Thursday, 3 November 2016

The government's decision to put abortion to the citizens' assembly exposes (once again) the folly of 'new politics'.

I don't often agree with Michael McDowell. In fact, finding myself in agreement with the former leader of the PDs makes me sort of uncomfortable. But Michael and I are peas in the proverbial pod this week. In his weekly column with the Sunday Business Post on Sunday last, McDowell took so-called 'new politics' to task; "The Oireachtas, our national parliament, is on "standby" mode", he writes, "Ministers and their departments have lost their appetite to legislate or reform. They prefer to farm out the legislative function the the citizens' forum and to farm out the Dáil's function of political accountability to inquiries." While I disagreed with much of the rest of what McDowell said, especially his assertion that a new centrist party to keep Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on their toes is what is needed to clear the "political logjam", that is a quite succinct description of the paralysis currently afflicting Irish politics. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the government's handling of the issue of abortion and the decision to refer the decision on whether to hold a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment to a Citizens' Assembly.

Abortion is a tricky one for Enda Kenny and Fine Gael. It's just over three years since they shipped four TDs when they pushed through the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in the wake of the Savita Halappanaver tragedy. They could take the hit back then - and no doubt many in the party were more than happy to see the back of Lucinda Creighton - but it did rock them. They simply can't take the same risk now. Not only might they have to face the prospect of rebellion from certain sections of the backbenches, they have nine independents propping them up and, while Katherine Zappone, Finian McGrath and Shane Ross are all in favour of repealing the eighth amendment, it's a trifle more difficult to envisage Denis Naughten or Michael Lowry siding with the government on that one. Enda's hubris has him in full survival mode and Fine Gael need to retain the support of all the independents to keep the show on the road. 

But pressure is rising. The Repeal campaign has gathered a head of steam in the last 12 months and the March for Choice held at the end of September attracted in excess of 20,000 people. In addition, we know that poll after poll after poll after poll shows that a clear majority of Irish people are in favour of liberalising our abortion laws. It gets a bit murkier when you try to tease through the details as it seems to be the case that, while Irish people favour repeal the eighth amendment, full legalisation of abortion (which, for the record, is what I support) does not receive the support of the majority of Irish people. Ok, so it's complicated. Of course it is. But what is undeniably clear from the opinion poll results, from the marches, from the rallies and from discussing the issue with people online and in person, is that there is a clear demand for a referendum. The only thing stopping one is Fine Gael's intransigence resulting from Kenny's survival instincts. This means that Ireland's abortion ban, which the UN have described as "cruel, inhuman and degrading" will continue indefinitely; 12 women a day will be exported to England to undergo their termination and countless more poorer and working class women will resort to more dangerous methods.

The human impact of the shelving of this issue has been well documented both on social media and in print in the last week but the impact this will have on the citizens' assembly, a genuinely original political concept we introduced five years ago, has been naturally less studied. While the great tragedy of the government putting repealing the eighth amendment on the long finger is what it will do to thousands of Irish women over the next few years, it also may put paid to the Citizens' Assembly becoming a viable institution for our democracy. In fact, the government's misuse of the Citizens' Assembly is representative of a much deeper malaise in Irish politcs which remains steadfastly opposed to meaningful reform.
But before we look into why that is the case, let's take a brief look at the history of our Citizens' Assembly. In 2011, in the aftermath of the historic general election which routed Fianna Fáil and ushered in a "democratic revolution", the new Fine Gael and Labour coalition government, emboldened by their massive majority and public appetite for political reform, announced in their Programme For Government plans to set up a Constitutional Convention in order to "consider comprehensive constitutional reform" and ensure our constitution "meets the challenges of the 21st century". The convention would be a citizens' assembly comprised of 100 people - 66 members of the public selected randomly, 33 politicians and one independent chairman - and they would meet over a series of weekends to discuss a number of constitutional issues nominated by the government. The issues they were to discuss ranged from legalising same-sex marriage to reviewing the Dáil electoral system to reducing the term of the president to five years. After presentations by academics about the topic at hand, attendees would debate and discuss the issue and would then vote on what recommendations they would make. So, for example, 79 convention attendees voted to recommend changing the constitution to allow same-sex marriage, with 18 against and three abstaining. The recommendations are then passed to the government who pledged to respond accordingly with four months. 

While there were understandable mutterings regarding the limited scope of the convention and the fact that it could only make recommendations to the government who would then decide whether to act on them or ignore them, there was excitement and optimism among academics that this might herald a new form of 'deliberative democracy'. In the end, the convention convened on nine occasions and two of the convention's recommendations - legalising same sex marriage and reducing the age of eligibility for president to 21 - were put to a referendum. The passing of the same-sex marriage legislation was an undeniable victory for the convention with Elkink et al claiming that it was "the first time in Irish history that a referendum was called as a result of aprocess of deliberation involving ordinary citizen, indeed it is also one ofthe first times in the world that a deliberative process has resulted in areferendum and certainly the first to have succeeded." 

When analysed in its entirety, however, the merits of the convention and its capacity to continue to invoke real change were dubious to say the least. The same-sex marriage recommendation was a politically palatable reform which had the overwhelming backing of at least one of the government parties (and most of the other). On other issues the record is not as impressive. David Farrell, an academic who had been one of the most foremost voices in favour of the convention when it began, disappointingly asserted that of the 40 recommendations made by the convention across the nine reports, the government only responded to 15 of them and this, he claims, represents a “most charitable reading of governmental reaction”. Even when the government did respond it did not necessarily mean that the conventions' recommendations were adequately addressed. In its first report, for example, the convention recommended that the voting age should be reduced to 16. Then Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan responded to the recommendation in the Dáil and announced "The Government therefore commits to holding a referendum before the end of 2015 ona proposal to amend the Constitution to provide for a voting age of 16." No such referendum was forthcoming however with an Irish Times report in 2014 reporting that there was "considerable opposition" among senior figures in the government. 

This was always the fear with the Constitutional Convention and with the now rebranded Citizens' Assembly. The government need only take note and respond to the recommendations of the assembly- and as we have seen they don't even do that - rather than actually put them to a referendum. As Silvia Suteu noted, in the aftermath of the conventions, "Such government discretion aligns with scholarly observations that political elites will adopt mechanisms such as citizen assemblies on serious matters, but will “make sure that change does not come too easily, and that they can, if necessary, block an unpalatable reform." If the convention comes up with something the government finds uncomfortable they can - to the best of their abilities - simply ignore it. Would the government ignore a recommendation on repealing the eighth amendment from the citizens' assembly if it felt calling a referendum would weaken their grip on power? Who knows.

In any case, given the last government's behaviour it's easy to see why the public would be cynical about citizens' assemblies but the shunting of the abortion issue over the to the assembly gives them another reason. This government has set a precedent - from now on if the ruling parties of the day wish to dodge an issue for fear of alienating core voters or upsetting backbenchers they have an escape route. Rather than tackle it head on in the legislative chamber or simply go to the people with a referendum they can kick the can very much down the road. The citizens' assembly and deliberative democracy could have a part to play in Irish politics. They could be used to refine and improve the constitution and improve how we conduct our democracy. They could tackle questions regarding local government, electoral systems and issues relating to democratic structures. They should not be used as a device for upholding fragile governments because that devalues them. 

Should we be surprised about all this? No, of course not. There's a reason the term 'new politics' is used almost exclusively in jest - nobody actually believes anything substantive has changed in how our major parties conduct themselves. They're simply adapting to new, uncomfortable surroundings. The misuse of the citizens' assembly is but one example of this. The confidence and supply arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has not ushered in a new era of conciliatory and cooperative politics but is a desperate attempt to uphold the old political party hierarchy. Initiatives such as citizens' assemblies are supposed to represent a shift in political discourse and decision-making, better incorporating the views of the citizen. But they don't. They're window dressing and a convenient outlet for pretending to care about reform and dodging uncomfortable decisions. Real political change will not come from the established parties; the behaviour of Fine Gael with regards to the abortion issue simply serves to highlight this.

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