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'Astroturf' campaign paves way for the bypassing of democracy


The Repeal the Eight march on Merrion Square last month. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The Repeal the Eight march on Merrion Square last month. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The Repeal the Eight march on Merrion Square last month. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Political analyst Shane Coleman wrote the following in this newspaper in July: "Nobody in Leinster House is in any doubt that [the Citizens' Assembly] will result in a referendum on the Eighth Amendment."

Tomorrow, the said Citizens' Assembly meets for the first time. The 99 randomly chosen members of the public who will make it up should consider Coleman's words carefully. Everyone thinks the outcome of the Assembly is pre-ordained, that is, it will recommend a referendum and the only thing to be decided is exactly what kind of referendum.

In May, Minister Paschal Donohoe, said on Newstalk: "What I am certain will happen first is the process that we have committed to in relation to considering this issue - that [the Assembly] will happen - and it is my view that that will lead to a referendum on this issue in the coming years". So there it is.

Some Assembly members may well go into tomorrow's first meeting thinking there is a big groundswell of support for a referendum, a genuine grassroots campaign. There isn't. What there is instead is an 'astroturf' campaign, that is, something designed to look like a grassroots campaign but which is actually artificial.

A real grassroots campaign looks like what we see in, say, a rural area when ordinary people protest in large numbers against the closure of a local hospital.

An astroturf campaign consists of activists and pressure groups making a lot of noise. This can fool people into thinking the noise is being generated by the general public when it's not.

If the demand for an abortion referendum was being generated by ordinary voters, it would have come up on the doorsteps in a big way in the General Election earlier this year. It didn't.

So the noise we are hearing is not the noise of a genuine grassroots campaign.

But what about the opinion polls? Well, what about them? A lot of the time opinion polls are a mile wide and an inch deep. If you ask people for an opinion, they'll give you one. Polls show wide support for a referendum. However, if there was real, deep support for one, TDs would be hearing the demand for it from ordinary voters back in their constituencies. They are not. Far from it.

In Britain, David Cameron only buckled under pressure to hold a referendum on EU membership when his own party was in danger of splitting down the middle, and, more importantly, because the Tories were losing a lot of votes to Ukip. Even then he was very reluctant because British membership of the EU was so fundamental an issue. Could a popular vote be risked? Well, how much more important is the right to life?

So whether or not this Assembly recommends we hold a referendum should not be a foregone conclusion.

If it does recommend a referendum, what precisely will it recommend? It seems to me that there are three basic options.

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The first is straightforward deletion of the Eighth Amendment. The Oireachtas would then enact legislation setting out the circumstances under which an abortion could take place in Ireland. The first piece of such legislation might be restrictive enough, but politicians would never again have to put the matter to the people. All we would need is a strong left-wing party in Government and the law would soon be much less restrictive.

Another option is to replace the Eighth Amendment with a less restrictive version of the same thing. It might stipulate that abortion can take place in cases of rape, incest and when an unborn baby is terminally ill. (Question: why does a baby that might die a week or two or more after birth because of its terminal condition have less of a right to life than you or me?)

Option two might be rejected on the grounds that it would be too hard to come up with the necessary constitutional wording.

Option three is deletion of the Eighth Amendment and its replacement with a stipulation that a restrictive law, which would be published and put before the Irish people ahead of a referendum, would have constitutional standing and could not be changed without another referendum.

Of all these options, the first is the absolute worst from a pro-life point of view. As mentioned, a 'restrictive' law could quickly be made less restrictive.

Furthermore, constitutional expert Professor Gerry Whyte has argued recently that if the Eighth Amendment is simply deleted, then attempts to put in place legislative restrictions on a woman's 'right to choose' could easily end up being struck down by the Supreme Court. We could soon end up with something not far off an unlimited right to abortion.

As for the mechanics of the Citizens' Assembly, let's see how well it is run. Its predecessor, the Constitutional Convention, rushed through issue after issue. A topic as important as marriage and the family was considered in a single weekend. Ridiculous. Also, some of the experts appointed by the Convention to inform the various sessions were arguably not as neutral as they were meant to be.

But whatever the Assembly decides, it will not be the exercise in democracy the Government will purport it to be. Instead it will be a demonstration of the power of pressure groups, allied with the media, to make an astroturf campaign look like a real, grassroots campaign. By definition, that isn't very democratic.