Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Feb 2022

Vol. 283 No. 2

Citizens' Assemblies: Motion

I move:

That Seanad 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 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 proposals in that regard. The Assembly shall consider, inter alia:

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

- what 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); and

- the perspectives of the general public, representative groups, advocacy groups, the sitting councillors of the 4 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 of the Oireachtas 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.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to outline to the members of Seanad Éireann the objective of and basis for the motion before the House today to establish two new citizens' assemblies. Over the past decade, citizens' assemblies have become established as an important part of the Irish democratic process, with previous forums making recommendations on a variety of matters including marriage equality, the eighth amendment, 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 we live our lives.

Ireland is widely regarded as a world leader in deliberative democracy. Over the past ten years we have welcomed dozens of international visitors to our shores keen to learn from our experience of citizens' assemblies. I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the many hundreds of ordinary citizens, the academic community and Members of the Oireachtas who played a central role in the previous assemblies for their hard work and their commitment to public service.

The Programme for Government: Our Shared Future contains a commitment to progress the establishment of a number of new citizens' assemblies, including on biodiversity loss, drugs use, the future of education and the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited to Dublin. The most recent citizens' assembly, which was 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 that 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. It is the Government's intention that these two assemblies will be quickly followed by two further assemblies on drugs use and the future of education.

Today, on behalf of the Government, I am pleased to bring forward to Seanad Éireann this 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 important and 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 the latest or earlier if possible. This will be the first time that two assemblies will run concurrently. Naturally, it will give rise to some logistical challenges, but it can also be seen as an opportunity to design an operational model that can allow for a greater number of citizens' assemblies to run in the future.

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. It is the Government's intention to establish these next two assemblies at the earliest opportunity.

The sequencing of the citizens' assemblies does not indicate or imply a hierarchy of importance. It is, however, a clear recognition that each of the four assemblies committed to in the programme for Government need adequate time, space and resources to operate as the high-quality deliberative forums that they are intended to be. To rush the work of the assemblies or to run too many concurrently would only serve to diminish the quality of the deliberative process, to undervalue the commitment of the members who give of their time to serve on the assemblies and, ultimately, to determine the credibility of the assemblies.

The motion before the Seanad calls for both assemblies to conclude their work and submit their reports no later than nine months from their date of establishment and earlier if possible. If, as envisaged, they get under way in April, they should ideally have reported to the Oireachtas by December at the latest and earlier if possible. Should one or both of the assemblies submit their reports earlier than December, there is every prospect of getting at least one of the next citizens' assemblies up and running later this year. Any decision on the establishment of the citizens' assemblies on drug use and on the future of education will, of course, will be subject to a Government decision and resolutions of Dáil and Seanad Éireann at that time.

The motion before the House proposes that the assemblies should, like those that preceded them, report to the Houses of the Oireachtas, which, on receipt of the final reports of the assemblies, will refer those to relevant Oireachtas committees 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 a proposed course of action.

Eligibility for membership of the assemblies is wider than before. For the first time, it will go beyond the electoral register to include all residents in the State. This new initiative opens up the membership to non-Irish 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 that 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 invited to partake 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 a number of 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 this change in approach will greatly 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, again 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 decision to move ahead with two new assemblies and, for the first time, 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 societal challenges not only makes a unique and valuable contribution to the deliberative processes for the 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 do Seanad Éireann.

It falls to me to welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for bringing forward this motion, which is in line with a commitment made in the programme for Government. It follows from a successful approach to dealing with matters that have been sensitive and often difficult to grapple with at a political level for a variety of reasons.

I always had concerns about citizens' assemblies until such time as they became really important and were fruitful. I had always questioned, perhaps as an observer before I was directly involved in politics, why on a daily basis politicians elected by the public are unable to deal with what are often complex matters. Of course it has nothing to do with the intellectual capacity of the individuals and more often it is a question of finding a difficulty in grappling with matters that appear from time to time to run contrary to where public opinion is perceived to be at.

The citizens' assemblies, and particularly the recent example relating to the repeal of the eighth amendment, have demonstrated that the public had moved very considerably ahead of the political mindset. We had various different debates in this House and the one across the corridor in believing a particular position and, ultimately, this was not in tune with the public. Whatever my misgivings may have been about running parallel systems of debate on important matters, these assemblies have found a role and way of assisting the political process in addressing complex matters. This leads to an informed and insightful debate with real people who are not looking over their shoulder with an electoral mandate. They are getting an opportunity to debate in a dispassionate way with the benefit of all the information in a relatively benign environment. The outcomes we have seen so far have been positive and I have no doubt the same result will come from these proposed assemblies.

One might initially see issues relating to biodiversity as a no-brainer but of course that is not the case. No different from any required changes, there must be an element of give and take, and we see that particularly with matters around climate change generally. The question has been sold heretofore on the basis of what ultimately we cannot do and how this affects people's lives and economic activity as we know it. What is often lost in the rush to judgment by some who would seek to gain political advantage from being seen to be against something is what are the real benefits and potential opportunities.

We do not have to delve too deeply into the climate change agenda to realise the importance of addressing it now for future generations. There are also opportunities to benefit all of us in the short to medium term with the likes of green technology and jobs in the green sector. We can look to areas with which I am very familiar, which have poor land and peat, and what is happening in the midlands. What is being done around a just transition is not perfect at all but there are people who worked on the bogs and looked like they were losing their jobs harvesting peat from Bord na Móna sites who are now back reconstituting what had been degraded or lost. They are rewetting those bogs. There are opportunities in addressing questions of climate change and biodiversity. There are costs for production but there are also benefits on the other side. I do not want to be prescriptive at this stage about what might be discussed or what might be the outcome but while there are potential losses there are also potential gains. I hope with access to expert evidence, advice and information throughout the process, those wise people will reach an appropriate deliberation and outcome that will come back here ultimately for appropriate legislative proposals.

On the education side, it is long overdue that we look at and manage education. The religious orders have done an immense amount of good work in establishing our education system and without them we would not be where we are today. We must move on, nonetheless, from the system we have had and we must have a much more secular approach in the delivery of education. That will find favour with some of the religious orders. I hope we can see some significant plans and procedures coming back before us in the not too distant future. I look forward to having an input into the debate at that stage. I wish the Minister of State and all those involved well. I look forward to the deliberations and outcomes that will be presented to us in due course.

I move amendment No. 1:

In paragraph (2), to delete "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 substitute the following:

- "a Citizens' Assembly, to be known as the Dublin Citizens’ Assembly, with a total of 92 members, including an independent Chairperson, 67 randomly-selected members of the public living in Dublin City and County, and 24 Councillors selected from across the four local authorities using the d’Hondt system, while being mindful of the need for gender balance, to consider the type of local government structures best suited for Dublin,".

I second the amendment.

I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House for this debate on citizens' assemblies. I have no difficulty with the Government's proposals in general and I support them. I will focus on my amendment because I want to seek more representation from the local representatives of the Minister of State's party, Fine Gael, Independents and those from other parties and none.

The Government is proposing that 12 councillors will be part of the assembly, with the selection process as random or not prescribed. We can take a little journey around the area. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Fingal County Council and South Dublin County Council have 40 members. Dublin City Council has 63 members.

In total, between the four local authorities in Dublin, there are 183 elected members of local government. That is important. The Minister of State is proposing that there be 80 members on the assembly. I am simply suggesting we increase that number by 12, to bring it to 92 members. The logic of that is that he is proposing 12 councillors but I am proposing 24 because I want there to be representation. Some groups are smaller and are minorities, while others are bigger groups. I happen to be close to all groupings and there are a substantial number of Independents among them. No one should be put at a disadvantage, as may be the case for members of smaller parties.

I am disappointed the motion does not refer to the d'Hondt system or gender balance. On one hand we have people talking about being part of women's groups or advocating for them in terms of gender balance, and rightly so, yet somehow this legislation is silent on gender balance and proportionality. That is an issue of concern to me and many of the Dublin city and county councillors.

I have engaged comprehensively with many groups across Dublin city and county. After all, the motion has been amended. It is the second motion in respect of this matter. It was changed on the understanding that there were some concerns. It was right to revisit it. I am simply suggesting that the number be increased by 12. My amendment proposes, "a Citizens’ Assembly, to be known as the Dublin Citizens’ Assembly, with a total of 92 members, including an independent Chairperson, 67 randomly-selected members of the public living in Dublin City and County". It changes only a few words of the motion. I am suggesting there be 24 councillors rather than 12, as proposed by the Minister of State. The amendment continues that those councillors should be, "selected from across the four local authorities using the d’Hondt system, while being mindful of the need for gender balance, to consider the type of local government structures best suited for Dublin". I have no problem with any of this. My simple concern is that we need to widen it out. My amendment would give each of the four local authorities six members.

The Minister of State has not set out how the councillors will be selected. Will there be more or fewer from each of Dublin City Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, South Dublin County Council and Fingal County Council? That is not prescribed in the motion. I know the Minister of State wants to keep it flexible and his hand slightly removed from it. I respect and understand what he is attempting to do. I want to be supportive and constructive but I also want to bring the voice of city and county councillors from across that spectrum of four councils. I do so by suggesting a simple measure that would increase the representation from 12 to 24 councillors to give a greater opportunity for participation and ensure we have that gender balance opportunity. I do not think the increase I have proposed is unreasonable. The total number of members would still be below 100. It would be manageable. We have had very successful citizens' assemblies with approximately 100 members. I do not think it is too much to ask for if we are going to be consistent about how we advocate for gender balance, the d'Hondt system and fair play for all the political groups. All these city and county councillors have a mandate having been democratically elected. They represent communities. They have gone to the electorate and got votes. I refer to the diversity, talent and skills of city and county councillors across the spectrum in Dublin. They will bring meaningful engagement to the process. They will not dominate the process but, rather, will engage with it.

I make my case to the Senators who are present to please join with me in supporting this reasonable ask. I am seeking to increase the representation of city and county councillors from 12 to 24 and to allow for a d'Hondt system to be in place, which represents fairness in the system, and to address the issue of gender balance on which we have all spoken. I do not think anyone should be against the amendment. I cannot understand why anyone would be against it, other than possibly due to the party whip system. The Minister of State has to do what he has to do. I know where he is coming from. I just want to make that case. I hope I can get support for the amendment.

I am sharing time with Senator Ward.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Minister of State is welcome. I am very supportive of deliberative democracy. As the Minister of State rightly said, it is not an experiment any more. It has become a vital cog in the wheel of democracy. He is right that we will be running assemblies concurrently. That is new, as is going beyond the electoral register. I hope both those innovations add value to the process.

Obviously, I support a citizens' assembly on biodiversity loss and one on the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited to Dublin. I am also very supportive of citizens' assemblies on drugs and the reform of education. I hope those will be prioritised. All Members know reform of the leaving certificate is needed. People are calling for that to happen now. There has been a similar urgency for a very long time in respect of drugs. Other Senators will speak on that more passionately than I will.

I am here because of the 183 local councillors. The Minister of State was a councillor on the same council as me. I refer to the pattern in terms of the loss of powers of local councillors in the past decade. We are discussing bringing in a directly elected mayor. That is a positive but obviously there are chief executives and the aim is to balance where we are now. We also need to address the balance for the local councillors in Dublin who are not part of municipal districts and have to go to the county council as area committees. I was one of those councillors. We need good people on councils and we need them to feel they are adding value to their areas.

The Minister of State is from Castleknock, an area I represented. There are community groups in areas such as Castleknock that want to be able to have more influence on their development plans. There are urban planning frameworks and there are hopes in the context of development plans for more influence through things such as the same kind of set-up there is with the Town Centre First approach, but that needs to be reflected in the council structures. We need councillors to have more powers. We need local communities to be able to rely on their councillors to deliver what they want. We have seen how communities have flourished during Covid. People want to be able to continue to build identities, identify with their areas and have that influence. I am here for those 183 councillors. I want to ensure we are getting the balance right not just for the chief executive and the mayor, but also for them.

I thank Senator Currie for sharing her time. I welcome the motion. I believe in the concept of a directly elected mayor. That idea of subsidiarity and democratic accountability at local level is tremendously important. In that regard, there is a big gap in the motion. Nothing in the motion will actually empower councillors to any greater extent than they are currently empowered. I have for a long time and on many occasions in this House complained about the fact that in the past two decades or more, successive Governments have stripped powers away from local councillors and vested those powers in unelected and largely unaccountable officials at local level - chief executives, directors of services and other council officials. To a large extent, councillors do not have the power to effect change on issues of planning or anything else one likes at local level, right down to road works and potholes. That relegates councillors to the position of being local ambassadors to the chief executive of a local authority. Having a directly elected mayor will not change that but one thing it will do is introduce democratic accountability at local level in terms of executive decisions that are made at that level. It is entirely appropriate that we would have a person with that role and mandate from the people who are looked after by that local authority. A citizens' assembly can do that.

The Government has tried to do this before. I was part of the colloquium that existed before 2019 among the four Dublin local authorities that ultimately rejected the notion, albeit arguably on a technicality. In tandem with the directly elected mayor, there is a need for reform to ensure this does not create another layer.

One of the things I find greatly regrettable and, to my mind, inexplicable is that where this has already happened with a directly elected mayor in Limerick, the chief executive of the new council, even though he should be wielding less power and have less responsibility, is now paid more than he was beforehand. The citizens in Limerick, the taxpayers, ratepayers and local property tax payers, are now paying a chief executive of the council, who has less responsibility and presumably less power, and they are paying for a new directly elected mayor and all of the other supports that are going to have to go with that person. To my mind, this makes no sense at all. There is great merit in the suggestion of a directly elected mayor but it must be done in a way that delivers for the people. It must be done in a way that works with the councillors who are there already.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an tAire Stáit. I thank the Minister of State very much on behalf of all of the people in Clare, for all of the sports capital grants that the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, and the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, gave out. Everybody was very happy because after two years of no fundraising it brought a lot of joy to people all around the county. Go raibh míle maith agaoibh.

It is important that we have these citizens' assemblies. The climate action plan would not be here now only that we had a good Citizens' Assembly on climate. We know that assemblies are a good thing and we know that they work. It is important to get them off the ground as soon as possible. It is very important that we have an assembly on biodiversity. I have spoken at length about biodiversity loss. It is very important we get this kicked off as soon as possible.

A directly elected mayor would be good for democracy of course but I will not dwell on that too much. We have a promise of two more assemblies, one on drugs and one on constitutional reform and the right to housing. These need to be pinned down to a serious timeline.

The Green Party fully understands and appreciates the necessity to hold a citizens' assembly on drug use as soon as possible. This is why we secured a commitment to hold it. We got that in the programme for Government. We fully expect, as the Taoiseach confirmed last week in the Dáil, that the citizens' assembly on drug use will be in place and ready to commence its work later this year, and not in 2023 as some have said. The reason I am here is to get clarity on that. Even though I am from a small rural village, whether one is from Dublin's inner city or from the back of west Clare, drugs are ruining our country. We have not dealt with this properly and we will not until the citizens' assembly is set up. It would be good to get a commitment for the timeline on that citizens' assembly sooner, not next year but this year. We have a lot of staff, a lot of civil servants, a lot of Senators and a lot of Deputies. Surely to God we can get that started.

We have a lot of capable and well-paid civil servants so we should be able to get that citizens' assembly off the ground this year and not next year. It has to be this year because people are dying every day and there is a lot of abuse. There are many ripple effects of drug use and drug dependency that we have never really dealt with as a country. Sometimes I am seeing things on our streets that I have not seen since the early 1980s. It is at every level of society. It is not just in socially disadvantaged areas. It is in every corner of society, and we know that. I just wanted to speak from the heart to say that it is really good we have the biodiversity assembly and one for the directly elected mayor, but I do not believe that we as people can afford to wait on the drugs issues if our true job as politicians is to represent the people, or to delay to any length despite what has been said. The Taoiseach has committed to it happening this year. This is what I want to reinforce today. Go raibh maith agat.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Chambers, go dtí an díospóireacht ar an rún seo faoi na tionóil shaoránach atá leagtha os ár gcomhair inniu. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers. I welcome the motion, as other colleagues have done.

I will quickly refer to the issue of biodiversity. It is crucial, timely and important that this citizens' assembly would be held, and that the hard work, graft and effort of that citizens' assembly is not left on the shelf. I could go into a whole load of statistics, and to be fair to Senator Garvey she has raised the biodiversity crisis often in the House, but one statistic jumped out at me which is that currently 1 million animal and plant species are facing extinction. That is the largest number in our history. As part of that, I hope an assembly would look at all of the mechanical things we can do to try to offset, challenge, tackle and reverse the biodiversity crisis. I also hope that it looks at the economic models that drive the biodiversity crisis and that drive plant, species and animal extinction around the world. That is the notion of infinite profit or infinite growth on finite resources. I wish the citizens' assembly well in its work, given that the stakes are so high regarding that issue.

On the directly elected mayors and local government, I equally welcome that engagement and wish it well. As someone with experience of local government in the North, it always strikes me that there is a stark difference in the experience of colleagues in the Twenty-six Counties, and just how much power and authority rests with the unelected members of local government. It strikes me as quite stark. Anything that looks to address that imbalance and which gives more responsibility and authority to those elected by the citizens, is a welcome step forward and one that we should encourage.

I support the amendment, as other colleagues have done, from Senator Ruane on a citizens' assembly on drugs. Much like the biodiversity crisis, it is a live and imminent issue out there in our society. Because of that, it warrants an urgent response from the Government for the establishment of such a citizens' assembly. I look forward to hearing Senator Ruane's contribution in that regard.

I will conclude by raising an issue that has also been raised by colleagues in the Dáil. In May 2021, the Seanad passed a Fianna Fáil motion on the Good Friday Agreement. The motion was amended to call on the Government to establish a citizens' assembly to responsibly plan and prepare for constitutional change. The Minister of State will be aware, and colleagues across the House are aware, that there is growing momentum around that call in Irish society. I note last night's announcement from Ireland's Future that it plans to hold a conference on this very theme in the 3 Arena, or the Point Depot as many of us still know it, in October of this year. That is the will of this House. It is the express will of the Seanad that the citizens' assembly on constitutional change would be established. We call on the Government to do that unanimously, as it passed through the House without opposition in May 2021.

There are lots of issues upon which we could call for citizens' assemblies, but there are big touchstone issues of our time and big moments. Other colleagues have referred to the last number of citizens' assemblies that looked at the issue of the repeal of the eighth amendment and marriage equality. They were big touchstone moments where people sensed a change and cried out for that change. People wanted to be involved in the citizens' assemblies in helping to drive and shape that change. Whether it is the issue of constitutional change and a new and reconciled Ireland, whether it is tackling the challenges and threats posed to communities by drugs, and assisting and supporting those communities and individuals who are suffering as a result of drugs, or whether it is the biodiversity crisis, these are themes that warrant the fullest attention and the fullest and broadest engagement, contribution and dialogue from these institutions from local government and most importantly, given what we are talking about today, the ordinary citizens out there. I welcome the motion before us and I support it.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Like Senator Currie, I very much support the idea of deliberative democracy. We have inherited an old parliamentary system from the British, which we have not changed in any way shape or form. Having had the marriage equality and repeal of the eighth amendment assemblies, we know there is a value in citizens' assemblies taking those very complex issues and deliberating on them with heart and rigour, and coming up with solutions that had otherwise befuddled political communities. That was particularly the case with the repeal the eighth amendment, which took 30 years and a lot of stop-starts to do it.

I remember being involved in the 2001 referendum campaign where we were essentially looking to roll back on the X case. Bearing in mind my experience of how difficult that campaign was, I am still sometimes shocked that 15 years later we had got to the situation where we were repealing the eighth amendment. It was in no small measure due to the compassion of the members of the Citizens' Assembly. If we had left it up to these Houses, we would still be fighting to organise it.

A directly elected mayor in Dublin is very badly needed. We are even behind our neighbours whose parliamentary system we inherited in terms of having a single political responsible accountable person in local government. We have handed it over to the chief executives - not even a city manager - and directors of services, who are not accountable and are not chiming with the needs of what people on the ground want. We have seen the example of the amount of student accommodation being built in Dublin city and a chief executive who did not understand frustrations over the developments that are happening.

I wish to speak to Senator Ruane's amendment. I heard Government Members speaking last night and today about how important it is. I am concerned that the Minister of State who is meant to be driving this agenda is not convinced of the need for decriminalisation and is certainly not driving it in government by setting up a citizens' assembly on the issue. I grew up in Dolphin's Barn in inner city Dublin in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. From a very young age I had internalised the heroin crisis and the AIDS epidemic that happened in those areas at the time. This can be a very difficult issue for me emotionally.

The case for decriminalisation and a health-based approach to drugs and substance misusers has been more than won owing to the advocacy of people like Deputy Ó Ríordáin and Senator Ruane who have argued that fully. It is a complex issue, but it is not actually that complex. Every day people are dying on our streets from drug overdoses. I understand the concerns of people in some communities who do not necessarily want injection centres close to them. It is based on fear. People need to sit down and talk to people with addictions to realise the positive impact on their communities of taking drugs out of the criminal underworld and taking a health response to the issue.

I am disappointed that when we are setting up two citizens' assemblies this is not one of the top priorities. This is the only citizen's assembly where we are talking about people's lives; it is a life-and-death matter that potentially transforms communities. If somebody falls into the drug use at a very young age it is very difficult for them to pull their life out of it. Those mistakes that people make at a very young age can follow them around for the rest of their lives - an issue Senator Ruane has worked on in terms of spent convictions.

Based on the example of Portugal, we know we can take a different approach. This is a medical issue and not a justice or policing issue, which has failed badly. I hope the Minister of State comes back before the summer with a proposal for a citizens' assembly, which is supported by many Government Deputies. The people who have been working on this have lost patience. I would have expected this to be at the top of the agenda.

I thank the Minister of State for being here this afternoon. I am finding it very difficult to contribute on this issue lately - more and more so trying to hold my emotion together and trying to hold the reality of lives together. I just need a minute.

We can come back to the Senator later. I call Senator Kyne, after which we will return to Senator Ruane.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, to the Seanad Chamber to discuss this motion. I confess that I have never been a particular fan of citizens' conventions, notwithstanding the comments of others earlier. Some have served a purpose. As a practising politician I get the abuse and hardship that we all get on doorsteps and at meetings. Some people seem to be of the view that the Houses of the Oireachtas or local authorities could not possibly make decisions but a citizens' assembly could, which I do not accept. They may have proven themselves to a degree. For example, on the issue of repealing the eighth amendment, a considerable amount of work was done in advance by Dr. James Reilly with the introduction of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill in the lead-up to the repeal. That was a very important debate at the time and I was in the midst of that at a difficult time on a very important issue.

That said, citizens' assemblies are part of the process and are supported by the Government. These two issues are important, as are others. I do not in any way dispute the importance of issues such as drugs and others. I know there is a commitment to have citizens' assemblies for those at a future date.

One of the issues I have is with having 100 people. Certain counties may end up without any representation. Excluding the citizens' assembly on a Dublin mayor which is a Dublin-based issue, I have advocated to my party leader that for national issues like biodiversity, drugs etc., there should be simultaneous regional conventions in the four provinces or wherever. With the new technology, they can take place simultaneously and would allow for a higher level of participation. We certainly would not have the issue of certain counties without any voice.

Regarding the substantive issue of the two motions, I agree on the importance of the convention on biodiversity loss. Regional balance would be important there for the obvious reasons that country people would have a strong voice in this as well. It is not just an issue of somebody coming out to the countryside and admiring the countryside. It is important that people living in rural areas are aware of the issues as well and have an input into it.

Protecting biodiversity is very important. We have had a sea change in this country compared with what would have happened years ago where State agencies such as Teagasc and its precursor gave grants for the removal of biodiversity through the removal of landscape features, scrub and woodland for drainage of lands. Since the inception of the rural environmental protection scheme in the mid-1990s, the focus has been on the protection of biodiversity. That said, there are still examples of a loss of habitat and biodiversity. I hope the changes that have been agreed in the new round of the Common Agricultural Policy post-2023 will have greater focus on environmental issues and will allow for the protection of more of these areas. In order for an area to become eligible to be declared as a forage area, a farmer had to remove the habitat that was there. It is nonsense in this day and age that in order to ensure that farmers were getting money under disadvantaged area scheme or under the basic payment scheme in respect of forage areas the only solution was actually to remove in some cases smaller or in other cases larger areas of habitat.

There have been issues and there has been a sea change in policy. That is to be welcomed but it is important to have a wide geographic spread of participants. If there is not, it could be perceived as biasing the results, which would be unfortunate in the extreme.

Regarding the Dublin citizens' assembly, I sympathise with the views of Senator Boyhan. While I have not gone out to seek councillors' views, I have not been contacted by Dublin councillors about this. It is a question of how many is enough. Is 24, as suggested, enough? Is 20 enough, or is the figure stipulated here sufficient? Again, why is the membership of the Dublin citizens' assembly to be 80 and not 100, which it would be in other cases? Those are technical issues, but, if the number were increased, it would allow for better participation of councillors.

Council amalgamation was pursued in Waterford and Limerick. Limerick accepted the plebiscite on a directly elected mayor. The legislation has been somewhat stalled. Perhaps the appetite is not as strong. Even though the result of the plebiscite was positive in support of the proposal, it may be somewhat stalled. We do not have an example within the country of a directly elected mayor working. Therefore, it is important that we look to our closest neighbour, including some of the larger mayorships in Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere. That would be a positive.

These are positives in respect of the two issues. Down the line, in the very near future, the drugs issue and others should and must be assessed.

I call Senator Ruane, whom I know has an important contribution to make.

Just in case I cannot keep myself together later, I support the two amendments in the first instance. This Chamber has proven more harmful to my mental health than my drug use ever did. I apologise for finding this very hard. There are many policies we can all speak about. The likes of the drugs policy has many threads. Decriminalisation is one of them. Blood-borne viruses, family support, suicide, dual diagnosis, imprisonment, and women and family are others. Every single Department is affected by drug use. Every single organisation that works in communities is affected by drug use. It is everybody's issue, not just an issue for the services that provide addiction support. It seeps into everything, whether you are working for Barnardos, with women, with children in care or for the prison system. It features everywhere. However, when I speak about it or try to platform it, it does not feel like it is felt everywhere. Intellectually, people know about it, but in their communities they can do a 360° turn without seeing the pain, harm, misery and deaths.

I find it very hard to speak here about policy without allowing it to seep into me that there is not a hierarchy. There has to be a hierarchy because a decision gets made. People sit around a table and decide what goes first. It is not picked out of a hat. A conversation happens at the table where what goes first is decided. All I hear and all people like me and my community hear is that we were not top of the agenda. We feel people do not really and truly understand what is going on in communities. There are families in my community who have to teach their three-, four- or five-year-old children what the recovery position is. There are women in their 70s who have to check in the morning whether their sons' chests are rising or falling to make sure their breathing has not slowed down from benzo use in the middle of the night.

I get that drug use is in all postcode areas and counties, but, while some in those areas can point to the people who are impacted, I can point to those who are not. That is the difference. The difference for me and my community is that being affected by drugs or drug use is not the exception. It is not the exception to know one, two, three or four people who have died of an overdose; it is the rule, the norm. That is the difference between the experience of others and the one I am trying to put forward in the hope people will not dismiss it by saying we all understand addiction. I am not saying people do not, but it is very different in how it is presented in particular communities.

When I worked in the drugs sector, I remember standing every year in Dolphin House while the names of every single person who died were called out. There were two or three women who had lost four, five or six children. They had outlived all their children, who had all died of drug use. Therefore, for every person someone in this Chamber knows has had an addiction, there are women who have lost every single one of their children to it, or to prison or crime. There are women who have found their children hanging from the rafters because they could not get access to services for nasal cocaine use. They could not get therapeutic services. The numbers of deaths in their communities are considerable.

This is also very much a women's issue. In the past few weeks, all I have been hearing about were platforms for women and women's issues, but 33% of the 400 people who access crack cocaine services in Tallaght are women. The majority of them are mothers. Where are their advocates? Who is fighting for their platform? For us, the citizens' assembly was the space to make that happen. Although people will say it will happen in autumn or 2023, we are measuring the delay in lives. We are measuring it in the loss of our families and communities. Every single second or day that the discussion is not happening presents a problem.

Services can barely keep their doors open. We keep talking about the cost of living. Nobody discusses the fact that services must keep their radiators off to keep service provision going for people who need intervention owing to drugs. The services cannot pay the ESB bill and at the same time provide intervention. There are services that are doing nothing but administration in an effort to find funding to carry out the interventions. The Simon Communities report stated 70% of its detox service users are homeless because of drug addiction. For me, every single Department and issue is somewhat affected by the drugs issue, but I do not see where it is being prioritised.

The hardest month I have had in this Chamber since I was elected was the one since the health committee considered the drugs strategy. This is because of the little bit of hope that I had that my time here could be worth something. So many times, I have regretted becoming educated. Imagine that. I do not want to have to be conscious or aware that this is how badly we are being failed. Imagine me wanting to go back to the moment when I decided not to be a problematic drug user. When I was, at least I really did not understand or see the facts that we are being failed at a systematic level and that neither my friends nor I were failures for being drug users. Rather, we were being failed at a much higher level through systematic violence against our communities. The moment you have that awareness and consciousness, you cannot go back and learn it may have been in your power to do something differently. That is where I am at today after six years in this Chamber. When the citizens' assembly is not being called and we have a drugs Minister who does not understand his brief, I just feel no one cares and no one is listening. Now I am at the stage where I am saying, "Please help us; someone, actually help us." I have moved past being a politician to the point of despair. Therefore, I ask Members to vote for the amendment. We should not be considering a lord mayor in this round. We just should not be doing it. We could have a councillors' assembly or another approach. There is urgency and we need to save lives, but we are deciding there is a hierarchy and not to address this issue now. That is a decision of the Government.

Generally speaking, I am supportive of citizens' assemblies if they are to perform a function that would otherwise not be performed. On the local government structures for Dublin, for instance, it is a failure of imagination and determination at a political level rather than some issue on which the great majority of Dubliners, however congregated, are to come up with some magnificent formula that is going to change things dramatically.

The issues are obvious. It is not an easy problem. The issues arising from dividing power between an executive and elected councillors are fairly straightforward and do not need or merit a citizens’ assembly. I support Senator Boyhan’s amendment simply to say that there are people who have experience of this and to marginalise them in the process of looking at political reform seems to me to be foolish.

I want to address Senator Ruane’s amendment. The point she makes is 100% correct. There are comfortable parts of this city and our society where even if drugs are everywhere, they are manageable. Some families and communities have enough resources to deal with the more extreme forms of drug abuse and the consequences. As the Senator said, there are entire communities where drug abuse is either the norm or its consequences are a daily reality in terms of the quality of life and of family life, longevity, health and all of the rest. I work in another part of the city and I cross the Liffey every day. One thing that struck me in recent weeks is that on O'Donovan Rossa Bridge, there is open drug dealing going on every day just 100 yd from the Bridewell Garda station. What really horrifies me are the young men with missing legs in wheelchairs because they are the visible signs of drug abuse. As Senator Ruane has pointed out, it is the people who were buried or cremated that I do not think about or see at all. We do not see those who died by suicide and all of the others we are failing. When I was Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I was deeply concerned about whether we could deal with the drug problem through criminal justice alone and I do not think we can. In one sense, the critique that Senator Ruane offers is correct. There is almost a partnership between the criminal justice system and gangland to have a whole way of life, economy and set of activities and functions in terms of policing and breaking the law and the like which have become endemic and ineradicable at the moment.

Therefore, just like the eighth amendment, which was a serious and far-reaching issue where a deep soul-searching had to be engaged in to see where people actually stood when push came to shove, we now have to do the same regarding drugs. The issues are not free from controversy. I remember being lobbied extensively by mothers of drug addicts who told me not to legalise drugs and that if we made cannabis freely available there would be consequences because they claimed heroin would follow in its tracks. That was at a time before crack cocaine was available. We also have the American example of the opioid crisis to contend with. It is not an easy subject but the real issue as I see it is that we that simply cannot go on as we are. We cannot have the appalling consequences that Senator Ruane pointed out, such as people losing limbs or their lives or doing appalling things to one another to sustain their drug habit. We cannot have people committing suicide, families being wrecked and kids being thrown out of their homes and becoming homeless. All of these things must be addressed by our society.

It was mentioned earlier that maybe Portugal has the answer and a health-based approach to drug abuse and the consumption of drugs is the only way forward. If that is the case, let us grasp that and at least discuss it. If we are going to have a succession of citizens’ assemblies from now on, this is one issue where politicians are, as I was, afraid to say that they are going to legalise cannabis. I was asked how we can keep cannabis away from teenagers, 12-year-olds or whoever else? That was an issue on which I was lobbied. This is an occasion where we need to establish a citizens’ assembly and have a good public discussion of the subject. It cannot be kicked down the road.

In terms of priorities, people are dying and committing suicide, families are being broken up, people are going out on the streets, robbing and doing appalling things to each other in houses and all the rest arising out of the drug problem. I agree with Senator Ruane. This should be brought forward.

I want to acknowledge Senator Ruane’s commitment to and passion around this issue. I am listening and I hear her.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. The Minister of State is very welcome. We know that two of the key commitments in the programme for Government are to establish citizens’ assemblies on biodiversity and on the local government structures best suited to Dublin.

Notwithstanding the very powerful argument made by Senator Ruane, a debate involving all of the stakeholders around local government structures for Dublin is very important and certainly would have an impact right around the country. I welcome the proposal to run the separate assemblies concurrently, with inaugural meetings planned for April 2022. We know this is the first time that two assemblies will run concurrently and it presents an opportunity to design an operational model that can allow for a greater number of citizens’ assemblies to be run. We have certainly seen their value over the past few years. While at the start I was perhaps not convinced about their value, I absolutely believe in their value now.

We all know that biodiversity is in crisis globally. One million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, the highest number in our history. The destruction of habitats, pollution, climate change, the illegal wildlife trade and overfishing are all issues that we as a country need to tackle head on. There is no doubt but that we need to see a real and transformative change from a biodiversity perspective.

As for the citizens' assembly on the local government structures best suited to Dublin, a directly elected mayor for Dublin could drive forward transport, planning, investment plans and municipal services and could deal with issues such as drugs in a clear and coherent manner. I acknowledge that there will be 80 members, 67 of whom will be randomly selected from the public living in Dublin city and county and the remaining 12 being councillors. Senator Boyhan raised this matter on the Order of Business. I agree with him that we need to ensure that councillors’ voices are to the fore in this process in order to ensure that the voices of the communities they represent are to the fore. There are excellent councillors all around Dublin from all parties and none, elected by their peers. Their input is valuable and vital to the process and could help to develop a model that could be replicated across the country.

However, as my party spokesperson on education, and someone who is passionate about the transformative power of education, I cannot let the opportunity pass without raising the citizens’ assembly on the future of education. The 2020 programme for Government contained a commitment to hold a citizens’ assembly on the future of education and to ensure that the voices of young people and those being educated are central, which is important.

The idea for the assembly arose at a 2018 symposium in the Burren College of Art, which had creativity in education as its theme. In my view, it is most certainly needed. I have had a number of conversations with Catherine Byrne and Shane Bergin, who are the instigators of this proposal. They are committed to the philosophy and the transformative power of education, and the need to educate our young people to be full citizens of our country and participate in all of its different aspects.

There are three crucial issues to discuss for the assembly on education to be a success. We need to begin to think of how we can utilise the citizens' assembly process to transform our education systems, namely, the timing of this assembly, its focus and how it will operate. The Taoiseach suggested in recent comments that the assembly on education will run in parallel with one on drugs. Certain comments suggest that these will commence once the two assemblies that we are talking about today are complete. I and many in the education sector are mindful of the work that will need to be done to establish any assembly's terms of reference. It will be helpful to learn more about exactly when the assembly on education will take place and how its terms of reference will be established. I will push for this within my own party.

At a time when the Department of Education is due to report on reform of the senior cycle and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, is preparing a new curriculum for primary education, a citizens' assembly will provide for a space to ask the bigger questions about what education needs to be and what its goal should be. The past two years have been a huge challenge for everybody in education, whether they are young people, their teachers, their parents or the wider school communities. As we emerge from this challenging space, I believe a citizens' assembly offers us the ideal space to discuss the purposes and process for education in this country. It is time for an honest conversation about education and its value.

How will this operate in practice? The programme for Government states that the voices of young people and those being educated are central but we need to start thinking now of how we can facilitate that and bring the voices of young people into this debate. While I welcome this discussion of citizens' assemblies on biodiversity and on reform of local government structures for Dublin, I believe we need to widen our discussions and allow background work to start on other issues such as education, drugs and a number of others. If we can run two assemblies concurrently, then we can start concurrent preparatory works on citizens' assemblies on education and on drugs.

I welcome the Minister of State to discuss this all-important issue. I acknowledge the passion. I was listening to Senator Ruane earlier and I know how committed she is to her community and to bringing forward ideas to frame things in a positive way and to work with people who need help. I commend her. We have proposals before us for citizens' assemblies on biodiversity and a directly elected mayor and unified authority for Dublin. I was involved in the process when we passed the plebiscite in Limerick. It was put to Limerick, Cork and Waterford but we were the only place to pass it. I believe it is a positive way to go. Citizens, 12 elected members and people with expertise will be involved. It is important. When we ran an information campaign in Limerick about the plebiscite, people had clear questions that they wanted answered. It was as important for people in the city to have a voice as it was for people in the county. Dublin needs a unified voice. There are different issues in the four local electoral areas and they need to be addressed, which is why it is important to have a good balance from each area. The legislation for Limerick is at an advanced stage. I am undertaking a thesis about a directly elected mayor for Limerick. I am eager to see what will happen with the proposals for Dublin. It is important that the views of the people who will be faced with this and with the decision in the future on the plebiscite are considered.

I have looked at what happened in New Zealand and the UK. There are interesting examples across the world. When Leicester in England first introduced this, within the first two or three years, people said it should be got rid of and that it was not working. In a recent survey, the public stated that they think it is great and that it has put Leicester on a better footing than other similarly-sized cities. There are many advantages in this regard.

I commend the Minister of State on bringing forward the citizens' assembly for a directly elected mayor and for the reform of local government. It is the largest reform of local government that Limerick has seen in more than 100 years. We are all concerned about biodiversity and the planet and the many changes coming down the line. I believe it is the right way to go and I support the Minister of State in his proposals.

I speak in support of literally every word that my colleague, Senator Ruane, said. There is not one word that I would disagree with. I hope that the Government is listening. What Senator Ruane has talked about is important. She has talked about people's lives, communities and realities. She is in here day after day, talking to us about this issue. I agree with her frustration about whether people are listening and whether we are committing to effecting real change for these communities, which have been devastated by systemic let-downs.

When we talk about drugs, we tend to talk about users. We talk about communities, concerns of locals and the police. We use really dehumanising terms such as "users". We talk about "they", as if they are other, far-away people who are not worthy of our time or consideration because somehow they are other and away from us, and we do not have to face that every day. Some of us in the Chamber face that every day and it is wrong for us not to listen to that person. It is not fair to put it all on that person. It is not fair for Senator Ruane to have to constantly stand up to bare her soul and her community just to try to get us to listen, to then have her, six years later, asking for someone to please do something. That is not good enough. It is not acceptable. It is not what this House is set up for or what we, as politicians, or the Government should be doing.

When we use terms such as "they" and "users, we are talking about people, mothers, fathers, someone's son, someone's best friend from school, communities, someone's neighbour and people who have been in and out of these Houses. All people deserve care, compassion and dignity. Everyone, including people who are addicted and affected by drugs, deserve timely consideration in the political system. Most especially deserving of consideration is a group of people who are dying at a rate of one a day due to overdoses. This does not include the other deaths and systemic failures that come from drug use in those communities. That is just one figure that has been talked about a lot over the past couple of weeks. Many more lives have been devastated and affected by this than just the ones we are talking about every single day.

We need to tease out, discuss and re-evaluate our society's approach to our placing of care and compassion. We need to place care, compassion and dignity at the centre, which we cannot do if we do not first stop to consider their needs and lives. I believe a citizens' assembly is essential to this. Sometimes, citizens' assemblies can be really good. They help us to tease out complex questions which we are not sure of the answer to or about which way the State wishes to go. That includes issues such as abortion. It turned out that the citizens' assembly to address it was bang on the money. Some of what is discussed at citizens' assemblies may require a referendum to constitute but they certainly will involve resetting or having a significant paradigm shift in society.

On this particular issue of drugs, this could involve legalising or decriminalising which, incidentally, are two entirely different things. I implore legislators to learn the difference between decriminalisation and legalisation because it is very disheartening to hear in meetings with a Minister or of the Joint Committee on Health these words being bandied about without any real understanding or acknowledgement of how those words or legal frameworks will affect the communities we are discussing. If nothing else, I ask Members to go away and learn about those issues.

The citizens' assembly may discuss cannabis, harder drugs, the who, what, where, when and why, gangs and social, recreational and addictive drug use. All of these issues are complex and difficult and the members of the citizens' assembly will need time to get informed, face their fears, get facts and be educated. I keep using the word "time" because, as Senator Ruane said, we do not have time. The citizens' assembly is being given considerable time but every time more time is given and it is pushed out and further away, lives are lost.

Senator Ruane has raised a crucial issue. The Labour Party and many other Senators on this side of the House support her amendment. This is about lives and the value we put on them. The Government today, from what I am hearing, is saying those lives do not matter and there are other issues of greater importance. I was at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Health to which Senator Ruane referred. I felt like I was back in the time of Ronald Reagan when people spoke about drug users as "they" who were this or that. "They" are real people who are dying. They are doing these things because of a systemic failure at a political level.

Will the citizens' assembly solve everything? No, it will not. However, that the Government cannot see the wood for the trees on this particular issue and will not prioritise the issue tells me all I need to know about what it is going to do for drug users. Quite frankly, it seems like it will do absolutely nothing and that is a crying shame.

If Government Senators cannot vote for Senator Ruane's amendment, I ask that they at least not vote against it. I do not know what way their Whip system is working on the motion. They should not express support in their words and then do the opposite in their actions. I reiterate that this is about lives. The Government has the power to say today, or over the next couple of days, whether these lives matter. We, on this side of the House, are saying they do matter and it would do no harm for Government Senators to put their money where their mouth is and, through their votes and actions, also say they matter.

Is Senator Flynn sharing time?

Yes, I am sharing my time with Senator Higgins.

I do not have a speech prepared for this discussion. Listening to Senator Ruane, I thought of some of the friends I went to school with who have died from taking drugs and drug addiction. I also think of some young Traveller men. The high rate of suicide within the Traveller community is also caused by drug addiction. We have a homelessness crisis and Travellers are overrepresented in the prison system, as are working class people. We have to ask why? What is addiction? Addiction can also be taking tablets. We often forget about that part of addiction. I know all about addiction and I do not want to talk about it too passionately or too much because it will open up a can of worms for me as a Traveller woman from a big family. I have addiction inside and outside of my family and I choose not to speak about it.

I am not as strong as Senator Ruane. She has been here for six years, standing by herself and looking for equality for people who take drugs. Hate the addiction, not the person. That is the message I have heard today. Senator Ruane is a stronger woman than I am. I have seen people die. All I have to do is to walk into Dublin city centre. I used to walk from the Spire back to Labre Park in Ballyfermot and the halting site where I was born and reared and where I have seen drug addiction and where, even today, I see young men with mental health problems. There is little or no support for them and I will speak about that tomorrow in the House. I would not walk the street now. I would not say I am afraid but I am very hurt to see fine, good-looking, well-reared women and young fellas on the streets crying out for support and help and it is not there. We need the citizens' assembly set up as soon as possible. There is no reason we cannot do it. We could do it if the political will was there, and it is up to the Government to do it. As many Senators pointed out, this is our responsibility.

I have two little girls, a five-month-old and a two-year-old, and even though we are in Donegal, that does not mean they are never going to see drugs. I want a better future for them and, by God, I am sure the Taoiseach wants a better future for his grandchildren in years down the line. Every one of us wants that.

I ran for election to the Seanad two years ago. I travelled around the country visiting county councillors. Someone once told me not to cut off my nose to spite my face. Today, I am going to cut off my nose to spite my face - whatever will be, will be. If I want to come back to this House going forward, I will need the support of county councillors. I do not believe we should have a citizens' assembly for county councillors. A citizens' assembly is about citizens, not local government, and we have to be very clear on that. We should value all our county councillors, not just the 180 councillors in Dublin but all councillors in the 32 counties of Ireland. We should get them all together to speak about the reform of local authorities and local government and allow them to have that well-deserved space of their own.

Our job in this House is to look after the people and work with the people. It is not about local government. I know damn well that the 76 county councillors who gave me their first preference vote, especially Independent councillors in Meath and Donegal, will say we should set up a citizens' assembly on drugs where we can deal with and listen to people who are taking drugs.

Citizens' assemblies are an incredibly powerful tool. They are less powerful than the tool of proportional representation, which is the greatest political innovation that Ireland can bring to the world. Confidence in citizens' assemblies depends on their being taken seriously. For example, it will be vital that we see in the next two years actual constitutional referendums coming out of the citizens' assembly on gender equality. These must be real constitutional referendum recommendations and votes, as suggested by the citizens.

I am concerned about the risk of citizens' assemblies on biodiversity and local government being used for evasion. Local government is being chipped away all of the time. We see, even in the planning area, how it is being chipped away. I would love to see every local councillor in Ireland being able to debate the future of local government and have their voices strengthened versus, for example, county and city managers. That is different from a citizens' assembly, rather than a diluting of it.

And the planning regulators.

On biodiversity, I understand some of the hesitation of Senator Kyne because four years ago, when he was a Minister of State, we were looking at legislation on biodiversity. Again, are we kicking this further down the road?

Citizens' assemblies are powerful not as a tool of delay, evasion or moving a topic out of the realm of power it is in but when we use them to confront and engage in the difficult and important topics that do not get talked about and that people find hard to talk about, even though they may be experiencing them. Everyone and some communities in particular have experiences, as we have heard. These are topics that need to be addressed and engaged with, where there are fears, prejudices and misinformation. These are where we can actually move from conversations of heat into conversations of light. That was what happened on the eighth amendment and issues such as marriage equality. The citizens' assemblies allowed us to create hope and shine light in areas that were difficult and hidden away. The Seanad has always led on human rights issues and in ensuring those difficult and very intimate experiences of the Irish public are supported and recognised by the State. We should lead on this. I urge everyone to support Senator Ruane's amendment. We should certainly have a third citizens' assembly. That message is clear.

I support everything Senator Boyhan said in respect of local authorities.

I was sitting in my office listening to Senator Ruane. Many people have spoken about her community today. Senator Ruane's community is my community. A person I loved dearly died because of addiction. It is the most horrible death. It is not something you will only find in the poorer areas of society. You will find it in every single corner of society and you will see it destroy families. I have seen it destroy some of the finest people I have known in my life. I know a very well-heeled and very well-off couple whose son was addicted. I spoke to them and they spoke about the pain of cutting him off and forcing him out because they could no longer have him in their home. We are talking about a citizens' assembly for a mayor of Dublin. Come on. For God's sake, let us get real and talk about the real issues that exist in this society. We cannot continue to close our eyes and pretend this is something that only happens over there with the poor people. It is not; it happens everywhere. In every single street, every single household either has somebody or knows somebody who is dogged by the curse of addiction. I do not care what kind of addiction it is. Every one of them is bad, from the clean addiction of gambling down to the worst drug addictions, alcoholism and all of that. There is nothing more painful. With regard to the particular addict I am talking about, I recall getting a call telling me to go to the hospital because this is it and that I should contact the rest of my family. I recall thinking that was it but, instead of passing on, the person in question recovered stronger. I remember having a discussion about invincibility. This person said that nothing would kill them, but it did.

I support Senator Ruane, as does anybody with a heart and a mind. It is not just her community, it is this goddamn country and every country. The scourge of addiction, drug abuse and alcohol abuse is everywhere. Maybe it is time for us to sit down as adults and discuss this. We should not just discuss the nice things, but also some of the bloody horrible things that go on in this world. Perhaps now is the time for it. I commend Senator Ruane. From the day she first came in here, she has fought for those who are unable to fight for themselves. I will support her today and anybody with a heart and a mind will also support her today or at least do her the courtesy of not voting against her amendment.

I thank the Members of this House for their passionate and constructive contributions to today's debate. I have listened very carefully to everyone's views and will convey many of the suggestions back to the Government and to the assembly secretariat, as appropriate. We have had some excellent contributions and I absolutely and fully take on board the constructive and sincere points people have made. I might address them later on in my closing statement.

Clearly, there is considerable support in Seanad Éireann for the work of citizens' assemblies more generally. It is important for citizens' assemblies that Seanad Éireann recognise and validate the contribution that the assemblies make to the deliberations of the Legislature. 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 this practice, which has always been at the heart of the democratic system in this country.

Understandably, there are differences of opinion about the best sequence of citizens' assemblies. The Government has taken a position on the matter and has decided to establish and run the assemblies on the directly-elected Dublin mayor and on biodiversity loss first, to be followed as quickly as possible by assemblies on drug use and the future of education. As I said in my opening statement, the sequencing of these assemblies does not indicate or imply a hierarchy of importance. It is a recognition that each of the four assemblies committed to in the programme for Government needs adequate time, space and resources to operate as the high-quality deliberative forums they are intended to be. As I also said in my opening remarks, it would not be feasible or sensible to attempt to run more than two assemblies in parallel. Indeed, much remains to be seen about the benefits and downsides of running two assemblies consecutively. This is the first time that it has been attempted.

To reiterate, it is the Government's clear intention that the first two assemblies be established at the earliest opportunity and that they also conclude their work at the earliest opportunity. The terms of reference for the assemblies indicate that they should have their inaugural meetings in early April and report to the Oireachtas 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 the assemblies on drug use and the future of education at the earliest opportunity, ideally later this year.

It is important also to say that the Government's proposal to include 12 elected councillors on the Dublin citizens' assembly has been carefully calibrated. On the one hand, it is important that the Dublin citizens' assembly have input from elected councillors. On the other hand, we must ensure the right balance between members of the public and elected councillors. Informed by past experience, including from the constitutional convention, the Government is satisfied that its proposals for the Dublin citizens' assembly strikes the right balance in this regard.

I will go through some of the remarks made by Senators. In Senator Dooley's response, he supported the establishment of the assemblies. I believe I have addressed the issue Senator Boyhan raised. He is seeking the inclusion of 24 councillors in the assembly. Other Members of this House want no councillors to be members. We have tried to strike the right balance there. There will be representation of parties and Independent councillors across the four councils as a whole. It is important that, in choosing the nominees, there is cognisance of gender balance. That is something we are trying to ensure not only among the councillor members but across the spectrum of the selection process I outlined in my opening statement.

Senator Currie referenced the importance of establishing a citizens' assembly on drugs. I take on board the collective view of this House, and that of the Dáil which was expressed to me when I was there yesterday. People want to see a citizens' assembly on drugs established quickly. We take that with sincerity. We will try to conclude the two we are establishing quickly with a view to setting the other one up in the later part of this year.

To speak to the programme for Government and Government policy on drug use, I was a drug spokesperson in 2016 and 2017 and I share many of the concerns and the views that people have outlined and I know the real experiences of addiction that people face every day. I know that many people have not been supported by the State. Services have not been provided and people have been left waiting. This has happened across communities. I was a member of the negotiating team in respect of the programme for Government and that programme is very clear that we want a health-led approach to the issue of drugs. Senator Hoey mentioned care, compassion and dignity in addressing the issue of drugs. I agree with what everyone said; this issue affects every postcode, every street and everyone across the political spectrum. It is something we have to confront and address. The citizens' assembly will play an important role in that regard but it is important that, in parallel and from the perspective of drugs policy and the services we provide, we strengthen the communities we represent and ensure they get the interventions and supports they need, whether with regard to harm reduction, rehabilitation, treatment or drug debt intimidation, an issue which is really impacting many people. I share and acknowledge many of the concerns that people have raised here today. As I have said, it is the intention to establish this assembly but also to progress other key areas of drug policy. We have a duty to follow through on that. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and other Ministers are focused on that.

Senator Garvey also mentioned the issue of establishing the citizens' assembly on drugs. I have addressed that.

Senator Ward spoke about the importance of accountability. We will be examining the structures of local government and the importance of ensuring accountability. I am sure it will form part of that conversation.

Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke about wanting to have other citizens' assemblies. Through the shared island unit, the Government is seeking to put the flesh on the bones of the Good Friday Agreement to underpin it with investment. Through the unit, we are seeing conversations across many policy areas. Tomorrow we have a shared island unit discussion on sport, for example. There have been discussions on various aspects such as climate action, sport and tourism. Building that all-island conversation across key areas is about building a shared island and establishing collaboration and a shared understanding of many issues that affect all aspects of this island.

Senator Moynihan and many other Senators are supporting Senator Ruane's amendment. I have tried to respond to it and set out my genuine regard for what people have said. There is absolute sincerity on this from the Government. We state in the programme for Government that we want to address the drugs issue using a health-led approach and not the historical approach to drug policy in Ireland. Senator Kyne addressed the issue of balanced representation through the selection process and the spectrum of 20,000 people being written to that will ensure broad representation. A lot of work has gone into that.

I acknowledge the contribution of Senator McDowell to the 2013 Constitutional Convention on the subject of constitutional economic, social and cultural rights. We have acknowledged his perspective on this and also on Senator Ruane's amendment. Senator O'Loughlin spoke to the importance of establishing the citizens' assembly on the future of education. Across the four citizens' assemblies the Government wants to establish, that is also an issue of priority. Senator Byrne spoke on her experience with the plebiscite in Limerick and her own work on her thesis. Drafting that legislation is a Government priority and I hope we will see elections following that.

Senator Hoey gave her perspective on the drugs policy issue and indicated her support for Senator Ruane. I appreciate what Senator Flynn shared in terms of the experience of many people across society. We all have to take those experiences and try to mould an appropriate policy response. The citizens' assembly on drugs, when it is established, will play a key role in resetting the national and also the policy conversation on drugs. There is good consensus across the political spectrum on the next steps and on having a health-led and much more humane approach to the issue of drugs across society. This issue impacts many people we know in our daily lives. We need to respond in a humane way.

Senator Higgins spoke on the use of citizens' assemblies to confront and engage with topics and I acknowledge the points she has made. Senator Craughwell spoke to many of the points others have raised as well. I certainly share the perspectives that many Senators brought to the House today, as would the Government. There is a matter of sequencing, and we are carrying that out. We want the citizens' assemblies established as quickly as possible. We want to ensure that for all the issues on the table, the four citizens' assemblies have a meaningful policy response from Government. That is something we are anxious to follow through on.

In conclusion, the citizens' assemblies will report directly to these Houses and the appropriate committees of the Oireachtas to consider debate and respond to the recommendations of the assemblies. I am sure that Members present will join me in wishing the members of the two assemblies every success with the work ahead. I look forward to seeing the fruits of their deliberations. Beir bua agus beannacht sa todhchaí, a chairde.

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 11; Níl, 29.

  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Flynn, Eileen.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Hoey, Annie.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • McDowell, Michael.
  • Moynihan, Rebecca.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Sherlock, Marie.
  • Wall, Mark.


  • Ahearn, Garret.
  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Byrne, Malcolm.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Carrigy, Micheál.
  • Cassells, Shane.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Currie, Emer.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Garvey, Róisín.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McGahon, John.
  • McGreehan, Erin.
  • Murphy, Eugene.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • O'Loughlin, Fiona.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Ward, Barry.
  • Warfield, Fintan.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Victor Boyhan and Michael McDowell; Níl, Senators Seán Kyne and Robbie Gallagher.
Amendment declared lost.

I move amendment No. 2:

In paragraph (2), to delete “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 substitute the following:

- “a Citizens’ Assembly, to be known as the Dublin Citizens’ Assembly, with a total of 80 members, including an independent Chairperson, and 79 randomly-selected members of the public living in Dublin City and County to consider the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited for Dublin,”

I second the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 3:

(a) In the lead-in to the motion, to delete “the calling of two Citizens’ Assemblies” and substitute “the calling of three Citizens’ Assemblies”.

(b) To insert a new paragraph after paragraph (2):

“(3) a Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs, 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 drug use and abuse, and to bring forward proposals in that regard; the Assembly shall consider, inter alia:

- the international, European, national, regional and local research on drug use and drug policy;

- the threats presented by the continued criminalisation of drug use, and the opportunities presented in responding to drug use as a public health issue;

- the many contributing factors to drug abuse and addiction, their impacts, and the opportunities presented in addressing the causes of drug abuse and addiction;

- the perspectives of the general public, representative groups, advocacy groups, experts and policy makers on drug use, and its impact on Ireland; - opportunities to promote greater public understanding of, and support for, a health led approach to drug abuse;

- the potential benefits of promoting a harm-reduction approach to drug policy, including through the provision of certain supports, including, inter alia, safe injection and safe-consumption facilities, and medication-assisted treatments for drug addiction;

- opportunities to improve the number and diversity of wraparound supports available to individuals who use drugs, including, inter alia, detox and aftercare facilities, and other supports which can assist individuals in their recovery from drug addiction; and

- opportunities to improve the State’s response to the challenge of drug use and abuse, how that response can best be resourced and implemented in a strategic and co-ordinated manner, and how progress can be measured.”

I second the amendment.

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 14; Níl, 29.

  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Flynn, Eileen.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Hoey, Annie.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • McDowell, Michael.
  • Moynihan, Rebecca.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Sherlock, Marie.
  • Wall, Mark.
  • Warfield, Fintan.


  • Ahearn, Garret.
  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Byrne, Malcolm.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Carrigy, Micheál.
  • Cassells, Shane.
  • Crowe, Ollie.
  • Currie, Emer.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Fitzpatrick, Mary.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Garvey, Róisín.
  • Hackett, Pippa.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McGahon, John.
  • McGreehan, Erin.
  • Murphy, Eugene.
  • O'Loughlin, Fiona.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Reilly, Pauline.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Ward, Barry.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Lynn Ruane and Eileen Flynn; Níl, Senators Seán Kyne and Robbie Gallagher.
Amendment declared lost.
Motion agreed to.
Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 6.41 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 6.48 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 6.41 p.m. and resumed at 6.48 p.m.