wasn't one side moaning, it would have been the other - you can't put two Irish people in a room without a row over abortion breaking out; did they honestly think they could find 99 strangers and have no apparent conflicts of interest? More pertinently, if they are not interested in the issue, then why are they even there in the first place?

Kenny's calls for civility, both online and in real life, however, are as doomed to irrelevance as the assembly itself.

The abortion issue is a boil that has been festering on Irish life for decades and now is the time for it to be finally lanced - one way or the other.

But before the date of the referendum is announced - and we seem to be looking at some time late next year as the earliest time-frame - we should brace ourselves for the tsunami of hysteria and genuine contempt that both sides feel for each other.

Even people who were kids at the time will well remember the last abortion referendum in 1983.

In those miserable, dank days, a zealous religious right drove the agenda.

Back then, half the opposition seemed to comprise people who were simply disgusted by the idea of sex itself and they wanted to punish anyone guilty of such an immoral act.

Now, thanks to a combination of external forces - the decline of the Church, the rise of social media and social liberalism and so forth - the loudest, most hectoring views tend to come from the Repeal the Eighth side. Some of them have even embraced the spectacularly dumb and arrogant notion that anyone opposed to abortion is secretly a Catholic fundamentalist - even if they consider themselves atheist. In fairness to social media, that asinine point was made in another publication.

People didn't like being told what they really think by the Church. They like it even less when it's a columnist for a national newspaper.

Between the two ditches, where both sides fire volleys of scorn at each other, lies the rest of the country; those of us who just want to be allowed to vote according to our own conscience, without being denounced as baby killers by one side or a woman killer by the other.

It's a nice thought - a mature electorate making logical decisions and agreeing to let the voters make up their own minds.

But as we shall see in the coming months, this is a debate with no room for nice thoughts.

From either side.

Irish Independent

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