Thursday 20 June 2019

Passing the buck on the Eighth to the Citizens' Assembly is so unfair

Chairperson of the Citizens’ Assembly Justice Mary Laffoy with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the inaugural meeting of the assembly on Saturday. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Chairperson of the Citizens’ Assembly Justice Mary Laffoy with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the inaugural meeting of the assembly on Saturday. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

On Saturday afternoon, all the gates were locked around Dublin Castle, crowds gathered outside, peering through the iron bars. They listened intently to their various tour guides giving them a running history of Ireland's oppression under English rule -unaware that inside, an assembly had gathered to initiate a debate on Ireland's oppression of women's rights.

Such was the security around the inaugural meeting of the Citizens' Assembly that only the 99 chosen few could be admitted. And such is the sensitivity around their first debate, the repeal of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, that it was only right they should be left in peace. Defying that sensitivity, at the main gate, a lone male figure carried a placard bearing the ninth commandment.

Inside St Patrick's Hall, An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, smothering with a cold, addressed the chosen assembly.

He pointed to the new challenges since the last referendum in 2002, when there was no social media for trolls to threaten these citizens. Back then, public input was confined to the national broadcaster; the Pat Kenny morning show, 'Prime Time', Joe Duffy's 'Liveline', the main channels giving voice to the private citizen. That is how listeners and viewers first heard about fatal foetal abnormality.

The task of recommending whether or not to hold a referendum has been delegated by the minority Government to a randomly chosen group. However, the Taoiseach stressed that this is a non-party-political initiative and that the recommendations of the assembly are to be made to the Oireachtas. There will be a new Oireachtas within a couple of years, what then?

Read more: The right to life is too important to be left to a contrived Citizens' Assembly

The projected €400,000 budget for this assembly raises questions about the point of this Government. It would appear that the leaders of Fine Gael and purported opposition, Fianna Fáil, have no desire to take a leadership initiative on the national issue. It has been handed over to these unfortunates, who will now spend 10 weekends away from home, coming to the Grand Hotel in Howth for subsequent sessions.

The 99 individuals, backed up by another 99 substitutes, have an onerous task. Many may have considered it an honour to be selected, many perhaps see it as a civic obligation, similar to jury service. It's a grand jury service, deliberating over the rights of half the population.

How they will come to any agreement over an issue that has seen four referendums reduce the country to verbal terrorism remains to be seen.

I can only imagine how difficult the next few months will be for our fellow citizens, who will no doubt have family, friends and local community bolstering or badgering them.

Half of the assembly will never become pregnant, nor could they; but they may be fathers of daughters, and care for them. The other half may be a mix of mothers, or may one day find they are pregnant with fatal foetal abnormality, or may have chosen not to have children.

This will make the communal task all the more difficult and it is also somewhat biased as the assembly is predominantly white, which is not a reflection of Ireland today. They do not reflect Savita Halappanavar or Miss Y.

It strikes me as most unfair to have burdened these citizens with recommending a referendum, or not, when the issue has already been debated in the Dáil; when two amendments to the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bills have been tabled; and when the Attorney General has already advised that a referendum would have to take place for legislation to be enacted.

Sadly for this assembly, the buck has been passed to it by the elected members of the minority government to do their work for them.

Ironically, back in 1983 it was the then Justice Minister, Michael Noonan, who moved to amend the previous government's (Fianna Fáil's) wording of the proposed 8th Amendment.

The alternative wording was criticised, with Fianna Fáil arguing that it would not protect the constitutional right to life of the mother and it was defeated by 87 votes to 65 in the Dáil, so the original version went to referendum.

The Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, campaigned against the amendment. Thirty-three years later, Fine Gael is trapped by its own legacy and does not know what to do.

To all citizens: remember Enda Kenny's plea - "Please take time to reflect before you react."

Irish Independent

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