IN rugby parlance, the government is using the new citizens’ assembly – which met for the first time in Dublin Castle last Saturday – to kick for touch regarding a number of controversial issues, the most notable of these being the emotive question as to whether a referendum should be held on repealing the 8th amendment of the Constitution, which is a political hot potato that the two most conservative parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are uncomfortable about tackling head-on.
The Constitution gives equal value to the life of the mother and the unborn in a pregnancy and, where there is a fatal foetal abnormality, the law requires that the pregnancy must be carried to its full term even if there is no chance of the child surviving. Repeal the 8th supporters want the option of abortion available to women in Ireland, while Pro Life groups are set against this.
The assembly – 99 citizens chosen by the Red C opinion polling company as an allegedly-representative sample of the Irish electorate and chaired by Justice Mary Laffoy – has been charged with considering, assisted by some neutral, legal, medical and ethical advisors, if something should be done about the 8th amendment and, if they think it should be removed from the Constitution, what should replace it. They are to make their recommendations in a report to the government by May of next year for consideration by a cross-party Dáil committee, which – many cynics reckon – will kick the can further down the road, maybe into 2018, by which time the minority government could be on its last legs and the issue may be left for the next administration to deal with.
The citizens’ assembly has also been asked to consider a range of other topics such as fixed-term parliaments, how referenda are run here, how Ireland can become a leader in tackling climate change and how best to respond to the needs of an ageing population in the coming decades. It is important that the members of the assembly carry out their deliberations in an open-minded and confidential manner and that all of them refrain from expressing personal opinions in public on the subject matters they are dealing with, especially on social media.