I am afraid I oppose the Bill as I oppose the concept of citizens' assemblies. At best, they represent an extraordinary abdication of responsibility by the Government, the Oireachtas, political parties and other political groups and, at worst, they have been a cynical device used by cultural elites to manipulate and condition public opinion without opening to full and searching public debate on the issues involved. The experience of the two assemblies set up to date shows that they were established, managed and orchestrated by elites from the world of politics and academia, directed at all times by the Government with certain results in mind. That issue is never discussed. Their conclusions were presented as what ordinary voters wanted on the issues they had examined when the participants had been led to the conclusions involved. They were billed as being merely a consultation process, but once their reports were published, their conclusions were not treated as a mere opinion poll or focus group findings, as they ought to have been, but they were held up as a conclusive instruction from the electorate as a whole to the Oireachtas, almost at the level of a result of a general election or a referendum. How on Earth can we seriously say detailed positions on important issues can be formulated by 100 unelected people meeting in a hotel for a couple of consecutive weekends? At best, this is an extramural, night course approach to public policy and in most western countries it would be laughed at, yet in Ireland it is how we intend to formulate national policy.
The Bill aims to allow members of citizen's assemblies to be selected from the electoral register, whereas up to now, they were recruited by polling companies. For the original Constitutional Convention, Behaviour & Attitudes was paid a handsome fee for the task, despite the fact that it completed it in shockingly poor fashion. While recruiting 66 citizens, it somehow managed to recruit two people who lived on the same street, while it later emerged that one person who was selected had suggested one of her neighbours should also be recruited and, incredibly, Behaviour & Attitudes had agreed to this. For the second Citizens' Assembly, it transpired that seven of the 100 members were acquaintances of one employee of RED C who had been hired to find the members. I know that Ireland is a small place, as we often note, but that beggars belief. That is how people were selected for membership of a body to discuss important national issues with major ramifications for all of us, yet we sit here discussing the establishment of another assembly with straight faces.
The reality is that even if assemblies are selected properly, they are an unacceptable recreation of what the parliament is supposed to be. They are designed, at best, to let elected representatives off the hook and, as I said, at worst, they are part of a process of cynical conditioning and manipulation of public opinion. It is troubling to hear about citizens' assemblies being proposed in the United Kingdom on the Brexit issue and in Northern Ireland on the issues of abortion and same sex marriage. There is a common thread to these suggestions, as those calling for a citizens' assembly are invariably in a democratic minority on a particular issue, at least when it comes to political representation in parliament. Supporters of abortion and same sex marriage in Northern Ireland know that neither measure would be passed by the democratic representatives of the people of the North at Stormont; therefore, a citizens' assembly is being called for in order to pressurise or override that will. Likewise, for good or ill, the citizens of the United Kingdom voted for Brexit and as the House of Commons demonstrates no willingness to override that decision, there are calls for a citizens' assembly from the Liberal Democrats and the Greens which both unashamedly want to stop Brexit. The point is not whether we agree or disagree with the objective but rather what is going on and what is important. The normal and proper democratic process is being usurped. These examples illustrate how citizens' assemblies are used to corral opinion towards a predetermined outcome. Would anyone in Britain or Northern Ireland be calling for citizens' assemblies if he or she thought for one second that they would recommend maintaining a ban on abortion and same sex marriage or a hard Brexit? We know that the answer is "No". Far from supplementing the work of national parliaments, citizens' assemblies are invariably used to supplant the views of parliament and attempt to railroad it into taking positions that it would not otherwise adopt and for which there is no democratic mandate.
The Government intends to establish a citizens' assembly to discuss gender equality and local government in the Dublin area. Is it really beyond the wit of the Oireachtas and its committees to formulate new policies on gender equality? With over 10,000 people homeless, spiralling public spending and a health service in crisis, is the system of local government in Dublin really a burning issue on the doorstep? We spend millions of euro in funding the Oireachtas and its committee system. We give millions of euro to political parties and other political groupings - a practice that may be questionable - part of which is specifically to assist in the generation of policy. In spite of this, policymaking on these two relatively uncontroversial issues is to be farmed out to a quango meeting in a hotel. The net result of the additional millions of euro of expenditure on this assembly will inevitably be proposals that are already in the public domain, namely, the abolition of Article 41.2 of the Constitution and some window-dressing on gender quotas in politics and on State boards. There will be no substantive examination of the issue of gender equality and its various aspects. In fairness to the members of the assembly, how could there be? It is simply not possible for 100 lay people meeting on consecutive weekends to formulate proper policy in these areas. Instead, the results will be written by the expert academics and lobbyists recruited to shepherd them through the process and then have them rubber-stamped by the assembly membership.
For these reasons, I am opposing this legislation. This is no way for national policy to be formulated. It should be done here in the Houses of the Oireachtas by the democratically elected representatives of the people and the committees. I have absolutely no expectation of persuading a majority to go with me on these points but I will certainly be voting against the Bill.