Comment & Analysis

Unrepresentative advice from an unrepresentative body
Greg Daly considers the recommendations of Ireland’s latest ‘Citizens’ Assembly’

If there remained any plausible claim that Ireland’s so-called ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ is a genuinely representative body, rather than, as Senator Michael McDowell put it last year “a ridiculous sham … convened on the basis of a polling company’s random sample of persons”, it was demolished last weekend when the tiny gathering reached its conclusions.

Grappling with the question of whether Ireland should allow abortion for any reason, 64% of the citizens who voted agreed, most of these believing there should be limitations only as to gestational age. In practical terms, then, almost two thirds of those assembled voted in favour of an abortion regime akin to that which applies – in effect, if not in law – in Britain.

The assembly voted this way despite opinion polls consistently indicating that the Irish at large do not want a British-style abortion regime. Just two months ago, for instance, an Ipsos-MRBI poll for The Irish Times revealed that while a substantial majority of Irish voters have difficulties with Ireland’s constitutional protections for the unborn, only 28% of voters believe abortion should be legal for any reason whatsoever.

That same poll also found that just 28% of voters would like the regulation of abortion in Ireland to be the responsibility of the Oireachtas alone, without specific constitutional restraints; the assembly last weekend, however, saw 51 of its 92 members – 55% of those gathered – voting to propose that Bunreacht na hÉireann be amended to give the Oireachtas such power.

The differences are staggering, and carry on down through specific proposals considered by the opinion poll and by the assembly, with perhaps the most striking difference relating to external factors that are thought to be behind so many abortions.

Ipsos-MRBI found, for example, that 50% of those polled believed abortion should not be permitted in cases when a woman believes she would be unable to cope due to age or circumstances, with just 28% of people – that number again – believing this should be allowed.

When asked to consider a similar question, however – should abortion be lawful for “socio-economic reasons” – a massive 72% of the citizens at the assembly agreed, with only 28% demurring.

Polls such as the Ipsos-MRBI one use large sample sizes and are conducted in line with established statistical principles; they can, as a general rule, be trusted to give a pretty decent snapshot of the national mood within a reasonably narrow margin of error. The notion that 64% of people might now want abortion to be allowed for any reason whatsoever, or that 72% might say that abortions should be legal on grounds of difficult financial circumstances is risible.

It is, in short, profoundly difficult to believe that the assembly’s radically different conclusions are in any way reflective of popular opinion on abortion.

The question then becomes whether the Citizens’ Assembly has ever been anything other than a glorified quango, whether stark differences between its attitudes and those of the nation at large are mere coincidence, or whether the assembly’s findings reflect the views of a cadre of citizens that has been uniquely well-educated on the issues.

The latter possibility, at any rate, seems implausible. As Breda O’Brien observes elsewhere in this paper, on the one occasion when pro-life groups addressed the assembly they faced a far tougher interrogation than their pro-choice counterparts: it seems that the assembly has long had a pro-choice bias unrelated to the arguments brought before it.

It itself, this might not be surprising, given how Irish voters have been smothered with pro-choice propaganda in recent years, as pointed to by the Pro Life Campaign’s March 2015 claim that over just one fortnight the previous December Irish newspapers ran 33 articles pushing for abortion to be facilitated in Ireland and only one arguing for a pro-life position.

Indeed, one might legitimately wonder whether our democratic processes have been vitiated by the unbalanced and often inaccurate media coverage that has been the norm on this issue in recent years.

Even so, however, the extreme pro-choice dynamic in the assembly invites questions, and not for the first time, about whether the assembly was ever truly representative in any meaningful sense.

The next challenge is to figure out how – or whether – effect should be given to the deliberations of the assembly. A formal report from the assembly will be sent to the Oireachtas in June, to be considered by a committee which will then submit its own recommendations to the Oireachtas.

If it advises that a referendum should take place, it will of course be for the Oireachtas to agree on a wording, presumably with a view to asking the people if they want and trust Ireland’s politicians to make changes along the lines recommended by the assembly.

Leaving aside the fundamental problem with legislating to allow human lives be ended, especially given how the High Court’s Mr Justice Richard Humphreys recognised last August that, under Ireland’s constitution, the rights of unborn children go beyond the right to life, an obvious danger here is that elected representatives might treat the assembly’s recommendations as directive.

This would entail abdicating their duty to act in accord with their own judgment in favour of embracing what Senator McDowell has called “an exercise in political cowardice”.

There have been, of course, no shortage of warnings that this might happen. In December 2015, for instance, former Taoiseach John Bruton warned that extra-constitutional assemblies would not be grounds for putting aside those proper parliamentary procedures that enable decisions to be considered in a structured and systematic way by elected representatives who “unlike citizens chosen at random, are accountable and are accountable in a very meaningful way through the process of having to be re-elected”.

One thinks too of the observations of Sinn Féin’s Peadar Tóibín this February, when he told this newspaper, “It has always been my view that Fine Gael created the Citizens’ Assembly in order to outsource the decision on whether or not to hold a referendum on abortion.”

It will be for the Oireachtas to show whether or not such predictions were justified.