An Open Letter to Ninetynine Assembled Citizens

An edited version of this article first appeared in Village magazine.

Dear Ninetynine,

This wasn’t meant to be an open letter.

I had planned simply to write to you using the contact form on the Citizens’ Assembly website.

But when I rang the Assembly office, I was told you don’t get to see all those missives from concerned citizens.

[Update: I have since been informed that this as based on an error due to a misinterpretation of a poorly-phrased question I asked the assembly.

[Updated Update: As of February 2017, it now appears that due to the volume of submissions recived by th assembly, there is now only a 2.22% chance (300 ÷ 13500) that my submission will be seen by the Assembled Ninetynine.]

[Updated Updated Update: I didn’t make the cut.]

On October 22nd the Citizens’ Assembly (the Assembly) opened its formal call for submissions on the first topic the Assembly has been tasked with discussing, the Eighth Amendment. As per the information provided on the website www.citizensassembly.ie, all submissions received by the Assembly secretariat shall be listed on the website and displayed with a name/name of organisation, if appropriate. The Assembly reserves the right not to accept a submission if it is deemed offensive or inappropriate.

Members of the public are invited to make a submission before the closing date of 16th December and view all the submissions made to the Assembly once they are published. Further to this Assembly members will be provided with the submissions in a format that is most convenient to them.]

[Second Update: I eventually submitted a version of this article to the Assembly, though I had to edit it somewhat, since for some reason the website form imposes a 500 word limit on submissions. And I think I missed their deadline.]

The Assembly’s civil service staff sees those messages, and the judge chosen to be your guide and hundredth member probably gets to see them too.

But not you guys.

Instead, any views from those of us not picked at random by a market research company will be filtered by some unknown process before any of you are exposed to them.

And there’s your problem.

You are in a glass bubble, at once insulated from the polity at large, closely examined by everyone as you go about your business, and – it must be said – subject to manipulation.

One thing you will probably see a lot of before the end of the process are opinion polls.

And let’s be honest, there’s only one reason you’re here.

Sure, there will be some sincere guff about fixed term parliaments and the mechanics of future referendums, the challenges of climate change, but we all know the bottom line is the eighth amendment.

If Citizens’ Assemblies really were that important, do you really think they’d have wasted their time debating how old a president should be?

Do you think, if the assembly was anything about other than a PR stunt and delaying tactics, the Oireachtas would have ignored half the recommendations from the Constitutional Convention?

Nope.

You guys have one job.

You’re there to take the heat off the TDs who don’t want to talk about abortion if at all possible, for as long as possible.

Everything else, from climate change (important but remote from their constituents, and really to be decided at inter-state level by the EU and through international treaties) to fixed term parliaments (lets face it, even getting through that phrase induces yawns) to population aging (to be decided by actuaries in the departments of finance and social protection, then presented to ministers as a fait accompli) are as important to the typical Dáil member and average citizen as whether we should have an Irish space programme.

In short, you guys are sandbags.

So, about those polls. One key survey you’ll hear a lot about is the Amnesty International survey published in Spring 2016.

Among other things, it showed that 73% of the population want a referendum on abortion.

There is it then, you may be thinking. Game over, let’s just recommend a referendum and go home.

Of course, there’s no agreement about what outcome people want from a referendum. Some want access to abortion in cases of incest, or rape, or fatal foetal abnormality, or where there’s a threat to a woman’s life (including suicide), or some combination of those. You know, when there’s a “deserving” case. We could head down that road, and before you know it we’ll have rape tribunals to join the suicide tribunals we already have thanks to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.

According to Amnesty, five percent want no abortion ever, in any circumstances. And 38% are in favour of allowing women access as they choose.

What really matters though, is that if those polls are roughly representative, then of the Ninetynine of you, a dozen or so are for simple repeal of the Eighth amendment (and probably as a result, the later amendments guaranteeing the rights to travel and information), a different dozen of you are absolutely opposed to any changes, and the vast majority of you are somewhere in the middle, vaguely pro-reform, to a greater or lesser extent, but still with the feeling that the whole thing should somehow be policed.

The temptation, when you all sit down and debate this, will be to try and come up with some sort of grand compromise wording to square that circle. And before you know it, you’ll be drawn into strange theological arguments over whether women who have been raped by strangers are more deserving than those who were victims of incest, or cancer patients. You get the picture.

So here’s my recommendation. Don’t get sucked into that black hole. Send the Dáil a simple report. Tell them to stop passing the buck and using the Bunreacht as a dumping ground for difficult questions, repeal the eighth amendment, and legislate the issues like a grown up parliament.

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