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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 22 Feb 2022

Vol. 1018 No. 4

Citizens' Assemblies: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

approves the calling of two Citizens' Assemblies to consider the following matters and to make such recommendations as it sees fit and report to the Houses of the Oireachtas:

(1) a Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, with a total of 100 members including an independent Chairperson and 99 randomly-selected members of the public, to examine how the State can improve its response to the issue of biodiversity loss, and to bring forward proposals in that regard; the Assembly shall consider, inter alia:

— the international, European, national, regional and local dimensions to the biodiversity emergency;

— the threats presented by biodiversity loss and the opportunities to reverse this loss;

— the main drivers of biodiversity loss, their impacts and the opportunity of addressing these drivers;

— the perspectives of the general public, representative groups, advocacy groups, experts and policy makers on biodiversity loss, and its impact on Ireland;

— opportunities to develop greater policy coherence and strategic synergies between biodiversity policy and other policy priorities including, but not limited to, economic development, climate action, sustainable development, agriculture and tourism;

— opportunities to promote greater public understanding of, and support for, urgent action in response to the biodiversity emergency; and

— opportunities to improve the State's response to the challenge of biodiversity loss, how that response can best be resourced and implemented in a strategic and coordinated manner, and how progress can be measured;

(2) a Citizens' Assembly, to be known as the Dublin Citizens' Assembly, with a total of 80 members, including an independent Chairperson, 67 randomly-selected members of the public living in Dublin City and County, and 12 Councillors selected from across the four local authorities, to consider the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited for Dublin, and to bring forward proposals in that regard; the Assembly shall consider, inter alia:

— the strengths and weaknesses of the current model of local government in Dublin;

— the potential benefits, risks, challenges and opportunities associated with a directly elected Mayor for Dublin;

— that functions could be transferred from central government to regional or local government in Dublin, and how this should be funded;

— the appropriate structure for local and regional government, councils and authorities, looking at models in other capital cities (e.g. a single elected Dublin authority with a mayor and no local councils, a two-tier structure like London or Paris with a mayor, regional assembly and local or borough councils, or a mayoral structure like Greater Manchester with a 'super' mayor sitting above the existing local authorities);

— the perspectives of the general public, representative groups, advocacy groups, the sitting Councillors of the four local authorities, the Dublin Teachtaí Dála and Members of the European Parliament, local authority senior officials and staff, experts and policy makers; and

notes that the Assemblies shall:

— commence and run in parallel;

— hold their inaugural meetings in April 2022;

— adopt work programmes designed to allow for the completion of consideration of the topics within an eight-month period;

— conclude their work and submit their reports ideally no later than nine months from their respective dates of commencement, and sooner if possible;

— have authority to determine a revised timeline for completion in the event of unexpected disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic or other extraordinary circumstances;

— implement continuous improvement and adopt innovative working methods informed by learnings from previous Citizens' Assemblies and international best practice, including in relation to the methodology for member recruitment, to the running of Assemblies subject to public health measures, and to developing internal capacity to ensure the quality of the deliberative process;

— preclude from membership of the Assemblies any individual who is either:

(i) a politician currently serving in either House of the Oireachtas or the European Parliament;

(ii) a lobbyist as provided for under the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015; or

(iii) a person unwilling to commit to adhering to public health measures as prescribed by Government and public health authorities from time to time;

— have separate Chairpersons appointed to each Assembly, each for a period of up to twelve months, with scope to extend the term should circumstances warrant, and that an honorarium should be paid to each Chairperson based on a per diem rate to be sanctioned by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform;

— make payment of a nominal honorarium to Assembly members to recognise their civic commitment;

— have staff assigned to provide a Secretariat to the Assemblies and to support the Chairpersons;

— agree their own rules of procedure and work programmes to enable the effective conduct of their business in as economical and efficient a manner as possible;

— determine all issues by a majority of the votes of members present and voting, other than the Chairperson who will have a casting vote in the case of an equality of votes;

— operate in an open and transparent manner, including by live streaming public proceedings; and

— make a report and recommendation(s) to the Houses of the Oireachtas on the matters before them; on receipt, the Houses of the Oireachtas will refer each report for consideration to a relevant Committee of both Houses; the Committees will, in turn, bring their conclusions to the Houses for debate; furthermore, the Government will provide in the Houses of the Oireachtas a response to each recommendation of the Assemblies and, if accepting some or all of the recommendations, will indicate the timeframe it envisages for implementing those recommendations.

This is the fourth occasion in the past decade for a citizens' assembly to be established to consider matters of public importance. Citizens' assemblies have become an important part of the Irish democratic system, with previous forums making recommendations on a variety of matters, including marriage equality, the eighth amendment to the Constitution, climate change and, most recently, gender equality. The views expressed by citizens' assemblies have on a number of occasions led to constitutional change and significant enhancements to the State in which we live and the way in which we live our lives. Ireland is considered by many to be a world leader in deliberative democracy and we have had dozens of international visitors to our shores in the past ten years, keen to learn from our experience. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the many hundreds of everyday citizens, the academic community and the Members of the Oireachtas who played a central role in the previous assemblies, for their hard work and their commitment to public service. Maith sibh.

The Programme for Government: Our Shared Future committed to progress the establishment of a number of new citizens' assemblies, including assemblies on biodiversity loss, drug use, the future of education, and the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited for Dublin. The most recent Citizens' Assembly, on gender equality, concluded its work and published its report in June 2021. In the intervening period, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that it has not been possible until now to arrange for the establishment and running of further assemblies. The easing of public health restrictions announced on 21 January means it is once again possible to plan for the running of citizens' assemblies with in-person meetings.

On Tuesday, 8 February, the Government agreed to the establishment of two citizens' assemblies - one dealing with biodiversity loss and the other with the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited for Dublin. I am pleased to bring forward to this House the motion approving the establishment of the Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss and a Dublin Citizens' Assembly. The issues to be considered by these assemblies are very important and the Government wants to move with some urgency to get both assemblies up and running. It is envisaged that the inaugural meeting of the assemblies will take place in April this year, with the assemblies concluding their work and submitting their reports ideally by the end of the year at latest, and earlier if possible. This will be the first time that two assemblies will run concurrently. Naturally, it gives rise to logistical challenges, but it can be also seen as an important opportunity to design an operational model that can allow for a greater number of citizens' assemblies to be run in the future.

The motion before the House proposes that the assemblies should, like their predecessors, report to the Houses of the Oireachtas, which, on receipt of the final reports from the assemblies, will refer those reports to the relevant Oireachtas committee for consideration. In addition, it is proposed that the Government will provide, in the Houses of the Oireachtas, a response to the recommendations of the assembly and an indication of the proposed course of action, where appropriate. The Dáil will debate the reports of each assembly and the response of the Government.

Eligibility for membership of the assemblies is wider than before and, for the first time, will go beyond those enrolled on the electoral register to include all residents in the State. This new initiative opens up membership to non-Irish people and those normally hard-to-reach groups who, for a variety of reasons, are not on the electoral register. All residents in this country are affected by the issues to be considered and I am certain these new representatives will add to the diversity of the group and make a valuable contribution to the proceedings.

The use of polling companies to recruit the assembly members on the three previous occasions in the past ten years posed significant logistical and administrative challenges and occasionally resulted in suboptimal outcomes. In line with best international practice, it is proposed that on this occasion recruitment will be done by a mailing campaign, with 20,000 randomly selected households invited to apply to participate in the biodiversity loss assembly and 14,000 in the Dublin assembly. From those who respond indicating a willingness to take part, members will be selected on the basis of gender, age, geography and several other factors to ensure they are broadly representative of wider society. We have learned much from the experience of previous Assemblies and I am confident the change in approach will enhance the quality of the random selection methodology.

The Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss will include an independent chairperson and 99 members of the general public selected using a stratified random selection process based on the GeoDirectory of households across the country. The Dublin Citizens' Assembly will include an independent chairperson and 67 members of the general public selected using a stratified random selection process based on the GeoDirectory of households in Dublin city and county. It will also include a total of 12 councillors from across the four local authorities in Dublin, bringing the total membership of that assembly to 80. I am sure the inclusion of councillors will add to the quality of deliberation and that the other members will benefit greatly from their strategic and operational experience at all levels of local government.

Similar to the first Constitutional Convention, where the membership comprised one third politicians, every effort will be made to ensure equality of voice among the membership.

On foot of a recommendation from the chair of the most recent citizens' assembly, the terms of reference for each assembly have been designed so that they are sufficiently well-defined to provide a clear focus for the assembly, while at the same time not being so prescriptive as to inhibit the scope of the assemblies to define their work programmes as they deem appropriate.

The terms of reference for the citizens' assembly on biodiversity derive principally from the resolution passed by Dáil Éireann on 9 May 2019 which declared a climate and biodiversity emergency and called for the citizens' assembly to examine how the State can improve its response to the issue of biodiversity loss.

The terms of reference for the Dublin citizens' assembly deliver on a commitment in the programme for Government to establish a citizens' assembly to consider the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited for Dublin.

The Government is keen to make progress on establishing all four of the citizens' assemblies committed to in the programme for Government. Therefore, it is envisaged that a citizens' assembly on drug use will follow these two assemblies, with the intention of running it concurrently with an assembly on the future of education.

Any decision on the establishment of the citizens' assemblies on drug use and on the future of education will, of course, be subject to a separate Government decision and resolutions of Dáil and Seanad Éireann at the appropriate time. The question of running those citizens' assemblies concurrently will be informed by the experience of jointly running the citizens' assemblies on biodiversity loss and a directly elected mayor for Dublin.

The decision to move ahead with two new assemblies and, for the first time, to run them concurrently, underscores the fact that citizens' assemblies are no longer merely an interesting experiment in deliberative democracy. Successive assemblies have amply demonstrated how the process enhances Ireland's democratic system. Engaging members of the general public in considering and proposing solutions to complex societal challenges not only makes a unique and valuable contribution to the deliberative processes for Government and the Oireachtas, but it also enhances the public sphere, where matters of public importance are debated, in turn raising public awareness and understanding of the matters under consideration.

Molaim an tairscint seo don Teach. I commend this Motion to the House.

Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh is sharing with Deputies Mitchell and Gould.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle. At the outset I welcome both of these citizens’ assemblies. We need to take stock of the previous assembly that we had on gender equality. It is of concern that despite Covid-19, there were 45 recommendations that crossed a number of areas and I share the concern of my own colleague, Deputy Clarke, that because of the inaction from that citizens’ assembly, it may result in people being less inclined to participate in future assemblies. We have a citizens’ assembly report and now have a Committee on Gender Equality in place and yet the importance of that work has to be made by a decision of Government. I would appreciate if that was expedited.

The destruction of biodiversity and the measures to strengthen local democratic accountability are of great importance. The destruction of biodiversity is accelerating at an alarming rate. Immediate action needs to go alongside this citizens’ assembly and it is important that we do not put everything on hold. Agriculture will no doubt be a vitally important theme in that discussion. Our family farmers stand ready to deliver the substantial change we need but they cannot do so without support and clear guidance.

Sinn Féin will always defend and support agriculture and rural economies across the entire island. We know the importance of this industry to our national economy and the role it has to play in delivering high quality food while contributing to Ireland’s ambitious targets on biodiversity and climate change. They need, however, a clear plan and real financial backing.

Can the Minister of State ensure that, unlike the two previous agri-environmental schemes, enclosed lands with heather are not included from low-input permanent pasture measures because we all know that peatlands are of the utmost importance in the carbon store?

Again, organic farming, while only one aspect of how we address biodiversity, is a very important one. One of the major drawbacks of promoting organic farming is the amount of bureaucracy attached to organic production. Working from a base of 2% we have a huge amount of ground to make up. I welcome the citizens’ assembly on biodiversity although the Government needs to do more in parallel with the discussions being held.

When we talk about citizens’ assemblies we cannot continue to ignore the urgent need for a citizens’ assembly on Irish unity and reunification. The Good Friday Agreement provides for the democratic pathway to Irish reunification. The power to call the two concurrent referendums, however, North and South, is in the hands of the Secretary of State of the British Government. Legally the British Government is obliged to call a referendum on Irish reunification when it appears likely that a majority would express a wish that the North should cease to part of the UK and form part of a united Ireland.

The timing of the calling of referendum still resting with the British Government and the ambiguity over the criteria to determine when a likely vote could be won means that we need to be ready. The debate on Irish reunification is growing nationally and internationally and the momentum for constitutional change on the island has never been stronger. Questions around healthcare, education, governance arrangements, taxation, pensions, public services and the place of unionists within a new Ireland are among the many important issues that a citizens’ assembly could discuss in an informed environment. People deserve to be voting in a situation where we have full information. There has been extensive civic leadership in the constitutional conversation. Grassroots movements such as Think 32, Shared Ireland, Ireland’s Future and the Constitutional Conversations group, among others, have demonstrated a commitment to innovation in their approaches to ensure debate. Indeed, universities on both islands are debating and discussing the issue.

We and the Government are failing in not setting a citizens’ assembly to discuss these really important matters. We saw what happened on Brexit in not being prepared. The Government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. In one sense it says that we cannot have a referendum on Irish unity until we are prepared. We fully agree with the Government on that in Sinn Féin but there is a responsibility on the Government to ensure that a citizens’ assembly is set up, amongst other things, to discuss the challenges and opportunities that reunification presents. We cannot continue to ignore the elephant in the room when so many people are demanding this to be done.

I welcome the Government’s announcement of a citizens’ assembly on a directly elected mayor for Dublin. It is an issue that has been discussed many times over the years and is something that I think there is support for. Sinn Féin has made the case for directly elected mayors previously and we will be following the discussion of the assembly closely. To be effective local government needs to be reformed to serve the people it represents properly. A directly elected mayor is a step towards that. The office will need to be properly resourced. Powers related to transport, major roads, waste management, public spaces and tourism all need to be considered by the assembly. It is an opportunity for the people of Dublin city and county to reclaim ownership of local government and have a real stake in the running of our city.

A directly elected mayor would bring accountability instead of having someone who is unelected making decisions which might not be in the interests of its people.

One concern I have is on the selection process for the 12 councillors. We need to have the voices of all parties and none included and it needs to be gender balanced and to have at least a reflection of the councillors we currently have. This is a real opportunity for Dublin and I will be interested to see the suggestions that come from the assembly. I really hope that the Government will engage constructively with whatever comes of it.

We welcome the news of progression of citizens' assemblies and particularly the view that these can be held concurrently. It is extremely disappointing that the Minister of State has once again pushed back the citizens' assembly on drugs until next year.

Ireland currently holds its place as the third highest in the EU for drug-related deaths. Over the past 25 years, there has been a staggering 225% rise in the number of drug deaths.

The mid-term review of the national drugs strategy was published in November 2021 and we are still waiting for a new comprehensive plan. The last action plan expired in 2020. The Keltoi unit was closed to be used as an isolation facility at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and it has not reopened. A review of the task force handbook was established and was due to report last year, but we are still waiting for the report. In August 2019, the then Government announced a health diversion approach. We are still waiting for the full implementation of this policy.

While none of these issues directly relates to the citizens' assembly on drugs, they show two things clearly - Fine Gael does not prioritise addiction or drug-related issues, and it has no shame about missing the deadlines it sets. This is why there is serious concern that the promised citizens' assembly on drugs will drag on and on. To give people confidence, the Minister of State must publish the work he has done to date, the proposed running time and the date for establishment. I am not sure I believe any of this work has been done, but if it has this must happen. People are dying and people are being wrongly criminalised. Communities are suffering under the growing burdens of heroin, crack cocaine and crystal methamphetamine. We must listen to them. These communities and individuals need action now. They cannot wait for years.

There is conflicting rhetoric from the Government, with the Taoiseach saying that there will be a citizens' assembly this year and the Minister of State saying it will be next year. Does the Government know how confusing and disappointing this is for the communities that are directly affected? The Minister of State undermines task forces and local community groups. The Taoiseach speaks at their conferences saying the citizens' assembly will be held this year. The Government has shown its attitude towards addiction by only allocating an additional €4 million in the budget. Sinn Féin, in its budget submission, advocated a tenfold increase to €40 million because that is the type of support those communities need.

First, on behalf of the Labour Party, I welcome the establishment of these two citizens' assemblies. We are glad to see this being carried out, but we are also anxious to see progress being made on the citizens' assemblies on drugs and on the future of education. Indeed, my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, has been to the fore in seeking clear indications from the Government and particularly the Taoiseach on the timeline for the establishment of a citizens' assembly on drugs. We know what a serious and severe problem drug addiction and the current policies for dealing with drug addiction have created. The Government could look to save lives by kick-starting the process of convening a citizens' assembly on drugs. We want urgent work to be done on that, and on the citizens' assembly on the future of education.

In my role as Chairperson of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Gender Equality, I appreciate the enormous engagement and the massive levels of commitment that citizens have given to assemblies over the years. In particular, I pay tribute to the citizens who were involved in the citizens' assembly on gender equality, chaired by Dr. Catherine Day, which gave rise to such an impressive report with 45 recommendations, effectively a blueprint for achieving gender equality in Ireland. I look forward to working cross-party with colleagues on ensuring that the blueprint is implemented through our work in the committee. We will commence our public hearings next week, but we have already been involved in a great deal of work.

I am mindful, however, of the point made forcefully by both Professor David Farrell and Ms Ursula Quill in thejournal.ie recently that there needs to be a clear impact from a citizens' assembly. The recommendations of citizens' assemblies have to be implemented. Citizens who engage and give their time and commitment so willingly have to see that what they have recommended is taken up and moves issues further, as we saw with the Convention on the Constitution, which I was privileged to be part of, and the referendum on marriage equality and the referendum on the eighth amendment, which again followed a citizens' assembly. There must be meaningful engagement by the Government. Indeed, I asked the Taoiseach to commit to that last week in the context of the gender equality recommendations. We must see the recommendations made by citizens' assemblies being taken seriously and being brought into effect. That is crucial.

With regard to the two assemblies being discussed today, the Dublin citizens' assembly is an important and valuable one. I look forward to the deliberations there. I am grateful to my colleagues, Labour Party councillors and our Lord Mayor, Ms Alison Gilliland, for their insights and the feedback they have given me on their views. Many of our councillors, and other councillors too, have expressed concerns that their ability to carry out work on behalf of their electors is stymied by the absence of real executive power at present. We all are conscious that, by European standards, Ireland has a much less effective tier of local government. There are insufficient powers at local government level. We might contrast that with the type of city powers we see in cities such as London, where the mayor, Mr. Sadiq Khan, has exercised real power, and in cities in the US. A city diplomacy unit is now being established by the US State Department. We must look at models elsewhere to ensure we have meaningful and effective local government, and that the issue of a directly elected lord mayor is taken up and brought forward, but the mayor must have sufficient power to make it an effective office.

I am conscious that there is already draft legislation to introduce a directly elected mayor, which was brought forward by the Green Party the last time it was in government. My colleague, Councillor Dermot Lacey, has pointed out that this legislation could be reintroduced to avoid delaying local government reform any longer. I am sure the citizens' assembly will look at this. I hope it will be an inclusive assembly because many of those who live in Dublin are not from Dublin. It is vital that all residents in Dublin city and county are included. I note it is proposed to have 12 councillors participating. We need to hear why that number was considered. I am aware there is a proposed Seanad amendment to include a higher number, but we must be mindful that a citizens' assembly should primarily comprise citizens. There must be a clear balance there on membership.

I also welcome the proposed citizens' assembly on biodiversity. As spokesperson on climate for the Labour Party, I am conscious that we have not only a climate emergency but also a biodiversity emergency in Ireland. We have tragic levels of extinction of species worldwide. There are approximately 31,000 species known to occur in Ireland, yet the conservation status of only about 10% has been assessed. There is a fundamental knowledge gap in how we tackle biodiversity in Ireland, how we protect species and how we ensure against further loss of biodiversity. I implore the citizens' assembly on biodiversity to look at these issues, in particular, and to address that knowledge gap.

I welcome this motion and offer the support of the Labour Party for it, but I ask the Minister of State to move urgently to establish the other two promised citizens' assemblies on drug use and on education.

I welcome the Government's decision to establish two citizens' assemblies, one on biodiversity and one on a particular priority for me, local government in Dublin. I served for ten years as a member of Dublin City Council and had the great honour of chairing that body. On many occasions during my time in this House I have missed the fantastic opportunity that being a local councillor gives a person to impact his or her community in a real and tangible way. That said, our system of local government is broken. It is a system we inherited from Victorian England. Despite that jurisdiction reforming local government, like many other countries across Europe, Ireland remains stuck with that Victorian model, which is further limited by increasing centralisation. This is demonstrated by the frustration and powerlessness of councillors and citizens alike.

Dublin needs a new model of local government and it must draw on the expertise of its current practitioners, the elected members, and those it serves, the people of the county. Yes, Dublin needs a new model and, yes, the people of the county must have an input, but councillors, who know the current system inside out, must have an input into the reform process. This is not the first rodeo for local government reform in Dublin. I served as a member of the funnily named colloquium on local government established by the then Minister, Mr. Phil Hogan, and I watched as different councils brought that process to a halt. Some say it was a process that was designed to fail but, either way, it delivered nothing. This assembly cannot fall into that category. The new citizens' assembly must deliver local government reform that empowers councillors and better serves the people of the county. The debate on a directly elected mayor has not been well teased out. The idea that it is a panacea for poor, short-term decision making is over-simplistic. I welcome the citizens' assembly because I believe, as we saw with other issues, it will help to build a consensus.

It will ensure an informed and detailed debate and focus minds on what the real challenges are in local government.

The time I have to address both topics to be dealt with by the assemblies is limited. However, I must take time to address one issue, which is that a citizens' assembly will not deal with legal reform of illegal drugs this year. I am bitterly disappointed it will not form part of this year's work programme. It is a complex legal area. It requires expert-led civic debate. It will require brave decisions by politicians. It is an ideal candidate for a citizens' assembly. Without prejudice to my comments on the Dublin issue, it would be my number one priority for a subject matter to be dealt with by a citizens' assembly. I regret every day that is added to the process of reform arising from the decision not to deal with it in 2022.

Communities such as Ballymun and Finglas live every day with the impact of the illegal drugs industry and with those people with addiction who are exploited by it. This industry has so much money and firepower that no level of decision-making or enforcement could be immune to the bribery and intimidation it can inflict. Any delay in dealing with the issue will cause further suffering. It will delay treatment and intervention. It will lead to further violence.

I welcome the Government's commitment on the issue. I welcome that people from the top down, including An Taoiseach, have dealt with it in my constituency. I welcome the intervention of the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, to tackle disadvantage. I welcome the intervention of the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, to provide additional money. If the citizens' assembly is not to come until later this year, what work must we do now as a Government to shatter the grip the illegal drugs industry has on my community? This work remains. It is in our power to do something now in advance of a citizens' assembly setting.

I am grateful to have an opportunity to speak on this. I welcome the citizens' assemblies on these two very important topics. It is one of the innovations that Ireland has successfully introduced into policymaking. I do not need to remind the House of its path-breaking role in helping constitutional change to occur in this country and introducing climate legislation that puts us very much to the forefront in how we have changed legislation to create a framework for addressing the climate. I hope we do the same in the context of gender equality.

Biodiversity is a very important subject. One of the fears I have, and the citizens' assembly will have to look at this, is that there is a danger in the way we segment climate, waste and biodiversity as if they are different topics that need different solutions, different plans and different strategies. The reality is that the supply chain of our lives is what has caused all of these three crises. They are interlocking crises. We need to see them in an integrated way rather than in a piecemeal way. We get insights and begin to see where the trade-offs arise if we avoid siloing these three crises into separate arenas.

The circular economy is really about how to remove from the supply chain of our lives all of the environmental damage we do, whether in the extraction of materials, the generation of pollutants into the atmosphere, emissions that affect our climate, creating waste we discard and throwing away valuable materials that are irreplaceable. These things need to be seen in an integrated way. It is only then we will protect our atmosphere, natural environment, waterways, climate and the scarce resources we have the fortune to have and minimise waste. As a House, when we hand over the issue we ought to emphasise that it should be seen in an integrated way.

I welcome the evaluation of what is best governance for Dublin. It is very timely. Over the years we have struggled in Dublin with how to strike a balance between the need for local government to be closer to the people and the coherence needed for a capital city to work effectively. In my lifetime I have seen it move from having two councils to four councils. There is far greater representation but in this process we have lost some of that coherence. A capital city needs interconnected parts. It needs to be thinking in a more coherent way about big issues in its economic, social and cultural future and in its infrastructural needs. To some degree we are falling between stools. Often our dispersed authorities in Dublin do not have the capacity to deliver some of the bigger infrastructural asks imposed upon them, whether it be with regard to housing, climate or the other demands we place upon them. It is timely to see how we can strike a balance with having important local representation, which we all recognise is essential. Local government has to be close to its communities. It has to be responsive. People have to feel part of it. At the same time, they have this bigger role.

One of the much undervalued elements of political representation in Ireland is holding bodies to account. In Dublin we have not effectively held to account through our local authorities bodies such as Dublin Port, Dublin Bus or the Dublin elements of the health services. Part of the role of local political representation is to run things that are appropriate to it and hold to account bigger bodies that have a wider mandate. They should ensure there is the holding toes to the fire that political bodies can do very effectively.

An all-powerful elected mayor may not be the answer for Dublin. We may need something a bit more like the governance we have at national level, with people who are elected politically and chosen from within authorities but have combined governance. This would be much like our Ministers, with people responsible for different elements of managing the affairs of a big city such as what Dublin has become. I admit this is a prejudice because it is my view of the world. The success of our democratic institutions has shown that having individual political executives embedded in a wider political family brings strength to it. I am grateful for the opportunity to address this very important topic. I wish the Minister of State well in the work he is taking on.

I welcome the commitment to a citizens' assembly on the biodiversity crisis. Campaigners have been calling for the assembly to be convened as a matter of priority to address the growing biodiversity crisis that has been caused by habitat loss, overexploitation and climate change. These factors have caused a rapid acceleration of animals and plants becoming extinct. Measures to restore biodiversity could have a significant impact if implemented properly.

The State's record is not good. For example, almost half of Irish rivers have unsatisfactory water quality levels. We will plan for development in our oceans without identifying marine protected areas. Derrybrien wind farm was built in breach of environmental regulations and is now in legal limbo having been refused retrospective planning consent. It has already cost the State €17 million in European Commission fines, with the total rising to €15,000 a day as its status remains unresolved.

Last week it was reported on the back of freedom of information data obtained by my colleague, Senator Boylan, that the OPW was investigated for breaches of wildlife regulations over refurbishment works that threatened a protected bat. The OPW was advised of this but ignored the advice and carried on regardless. We hear similar stories on a daily basis.

The 2019 global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services warned that an unprecedented loss of species will continue to gain pace unless countries take urgent action to tackle it. The citizens' assembly is a step in the right direction but it needs to move to action. When we have it, we should heed its findings. It cannot be tokenism, greenwashing or a fudge.

Citizens' assemblies have proven themselves as being sometimes more useful at delivering action and seeing viable solutions than in here and beyond. With many others I am utterly disappointed a citizens' assembly on drugs has not been timed properly. The Taoiseach spoke about the end of 2022 but the Department of Health and the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, state it will be 2023. We need to find out exactly when this will happen. This State has a long history of failing communities. We are failing with regard to addiction. We are failing in that we have allowed criminal gangs to harangue communities. We have not put in family supports, community supports or addiction supports. We require this to go to the people so that people can look at novel ideas. We are chasing ourselves on this.

Do not get me wrong, we need policing. We need policing at this time to be concentrated on those criminal gangs. We need the Criminal Assets Bureau to be concentrated on the these criminal gangs. We need this assembly to happen as soon as possible. This is a failure on top of many failures, and it is not good enough for the communities across Louth, Dundalk and Drogheda and across this State and country. It is an issue that impacts on all. It is not good enough. Very simply, when we called for an Irish unity citizens' assembly to allow for that conversation, which is necessary and which is happening, the Taoiseach stated that he does not believe it is the forum. The Taoiseach needs to come up with the goods for a forum. If that is to be an expanded shared island dialogue, then it needs to be expanded and we need not to worry too much about those we will offend. Unionism is in a cul-de-sac. It knows this is coming and we need to get ready.

I join with others in saying that I am deeply disappointed that the much-needed citizens' assembly on drugs has not been given the urgency it needs and has not been started, as it should be now. There is an absolute urgency in the area of drug use and addiction as everyone in this House knows. Over the past 25 years we have lost 10,549 people to drug-related deaths. There is an absolute urgency about this and there should be a citizens' assembly launched right now by the Government on this. There is no time for any delay on this. There is no justification for that whatsoever.

Shamefully, as a country, since addiction and drug addiction came to our shores from the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the State has always been on the back foot in terms of responding. When the drugs task forces were set up initially they were given a good deal of prioritisation, but since then we have seen the priority continuously down scaled and they have not been given the resources that they need. It is not far from here where the communities initially faced the problems of addiction and drug use. They are very close to here but they could be miles away with regard to the slow political response over the years. It is sad to see that four decades on the State is still being slow and non-urgent in its response. While great work has been done by many people and many communities, clearly the strategies to date have not worked as we need them to. This is why a citizens' assembly in this area is absolutely urgent. If I had to choose between that and a citizens' assembly on a directly elected mayor for Dublin, I would definitely choose to deal with the issues around drugs, now and urgently.

I have long been an advocate of a directly elected mayor for Dublin and these areas need to be looked at. The lack of powers for local government and local democracy in Ireland does impact on people's daily lives. Consider how far behind we are as a country in dealing with issues around housing, childcare and transport. We are surrounded by countries where these issues are effectively tackled at a local level because local democracy is well resourced, well organised and has the proper structures in place. They either have directly elected mayors in place or mayors that are in place for a five-year term but indirectly elected. These places have one or the other, and it gives those local authorities leadership. It means that the local authority members are able to hold the non-elected leadership of the councils to account. There is a balance there, and that balance is completely and utterly lacking at the moment. Because of the highly centralised nature of government here we have suffered hugely from not devolving powers, not just to local authorities but also in empowering local communities and local people. This is really what a citizens' assembly should be about. It is about how we structure things politically in the local authorities but ultimately it is about how we can give power back to communities so they can be involved in the decision-making to solve the problems that they face. This is really what that citizens' assembly needs to be about.

Deputy Mitchell referred to a very good point about how those 12 councillors are chosen. It would be a huge mistake if this is to be done as three per local authority, in which case we would end up with representation just of the larger political parties. There must be representation that reflects the diversity on the four Dublin local authorities and this would include the smaller parties and people from no parties at all. This must be done and not be a stitch up by the larger political parties. That would not be acceptable.

I very much welcome the proposed citizens' assembly on the biodiversity crisis. This is absolutely crucial. It cannot be an excuse for government inaction in this area. We need to see urgent action in beefing up the National Parks and Wildlife Service straightaway. The targets for 30% of marine protected areas should be advanced quickly and urgently. Biodiversity and tackling biodiversity issues is absolutely key to furthering our efforts in tackling climate change. A lot of Ireland's biodiversity and marine life is absolutely key for carbon capture and while it has a massive intrinsic value itself, it also has a massive value in combatting and fighting climate change. I welcome that there will be citizens' assembly on that but really I would like to see the Government get on with a lot of the actions we know it could be taking now to tackle the biodiversity crisis we have.

Before we consider the two issues to be examined by the two new citizens' assemblies we should take a minute or two to consider the role of citizens' assemblies and the justification for them. It has been put to me by some constituents that citizens' assemblies are not required and that they are of no value, pointing out that the Houses of the Oireachtas, Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, are the real citizens' assemblies. That may be so, but in my view citizens' assemblies have an important role to play in a modern democracy. Deputies and Senators have a huge workload and may not always have the time and resources to consider in depth a particular complex issue, to consider expert pinion, to determine the views of the public, to engage with representative groups, to consult advocacy groups and to hear the views of other policy makers. The same applies to Ministers and their civil servants. They too can get caught up in the day-to-day pressures of policy formulation, decision-making and policy implementation and do not always have the time to think outside the box. Ireland's practice of using citizens' assemblies has been commented on favourably internationally. The concept is evolving, however, and the Irish model needs to be updated regularly to ensure that it is innovative and follows European best practice. Yes, citizens' assemblies have an important role to play, provided that the subject is an important one, that the terms of reference are clearly focused, that they report back in a timely manner and that their recommendations are implemented.

More citizens' assemblies are planned on drug use, on rural youth and on the future of education. We need to be careful not to commit too many issues to this process and to be selective in this regard. Implementation is the key. The deliberations of the citizens' assemblies cannot be a wasted exercise. We as Deputies must continue to take an active interest to ensure the implementation of their recommendations.

I am delighted that we are now establishing a citizens' assembly on biodiversity loss. Various international reports, including the Global Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services, have highlighted the critical position around biodiversity loss. There has been an unprecedented loss of species, habitats and ecosystems. Many animals and plants are on the verge of extinction. This is being caused by over exploitation and by climate change, which in turn is caused by human activity. Urgent action is needed. Ireland declared a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019. That was a start. Our climate action plan was published last year but the biodiversity crisis now needs our particular attention. There is huge public support for action to be taken on this issue. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people discovered the joys of nature. I believe there is a new awareness and a desire to protect our fragile biodiversity before it is too late.

I also welcome the establishment of a citizens' assembly on a directly elected mayor for Dublin and on the local government structures for Dublin. I am a supporter in principle of a directly elected mayor. I believe, however, that the office must not turn out to be just another layer of bureaucracy actually delaying decision-making. The cost of the office must be reasonable and kept under control. A directly elected mayor would provide direct responsibility, give leadership on key issues and would be accountable. If we are to achieve this then a worthwhile reform of local government will have been brought about.

Notwithstanding the remarks of Deputy Haughey on citizens' assemblies, with which I tentatively agree, the citizens' assembly model has proven its worth over the past number of years. Some of the questions that have been asked, in particular on the social side of things, may not have come about as quickly had we been left to deal with them in these Houses.

That being said, biodiversity is probably one of the key elements on the list of citizens' assemblies outlined in the programme for Government. I am pleased to see it included relatively early following the Covid pandemic. It is necessary to mention that when we declared a biodiversity emergency in 2019, the climate action plan, which was updated just last year, followed shortly thereafter. A committee on which I serve, along with Members of all parties and none, did a huge amount of work on improving legislation around the climate action plan. There is an opportunity for us to take on board the views of the public and expertise that was perhaps not available to the Houses of the Oireachtas during the pre-legislative processes, as well as opportunities for us to take on board international expertise that, again, may not have been available to us.

Therefore, I welcome the opportunity presented by this particular citizens' assembly. Approximately 30% of plant and wildlife species in this country is at extreme risk. Unfortunately, that risk is accelerating at an alarming rate, which must be addressed by the State in terms of what actions we take and what restrictions we impose on certain sectors and industries in order to attempt to stop that dramatic increase in biodiversity loss. We have a particular responsibility to recognise that habitats are not just on land or in rivers but are also in our seas. The greatest example of something like that occurring is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, but we do not have to go too far from these Houses to see biodiversity loss on our seabeds and in our aquatic wildlife that play a significant role in biodiversity and are a major carbon sink for the planet. Approximately 1 million species are at extreme risk across the planet, which I mentioned in terms of the numbers in Ireland. It is important that we learn from initiatives such as the restoration of our bogs and the carbon sink that they provide us with so that when we engage with them further, in particular in the coming decade, we implement best practice, as experienced in the midlands.

Reporting back to us within nine months means that we should deal with this issue in the early part of 2023. There is an opportunity for us collaboratively. Heretofore, at the very start of the citizens' assembly process Oireachtas Members had an input into the process. I was a layperson – a reserve, if you will – in that particular model. I would not rule out the opportunity for a selective group of parliamentarians to participate in that process or to at least be advisers.

Regarding the question of a Dublin mayor being put a citizens' assembly, I very much support the idea behind it, but I come from a local authority that declined the opportunity to have a directly elected mayor on the latest occasion, and that was provided for in legislation. We need to know what powers would be removed from the local authority management system before anything can happen. Like my colleague, I believe there is no point in creating a directly elected mayor if it is simply a talking shop and has no real authority.

I welcome the recently announced citizens' assemblies on a directly elected mayor and biodiversity. However, the Government has failed to prepare for a Border poll, just like the British Tories failed to prepare for Brexit.

I would like to focus on the issue of the citizens' assembly on drugs. Deputy Gould outlined the stark statistics regarding how drugs affected another generation of young people. People in our communities are dying every day and the so-called war on drugs has failed miserably. For decades, our communities, through Concerned Parents Against Drugs, CPAD, the Coalition of Communities Against Drugs, COCAD, CityWide and professionals in the area of drug use and misuse, have said that we need a fundamental, root-and-branch change to our drug strategies.

The reason that a citizens' assembly is important is there is no clear and accepted analysis of the way forward. The delay is sadly going to kick the problem down the line for years. However, our communities, parents and young people do not have that time. I ask that the preparatory work for the citizens' assembly on drugs to be started now and that we do not delay any further. Maybe we will then finally move away from criminalising young people who use drugs and have to deal with the nightmare of drug addiction and use.

In the short time I have available I want to raise two issues around citizens' assemblies. I agree with the concept, but the real citizens' assembly is those of us in this House. We cannot dodge stuff that is difficult; we need to deal with that ourselves.

The first issue I wish to raise is Irish unity and the Border poll we look forward to in a couple of years. We have to prepare for that properly so that we are ready and do not mess up the referendum as happened with the Brexit referendum in the UK. A lot of people there regret that the referendum was not held properly. The outcome is something a lot of people have a problem with, and they are dealing with the consequences of that and will be for generations.

The second issue I want to focus on is drugs and the failure to progress the citizens' assembly on drugs. Drug addiction and its outcomes have a devastating affect on families and communities. There are particular problems in my city, Limerick, which are replicated in many urban and, unfortunately, rural areas across the State. We need a citizens' assembly on drugs. I heard the statement from the Minister of State and I am deeply disappointed that we will not have a citizens' assembly on drugs until at least 2023. That decision needs to be speeded up if possible. If that does not happen, the preparatory work for it should be ready. Communities are waiting for it and we cannot hide behind the citizens' assembly not being ready or able to deal with the issue of drugs. We can do that ourselves. I plead with the Government to come forward with some sort of solution.

How we have dealt with the issue of drugs has been a failure for generations, and that has been reflected in our communities. The statistics show that Ireland has the highest rate of drugs-related overdoses in Europe, with hundreds of people dying every year. If that is not a wake-up call for us, what will be? Like the Minister of State, we deal with communities and families who feel abandoned and that there is no hope for them. Addiction services are not funded properly. Criminals flaunt their wealth and rub peoples nose's in it. People cannot prove where they got that money from. We need to enhance the Criminal Assets Bureau. I urge the Minister of State to establish a citizens' assembly on drugs and if the Government cannot do that, it should at least prepare for it.

The decision by the Government to delay a citizens' assembly on drug use is an affront to the debate. How any Government can prioritise a directly elected mayor over the urgent debate on drug use is beyond comprehension. Let us provide the context. This issue has been delayed for decades while thousands of people die and rot. The assembly that should be in the dock is not the citizens' assembly, but rather this assembly. This assembly has for decades let communities rot. Thousands of people would be alive today if it was not for the antiquated laws around drug use.

Most of those people do not have a voice, but we are giving them a voice today. They have been denied a voice. We are so frustrated. Many of us who want to bring debate further on have been left very frustrated, to say the least. A different approach to drug use has worked in other jurisdictions. We are talking about people who should be alive today. A model that saves lives is in place in Portugal. It has taken a different approach to drug use since 2001. Why would we want to criminalise people who want to use drugs?

It is like sending people to jail because they have a dependency on alcohol. It does not make sense. We need a different approach. There are elements in this Government that do not want any progress at all. There are elements that want progress, but there are backward elements in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who have no interest in this issue at all. They want to see people rot, die and be decrepit because they are happy with the status quo. I am cynical about this. Even if recommendations come back from the citizens' assembly, I do not think this Government has the stomach to change the laws on drug use.

There is a citizens' assembly for 2022 to elect a mayor for Dublin but no citizens' assembly for the drug issue. It shows how out of touch the Government is. In my constituency, Cork North-Central, we have communities absolutely plagued by drug-dealing. We have people whose lives have been wrecked or even lost due to drug misuse. The war on drugs strategy has clearly failed. There is a clear need for alternative strategies and a real debate about them. If the Government thinks that an elected mayor for Dublin is more important than this, then it is simply living on another planet. Why are there no community-based drug and alcohol services for under-18s in Cork city? Under-18s continue to be referred to Matt Talbot Adolescent Services for treatment, but since Coolmine took over the contract for drug and alcohol services in the city, with services being centralised at the start of the new year, community-based work with under-18s on the ground has effectively stopped. This is a serious mistake and I want to bring it to public attention. The Government's priorities on these issues are all wrong. Its choices regarding the priorities for citizens' assemblies this year absolutely show it.

I acknowledge the contribution of Deputy Gino Kenny. He has a strong record of campaigning in this regard, which deserves to be acknowledged. There are elements in this Government who will push this forward. It matters to us too. I respect his record on this issue in particular.

This matters to the Green Party. We care about it deeply. The principle of subsidiarity, with decisions being made at the lowest effective level, is baked into our DNA. We believe in the wisdom of crowds and in the power of inclusive and deliberative democracy to tease out some of the issues that either Deputy Paul Donnelly or Deputy Quinlivan referred to. Not all the answers to this issue are available already. If we put people in the room, with expert advice, we will get answers that help us move towards a more inclusive society. This kind of informed debate can be an important counterweight to the populism that we see, which is often driven by social media platforms and which is about an instantaneous, quick, easily digested response rather than people with different points of view from different backgrounds sitting together and listening to one another to have a collaborative approach. The scale of challenges is significant, including climate, biodiversity, the drugs issue, the remaking of our local democracy and how we remake education for the 21st century. It is important that we engage in meaningful discussion in this making and remaking of society through that collaborative act of imagination.

In some ways, Ireland has led the way on this. We have been a trailblazer with citizens' assemblies. Much of my work revolves around well-being indicators. The OECD framework shows that this indicator for civic engagement is the one that we do worst on in Ireland. Much of that is down to how we have debased and stripped out local government over decades. For the citizen, that has broken the connection between local democracy and the subsidiarity I mentioned, and how decisions are made by the Government. Citizens' assemblies are an important way to remediate that damage. I would like to see them at a more local level so that citizens within counties or local areas really get to engage in this discussion.

I refer to a study by Torney, Brereton and Coleman, which indicates that both bottom-up approaches such as deliberative forums, including citizens' assemblies, and top-down political leadership and coherent policies have to combine to tackle that level of existential threat that we see within the climate emergency and the pernicious problems that have bedevilled our society for a long time, including drugs and access to education. They acknowledge that deliberative forums can facilitate societal buy-in for tough policy decisions by including the concerns of citizens in policymaking and increasing the legitimacy of decisions and actions taken.

We have to be mindful that when we get these recommendations, we must action them in a meaningful way. If we allow citizens' assemblies to turn into talking shops where people talk around the issue, issue recommendations and then do not see them implemented, we will undercut the trust that we have in what is a valuable institution. We have tough decisions ahead, but talking about those decisions together makes us stronger.

I welcome the news that the Minister of State delivered in his opening statement that the first two citizens' assemblies will be concurrent. That will allow us to get on with the third and fourth citizens' assemblies as soon as possible, as per the programme for Government. It is also welcome that we will open access to citizens' assemblies to broader and more diverse groups. I think everybody in the House will agree with that change.

At the risk of stating the obvious, we live in a representative democracy. This is a popularity contest to a great extent. It is also true that the electorate knowingly and willingly put us here to make difficult decisions, to do what is right and to resist the impulse of the popular path. The popular path is perhaps the easier way to be elected but it is often in conflict with doing what is right and responsible. As politicians accountable to the electorate, we live with that conflict daily. Our system is not perfect, by any means. It is far from perfect. The many problems we have in society are evidence of this. At the risk of irking my Sinn Féin colleagues, I will quote Winston Churchill who said, "...democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried...". Our system, as imperfect as it is, has given us relative stability and prosperity, but we should always strive to reform, and sometimes to reform radically, which we should do carefully. We have seen enough in our recent history and even currently to know the risks in indulging of the impulse to follow what is popular.

Citizens' assemblies are an appropriate step into radical reform. They are an important interface. As my colleague, Deputy Ó Cathasaigh said, in an era of polarisation driven by social media, where it becomes difficult for politicians to be brave and do what is responsible, that interface with the public through citizens' assemblies is extremely important. We have seen significant success in this regard. Laura Devaney, an academic who examined this, said:

Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly was an exceptional experiment in democratic governance and engagement. Comprising 99 citizens, it afforded participants the time, space and structure to deliberate on complex public policy questions, including climate change.

It afforded politicians the space to do what is right. That citizens' assembly led to the citizens' climate research project, the Oireachtas special committee, the programme for Government, and the climate action legislation last year. We would not have that Act and the ambition in it if we did not have that citizens' assembly.

I agree with Deputy McAuliffe that our system of local government is broken. In many respects what happened in Salthill in Galway last week is a testament to that. It could be argued we need citizens' assemblies at a very local level to solve some of these problems. I welcome the citizens' assembly on a directly elected mayor for Dublin. I am disappointed Limerick's venture into that area will not inform that citizens' assembly because we have not advanced the relevant legislation through the House.

I join my colleague Deputy Ó Cathasaigh in paying tribute to Deputy Gino Kenny, across the House, who has done extraordinary work in the area of drug policy. He is certainly a champion in that area. I hope we will be able to bring forward a citizens' assembly on drug use as soon as possible.

I welcome the Government motion to convene these two citizens' assemblies to examine biodiversity loss and the direct election of a Dublin mayor. Citizens' assemblies enrich our democracy. They are a powerful mechanism of direct deliberation and influence by the public on matters of social and economic importance. Our party believes it is essential the issues of the day be given space to be scrutinised and democratically debated. Holding assemblies on both climate change and its impact and on measures to strengthen local democratic accountability is the right way forward. Biodiversity is essential to our entire ecosystem. Every day we lose part of our biodiversity is a day we are closer to an unsustainable future for our children and the planet. Nature does not belong to us; we belong to nature.

Constitutional reform and the future progression of the island of Ireland in the 21st century form another area where a citizens' assembly could play a vital role, and I encourage the Government to strongly consider that. Brexit has made this a seminal goal of our generation. The debate on Irish reunification grows daily. People from all walks of life are talking about ideas for a new health service, a new public service, a new tax system and the rightful place of unionists within the new Ireland. These are among the many important issues in which a citizens' assembly could play its part.

I look forward to the work of the two entities being established today on the very important issues of biodiversity loss and the direct election of a Dublin mayor. I urge the Government to consider the timely and important matter of a citizens' assembly on the future of our island and its reunification. We must remember democracy is best served when it is closest to the people.

I thank the Minister of State for his opening statement, which was very useful. I listened to it in great detail. I am delighted to be in the Chamber to make a contribution to this very important debate on establishing two citizens' assemblies, one on a directly elected mayor for Dublin and the other on the biodiversity crisis. As a Deputy representing rural and regional Ireland, I will focus my comments on the citizens' assembly on biodiversity. That is the most appropriate focus for me to take. I welcome the fact there was a commitment on citizens' assemblies in the programme for Government, I welcome the recent Cabinet decision in that regard, and I welcome the fact that both assemblies will be commenced in April. I note no specific date is mentioned in the opening statement for the launch of these assemblies. If the Minister of State does not have the specific date, he might mention whether it will be in early April or late April. That would be useful. I also welcome the fact there will be a very quick but responsible turnaround time. Within the next nine months - before Christmas, it is to be hoped, if not earlier - we will have a very detailed and thoughtful report.

I have just three points to make. First, a citizens' assembly is a very good forum through which to explore these issues. They have an excellent track record in recent years of tackling sensitive and complex societal issues. It is appropriate that they focus on these matters. From the point of view of biodiversity in particular, a citizens' assembly would have a lot to offer. I would be keen to see whether it would recommend a referendum to enshrine environmental rights in the Constitution. That will probably be a big takeaway point from that perspective.

The second point I wish to make is one that has not really been made in the Chamber yet. It is the most important point I wish to get across. I very much welcome the change in the eligibility criteria as outlined in the Minister of State's opening statement. Confining citizens' assemblies and their membership to those on the electoral register was very limited. I agree the new Irish and the non-Irish should be included, but there is a cohort of people who are utterly deserving of inclusion on the citizens' assembly on biodiversity, namely, those under the age of 18, who cannot vote. This is a wonderful opportunity to include them and to widen the franchise in that regard. Transition year students are a classic example of a cohort of people who could be recruited and make an active contribution to a citizens' assembly. They could make a meaningful and valid contribution to progress in society. I urge the Minister of State and his officials to consider that.

The third point I wish to raise relates to biodiversity itself. As a person who grew up on a farm, every time I return home to the family farm, it is obvious there is a wildlife crisis and a biodiversity crisis. There are not as many bees, butterflies, birds, rabbits or foxes. It is absolutely apparent that, even in my one generation, a transformation is taking place and our habitats and our ecosystems are under severe and sustained pressure. A citizens' assembly is a wonderful opportunity to inform the Government response to this in order that we not only promote and protect our ecosystems but look to restore them and to reverse biodiversity loss.

I very much welcome the establishment and the creation of these two citizens' assemblies. I urge the Minister of State and his officials to look favourably on the inclusion of people below the age of 18. Let us remember this is the cohort of people who awakened us adults, as we call ourselves, to the climate crisis. This is the group of people who are most passionate about it and the group of people who will suffer most the consequences or otherwise of our actions. They should certainly be included. I wish the members of the citizens' assemblies well in their hugely challenging but noble undertaking.

I welcome the first move today in establishing the two citizens' assemblies, one on the loss of biodiversity and the other on a directly elected mayor for Dublin. I will focus first, if I may, on the citizens' assembly on the loss of biodiversity. Citizens' assemblies have served the country very well. That does not mean we cannot develop hybrid versions of them or continue to look at them to see how they can continue to serve us well. They were certainly ahead of politicians, or maybe in a better place to take more courageous and clear-cut decisions than were politicians, and read the mood of the nation when it came to three previous citizens' assemblies on climate action, marriage equality and termination of pregnancy. That then enabled politicians to consider they broadly had a cross-section of the will of the people and to legislate accordingly.

As for biodiversity, I wish to talk about my constituency and how far ahead of politicians the public are already on actions on the ground regarding biodiversity. When I think of my constituency, I think of groups such as Ballyboden Tidy Towns and Dodder Action, individuals such as John Kiberd, in Tallaght, the Stepping Stone Forests initiative and Tallaght Community Council. I was fortunate to join the two latter groups recently when they were planting new forests in Killinarden Community School and in Old Bawn Community School. The number of students who were involved in that and the volunteers from groups such as Dodder Action were truly inspiring to witness. I refer to the enthusiasm, the money invested by sponsors, the general goodwill, the openness to the issue of biodiversity and the understanding that it is a crucial and critical theme in our modern days. I think of South Dublin County Council, my local authority, and the work it is doing on wildflower planting in parks such as Dodder Valley Park and Tymon Park and on pollinating roundabouts. I think of a very recent initiative on behalf of residents in Woodstown Village, in Knocklyon. There is a pollinator trail in Woodstown Village, adjacent to the M50 motorway. As recently as last week, an orchard was planted along the line between that estate and the M50.

It was truly inspiring.

To Deputy Berry's point, the number of under-18s involved in this initiative was inspiring and outstanding. I share his view that stakeholder contribution and input to this citizen's assembly needs to be broadened. The under-18s who have, as previous speakers said, most to fear from climate catastrophe and are most alert and aware of what can be done can truly inspire us. We saw that when we had a parliament of young people in the previous Dáil and the challenges they put up to Government. I agree their voice must be heard. I also think of all the schools and residents associations doing Trojan work, as is evidenced in my constituency. They lead the way in this.

Rather than the citizens' assembly, as has been the case before, informing the public of what it needs to do, the citizens' assembly on biodiversity needs to have open ears and invite as broad a range of people as possible to hear what they are doing on the ground, reinforce that work and ensure that is part of any recommendations that emerge.

One of Sadiq Khan's first moves as Mayor of London was to designate that, by a particular year, he wanted London to be a national park city. That is an incredible concept. I mentioned it when I was an Opposition Front Bench spokesperson for Dublin. Can the Minister of State imagine if we in Dublin began to reimagine our city as a park, how differently we would treat it and how much more respectful we would be of it? We could conceptualise our city space as park space to be treasured, cultivated, nurtured, respected and protected, but a park in which people live. Rather than an industrial or residential complex, all of these would be situated within the concept of a park.

The Minister of State will be well aware of my views on the directly elected mayor going back over a number of years. I am intrigued as to what the citizens' assembly comes up with. There is a need for Dublin to establish its place among the cities of the world with one voice and with one go-to person to serve as champion and point of reference for all things Dublin for people overseas or nationally. The downside, given our electoral system, is that if we pursue that course, an indirect consequence may be to imbue that politician with powers substantially above what we want him or her to have. That person would become a powerful voice in political Ireland, probably the second or third most powerful voice, given the mandate he or she would receive from a Dublin electorate. That has to be tempered. My view is that, on local election day, as citizens go to elect the councillors in each county and ward in Dublin, they should also elect one person per ward they want to sit on a Dublin regional assembly. That would give a 30- or 40-member regional assembly, to which the directly elected mayor would be answerable, and counterbalance any fears people may have about a directly elected mayor having unfettered power. It would also ensure the voices from the four Dublin local authorities and each ward in each of those authorities would be represented accurately.

This would cost money but Dublin needs someone to speak on particular topics with one voice, including such issues as drugs, policing and transport. That person would seek a mandate, go before the public on that mandate and, four or five years later, go again before the public and seek its response as to whether the mandate has been fulfilled. As a member of a local drugs task force, I would like to see one voice championing the needs of disadvantaged communities in our city and county and pulling together all the myriad and scores of threads in relation to the provision of public transport in the city into one body to make decisions. In the area of policing, people are crying out and a directly elected mayor would have a powerful mandate in speaking on matters of policing, security and safety of people in our capital city and county.

I thank the Minister of State. The number of issues coming up that would be of focused interest to the assemblies include biodiversity, local government, the directly elected mayor for Dublin, local government structures for Dublin, drug use, which is an important issue, and the future of education. When we talk about assemblies, we have to be fair, frank, honest and open. How can the Dáil and the public be certain that the citizens' assemblies will operate within the scope of their respective mandates?

The final report of the Citizen's Assembly on gender equality, chaired by Catherine Day, states that the assembly deliberately went beyond the mandate provided to it by the Oireachtas. That assembly decided that restricting its work under the terms of reference to women, men, boys and girls, as decided by the Oireachtas resolution, was unacceptable and could be seen as excluding non-binary and transgender people. According to the final report, the assembly took a broader view and determined that gender should refer to any and all options in terms of gender identity. The Oireachtas resolution which created the assembly on gender equality states that the assembly was mandated to "challenge the remaining barriers and social norms and attitudes that facilitate gender discrimination towards girls and boys, women and men". Undoubtedly, some will take that expansion of the assembly's remit as a positive step, while others will take it as an attempt to minimise sex-based rights. The important point, regardless of one's view on the matter, is that beyond doubt that assembly deliberately and materially decided to move outside the clear and unambiguous limits placed on it by the Oireachtas. That move was a violation of the terms of its work and, crucially, an undermining of the democratic Chambers of the Oireachtas.

I am opposed to citizens' assemblies. We are elected into this Chamber by the people. I understand these assemblies will be appointed, as they have been before, by Government or parties in government. What credentials do they have to have? We know from the last assembly that at least nine of them did not meet the criteria to be on that so-called assembly. The local authorities and county councils do so much work on the ground listening to people's problems and complaints. Is this to sideline all those people who are elected? What will the people appointed to these assemblies cost? Who are they responsible to? They can go outside the Government remit or whatever criteria they were supposed to follow. Is this another ploy to satisfy former Government supporters and henchmen or women? Is it about giving them jobs and recognition and letting them come up with schemes and reports that may hurt farmers and working-class people?

Our farmers are the custodians of the land. They have done right by their land all the time and always. I know them. They want to hand it down and on in a better state to the youngsters coming after them and whom we hope will be farming in future. Our farmers are the custodians of the land, in case anyone else tries to claim rights over it.

We cannot hurt working-class people. These assemblies can and they are not responsible. Those people will never be looking for a vote. For Deputies here to say, like they did a short while ago, that we would not do the right thing because we were elected and we would be looking for votes is unfair and wrong.

I support the citizens' assembly on biodiversity loss. It is a serious issue and I fully support that forum taking place. Biodiversity loss is not just an issue in Ireland but internationally. Here at home, we are losing a great deal of biodiversity that will have an onward impact on insects and animals alike. Therefore, I have no problem with that assembly.

I do, however, have a problem with the Dublin citizens' assembly. I support the amendment that will be moved by Senator Lynn Ruane in the Seanad tomorrow. She is raising the issue that, technically, citizens' assemblies are made up of citizens. Including 12 councillors in that forum dilutes the citizens' assembly aspect. Those councillors should not be on it. Citizens should make up the total membership, and I agree those aged under 18 should be included. Additionally, it is astounding to put the Dublin citizens' assembly, including a focus on a directly elected mayor, ahead of the proposed citizens' assembly to deal with the drugs issue. I ask the Government to reconsider this or else have three citizens' assemblies being held concurrently.

The Taoiseach himself said on 9 February:

As regards drugs policy, it is our view that we will have a citizens' assembly in the latter part of this year. However, that does not mean there is nothing happening with drugs policy. [I agree with him on that; there is a lot happening]. It is an urgent and serious issue that has to be dealt with in the context of a community-up approach, with multidisciplinary supports going into the communities most affected, along with a health-based approach. In any event, we are very seized of the serious situation in many communities as a result of drug abuse.

The Taoiseach was also a guest speaker at the Fergus McCabe Memorial Conference in November last year. He re-emphasised the points concerning the social and economic issues in our communities and the need for effective local drug and alcohol task forces. He made particular reference to the Drogheda review of March 2021 and the report of the Tallaght local drug and alcohol task force, which highlighted the issue of the links between disadvantaged communities and problem drug and alcohol use.

The Government has now kicked this citizens' assembly on drug use into next year. This is a clear failure on the part of the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, and the Department to negotiate a citizens' assembly on a vital part of his brief. Pushing the citizens' assembly on drug use into 2023 will mean the assembly will sit for at least nine months and therefore will be looking at going into 2024. The Government would then have to consider the issues raised in the recommendations of that citizens' assembly and try to implement them before the Government falls in 2025. The Green Party's insistence that a citizens' assembly on drug use be part of the programme for Government now looks like it may go into the programme for Government for 2025 and onwards after the next election.

This is a disappointing situation for the people in our communities. People are dying and the local drug and alcohol task forces need support. This has to become a public health issue. There is also the question of people in communities getting attacked and the criminality impacts of drug use in our communities. This is just too big an issue to let it rest until next year or be kicked back that long.

Senator Ruane's proposed amendment will request the creation of a citizens' assembly on drug use this year as a matter of urgency. She is also raising the point that the Dublin citizens' assembly should consist of 80 members who are citizens, including an independent chairperson. If necessary, the 12 councillors should go to the assembly and express their opinions to the citizens regarding a directly elected mayor or else have their own councillors' assembly. Having the councillors constitute part of this Dublin citizens' assembly, however, contradicts the concept. If the Green Party is serious about wanting to have its base in the community at local level, it should be insisting this citizens' assembly on drug use be held this year and that there should be three citizens' assemblies in all.

I thank Deputies for their insightful contributions, many of which were supportive. I listened carefully to the Members' views and I will convey their valuable suggestions to the Government and the assembly secretariat as appropriate.

Clearly, there is considerable support and enthusiasm from the majority in this House for the work of citizens' assemblies. Many Members wanted more of them and for them to happen concurrently. It is important for the citizens' assemblies that the Members of this House explicitly recognise and value the contribution the assemblies can make to the deliberations of the Legislature. That is the value of having a debate such as today's and the importance of the House supporting this motion. As I said in my opening remarks, citizens' assemblies serve to enhance the quality of Ireland's democratic system. Members of the public have an important contribution to make in addressing complex societal challenges and, as a nation, we have all benefited significantly from the work of the three previous assemblies.

As the legislative branch of Government, the Oireachtas has the responsibility to contextualise, design and enact legislation to meet the evolving needs of a modern state. To do that to the best of our ability, the elected representatives of the people have always sought the views of and listened to their constituents and the public at large. The high-quality deliberative process that takes place within a citizens' assembly should be considered as complementary to the practice that has always been at the heart of the democratic system in this country.

That said, there are clearly some differences of opinion across the floor of the House about the best sequence of citizens' assemblies. The Government has decided to establish and run the assemblies on the directly elected mayor of Dublin and on biodiversity loss, to be followed as quickly as possible by assemblies on drug use and the future of education. The sequencing of these assemblies does not indicate or imply a hierarchy of importance. It is, however, a recognition that all of the four assemblies committed to in the programme for Government need adequate time, space and resources to allow them to operate as the high-quality deliberative forums they are intended to be. It simply would not be feasible to run more than two assemblies in parallel. Indeed, much remains to be seen about the benefits of and downsides to running two assemblies consecutively. It is the first time this has been attempted.

As I said, it is the Government's intention that the first two assemblies be established at the earliest opportunity. The terms of reference for the assemblies indicate they should have their inaugural meetings in April - Deputy Berry raised this point - and then report to the House by the end of the year at the latest, and earlier if possible. That is an ambitious timescale but one that allows for the establishment of assemblies on drug use and the future of education at the earliest opportunity.

To respond to some of the points made, Deputy Conway-Walsh raised the issue of gender equality. We have established a cross-party Oireachtas Joint Committee on Gender Equality to mould the recommendations from within this House and to take many of the recommendations transferred to it from that citizens' assembly.

Regarding the issue of agriculture, it is important to say there will be an opportunity for all sectors to engage. In particular, farming and rural communities have much to offer in this debate. That is why the scientific process of selecting members will involve a broad spectrum from across society in respect of age, other demographic measures and professions.

The Taoiseach has been clear about the importance, for example, of the shared island unit, the work of putting flesh on the bones of the Good Friday Agreement and underpinning the work of the agreement in building cross-Border collaboration and co-operation.

We are seeing excellent work from that and from the funding provided by the Department of the Taoiseach. The Government is committed to building a shared island.

I take the sincerity of Members on Opposition and Government benches who raised issues around the importance of the debate on drugs. I was a drugs spokesperson a number of years ago. The programme for Government sets out, across the three parties of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, a health-led approach on the issue of drugs. That is why one aspect of that is a citizens' assembly on drugs, which we reinforce our commitment to today. This is in addition to addressing issues of harm reduction, which is an important operational matter in the HSE; strengthening rehabilitation; having a ground-up and community-based approach, which the Taoiseach referred to regarding drug and alcohol task forces; and addressing other issues such as drug-debt intimidation and a spectrum of issues that we know have impacted on all communities across the country. The work on that is continuing within the Government, as well as addressing the broader issue of drug policy. The pillar within the programme for Government is clear on strengthening that health-led approach, trying to help families and communities affected by the scourge of addiction and supporting people across our communities by having a community led-approach.

Deputy Mitchell suggested that the nomination process for councillors should be on the basis of party strengths. It is hoped that parties will also give consideration to gender balance when putting forward their nominees. It is important that we uphold that principle, which is reflected in this House where we have measures on gender quotas and so on.

Deputy Gould raised the issue of the citizens' assembly on drugs, which I have addressed. The Government understands and agrees with the importance of this issue. There will not be an undue delay in getting this forum under way and we will strengthen the approach to drugs policy more generally.

Deputy Bacik also raised the issue of citizens' assemblies on drugs and on the future of education. They will be established at the earliest opportunity on the conclusion of these citizens' assemblies. The role of councillors will be considered in depth by members, including international comparators.

Deputy McAuliffe spoke about local government reform and the need to have a root-and-branch review of local government structures within government.

Deputy Bruton gave his perspective on the need to look at local government in the round and the lessons we can take from the architecture of national government. I am sure that will also be taken into consideration.

Deputy O'Rourke spoke about the importance of biodiversity, which will be reflected in the citizens' assembly on that matter.

Deputy Ó Murchú also raised the issue of the citizens' assembly on drugs commencing as soon as possible. As I said, this will be the first time that two citizens' assemblies will run concurrently and it will be established as quickly as possible.

Deputy Cian O'Callaghan referred to the process of selection for councillors. They will be selected across all four Dublin councils and will include smaller groups and Independents, which is important.

Many other Members raised the issue of the citizens' assembly on drugs, which I have addressed. They raised some sincere points on the need to have a health-led approach to drugs. That view is shared by many Members throughout the House.

Deputy Berry spoke about ensuring the voices of young people will be heard. While people under 18 years of age cannot be members of an assembly, every opportunity will be given to allow them to speak directly to the membership.

Deputy Lahart referred to his experience as a Dublin spokesperson. He is well researched in this area and he is looking forward to the debate and the citizens' assembly.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae raised the issue of the scope of the mandate. The members of the citizens' assembly will have the opportunity to design their own work programme within the terms of reference from the Oireachtas resolution of this House. The Government and the Oireachtas will be entitled to determine their view on any recommendations beyond the assembly's remit. As I said, that is the case with other citizens' assemblies.

Deputy Danny Healy-Rae raised the issue of cost. That is yet to be fully determined based on the number of meetings, etc. Members will be randomly selected and there will be a spread of voices from across society, including those from rural Ireland.

It is the Government's view that the terms of reference, as set out in the motion before the House, are sufficiently well defined in that the assemblies have been provided with a clear remit and direction of travel. As the chairperson of the most recent assembly noted, it is not always helpful for the Oireachtas to be overly prescriptive in the terms of reference. It is better that the chairs and members of the assemblies have sufficient opportunity to determine the content and prioritise the sequence of issues they will consider in detail.

I fully expect that the chairs and the secretariat to the assemblies will have due regard to today's debate and the contributions made by the Deputies. In due course, the assemblies will report directly to the House and to the Seanad, at which point the appropriate committees will have the opportunity to consider, debate and respond to the recommendations of the assemblies.

I am sure the Members present will join with me in wishing the members of the two assemblies every success with the work ahead. I very much look forward to seeing the fruits of their deliberations. Beir bua agus beannacht sa todhchaí, a chairde.

Before we put the question to the House, I understand there is a typographical error in the motion. Paragraph 2, bullet point 3, which reads "that functions could be transferred" should read "what functions could be transferred". The Minister of State may ask for leave of the House to make that change.

I move that leave be granted.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Question put and agreed to.
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