The right to life is too important to be left to a contrived Citizens' Assembly
Published 15/10/2016 | 02:30
It appears that the soon-to-be-convened Citizens' Assembly is designed to serve one purpose and one purpose only. That purpose is to pave the way for a referendum on abortion, while allowing government TDs to wash their hands of responsibility for it.
As the new body prepares to meet for the first time, it is worth questioning the legitimacy of such a process in a democratic republic. After all, it is the members of the Oireachtas, chosen by the people, who are charged by the Constitution with the sole and exclusive power of making laws. With that power goes the responsibility to deliberate and debate these laws. That is the duty of our elected representatives.
Based loosely on the same model as the 2012-14 Constitutional Convention, the new Citizens' Assembly is comprised of 99 citizens, chosen by a polling company to be representative of the population at large. RedC, the polling company charged with selecting the members of the assembly, would never dream of publishing a poll based on a sample of 99 to represent the views of a population of 4.75 million.
And despite what its supporters have said about it, the Constitutional Convention model has serious flaws that should be acknowledged. The supposedly random selection process for the Constitutional Convention managed to choose four members from Co Leitrim (population 32,000), while there was no one at all from Counties Clare, Donegal, Laois, Limerick, Longford or Sligo (total population 655,000).
Even more serious is the concern that a body like the Constitutional Convention, or the Citizens' Assembly, is susceptible to undue influence from those who manage the process and provide input to the members' deliberations.
An insightful critique of the Constitutional Convention was published last year in the 'International Journal of Constitutional Law'. It described a strongly supported impression that the operation of the convention allowed for "special access for certain groups by the back door", giving rise to concerns that its decision-making processes were "susceptible to excess influence from specific elites".
The Citizens' Assembly differs from the previous Constitutional Convention primarily in that it will not have places reserved for elected politicians. This, however, is not enough to preserve it from the undue influence of elites and may, in fact, leave it even more susceptible to such influence.
Critics of the Constitutional Convention model have also pointed out that "the potential for citizen-led or citizen-oriented participatory processes to be used for political buck-passing should not be underestimated". This is precisely the intention of the Government.
There seems little chance that the assembly will achieve the consensus that the Taoiseach has said he is hoping for. But there can be little doubt that it will come up with the recommendation the Government so clearly desires. Once the assembly recommends a referendum to remove or substantially amend the pro-life Eighth Amendment, such a referendum will be effectively inevitable. And many politicians will be able to shrug off any criticism with the excuse that this is what the assembly recommended.
Do we, as a nation, believe in the most fundamental human right, the right to life? Or are we prepared to make that right provisional? These are profound questions. It is not right that they should be contracted out to so dubious a body as the Taoiseach's Citizens' Assembly.
Des Hanafin is Honorary Life President of the Pro-Life Campaign