It is all about Seanad reform.
I am grateful to the Acting Chairman and the Members of Seanad Éireann for giving me the opportunity to speak to the resolution before us about the proposed Citizens' Assembly. The resolution deals with the setting up of a citizens’ assembly. We had this debate in the Dáil during the week also.
If the Members agree, I will refer to the events that took place last night. Given the proud record of France in the development of the rights of citizens, I express my revulsion at what happened in Nice last night and my sympathy and that of the Government which I am sure is shared by every Member to the government and people of that great country and the families of those killed and injured. What happened was atrocious and it is important that we mention it today.
A Programme for a Partnership Government promises that the Government will establish a citizens’ assembly with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues over an extended time period. As the programme states, these issues will not be limited to those directly pertaining to the Constitution and may include issues such as, for example, how we as a nation best respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population. That said, the Citizens’ Assembly will be asked to make recommendations to the Dáil on further constitutional changes, including on the eighth amendment, fixed term parliaments, the manner in which referenda are held - for example, should super referendum days, whereby a significant number of referendums take place on the same day, be held - and how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.
The Citizens' Assembly will be very similar to the Convention on the Constitution. Senators will be aware, especially those who may have served on it, that the convention was an important and imaginative exercise in the direct involvement of citizens which worked very well and with which everybody was happy. A number of significant measures have been accepted on foot of recommendations made by the convention, for example, that the Ceann Comhairle be elected by secret ballot, that provision be made for the proportionate allocation of committee chairs using the d’Hondt system and that an electoral commission be established. In addition, two referendums were held on foot of recommendations from the convention, most significantly, the referendum on marriage equality. As the House is aware, that referendum was passed by a decisive majority, the first occasion on which a proposal for constitutional change put forward by a constitutional convention resulted in actual constitutional change. It was also the first time that marriage equality was carried by popular vote anywhere in the world.
I have mentioned that the Citizens’ Assembly will be very similar to the Convention on the Constitution. Despite some scepticism about the convention at the beginning, the convention model worked very well. Like the convention, therefore, the Citizens’ Assembly will be independent of the Government. As with the convention, resolutions of both Houses of the Oireachtas will approve its establishment and it will report back directly to the Oireachtas.
The resolution before the House is closely modelled on the resolution approving establishment of the convention; it is a very similar process. The assembly will comprise 99 citizens and an independent chairperson. A polling company will be engaged to select 99 people entitled to vote in a referendum to be members of the assembly. They will be randomly selected and will be broadly representative of Irish society. In order for the electoral register to be used in the selection process, legislation is required. The Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2016 is before the House later today and I am grateful to the Members of the House for agreeing to discuss it on the same day as the resolution. A similar process was followed in the Dáil during the week.
One difference from the convention is that politicians will not be members of the assembly; this is so as to allow for as broad a representation as possible from the general public. The citizens will have ownership of the process and I appeal to anyone who is contacted to take the opportunity to participate in this initiative. Politicians will have the opportunity to give their views as each assembly report comes before the Oireachtas.
As in the case of the Convention on the Constitution, the chairperson will be independent and will be key to the success of the assembly. The Taoiseach has already promised to consult the Government and Opposition leaders on potential candidates for chairperson.
The topics the assembly will consider are set out in the resolution. The assembly will be asked to consider the eighth amendment of the Constitution; how we best respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population; fixed term parliaments; and the manner in which referenda are held. It will also consider how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change, a suggestion made by Senator Grace O’Sullivan’s colleagues, Deputies Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin, in the other House. The assembly will also be asked to consider such other matters as may be referred to it in due course.
One point I want to make clear is that the resolution specifically states the first item the assembly will consider is the eighth amendment of the Constitution. When completed, the assembly’s report on the eighth amendment will be sent to a committee of both Houses of the Oireachtas, which will in turn bring its conclusions to the Houses for debate. As that first part is finished, the report will come here and the assembly will then continue its work in the other areas. When the assembly’s report on the eighth amendment is completed, but not until then, the assembly will turn its attention to the other items listed in the resolution. I know there are concerns here, but I want to be clear that the process will be one at a time; the report will be sent here while the assembly continues its work in the other areas.
It is intended that the assembly will hold its first meeting in October. The resolution gives it a 12-month deadline from its establishment to complete work on all its items. As I mentioned, consideration of the remaining topics will start only when the assembly has completed its consideration of the eighth amendment.
The Government will provide a response in the Oireachtas to each recommendation of the assembly. We will arrange for a debate in the Oireachtas in each case and, in the event that the Government accepts a recommendation that the Constitution be amended, the Government’s public response will include a timeframe for the holding of any such referendum.
The Convention on the Constitution benefited from the use of experts; that was a key feature of the way it worked. Likewise, the assembly members will presumably wish to have expert advice available to them about the assembly’s work. For this purpose, an expert advisory group will be established to assist the work of the assembly. The composition of this group will be a matter for the chair. The expert group’s membership may change at different stages of the assembly process to reflect the particular issue under consideration.
In carrying out their work, the chairperson and members of the assembly will no doubt be anxious to hear a wide variety of viewpoints. Following the convention model, interest groups can be invited, at the discretion of the chairperson, to present their views when topics relevant to them are being discussed. The general public, with interest groups, will be able to make written submissions for consideration by the assembly. I commend the resolution to the House. I am sure it will join me in wishing the assembly well in its work in the months ahead.