A GOVERNMENT TENDER has finally been issued for a polling company to source the people who will sit on the promised Citizens’ Assembly.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the Dáil in June that a polling company would decide the makeup of the assembly.
The Fine Gael-led government committed to setting up a Citizen’s Assembly which would discuss the Eighth Amendment – which guarantees the right to life of the unborn, equating it with the mother’s right to life – in the first six months of its term.
Other issues the assembly will discuss include how we best respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population; fixed term parliaments; the manner in which referenda are held; and how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.
The tender published on the government E-Tenders website states the company will be tasked with selecting 99 members of the public plus 99 substitutes who are willing to act as members of the assembly.
First meeting in October
The first meeting is due to be held in October, and meetings will be held over 10 weekends, sitting all-day Saturday and until mid-afternoon on Sunday.
The proceedings will be broadcast online.
The tender specifies that the assembly will publish a report based on its recommendations within one year from the date of the first meeting.
The Department of An Taoiseach, which issued the tender, specifies that members of the assembly should be chosen at random and be representative of society as regards age, gender, social class, and regional spread.
The members of the public should also be on the electoral register to vote in a referendum.
A tender has also been issued for suitable hotels to provide weekend accommodation and conference facilities for approximately 120 people. The government intends to create a panel of hotels within a 20 kilometre radius of Dublin that can host the meetings.
Despite promises of diversity on the assembly, a number of TDs have already voiced their doubts over how it will function effectively.
Transparency of the assembly
Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit’s Brid Smith and Ruth Coppinger have said there are no guarantees that there will be complete transparency around the establishment of the assembly or that members will not be subject to lobbying.
Smith said she did not know how a polling company, which will be tasked with selecting the members, could ensure the assembly is balanced.
“How do you vet someone who may have a strong Catholic ethos or anti-choice position? asked Smith.
Due to the divisive nature of the issue, concerns have also been raised about the publication of the names of those that will sit on the assembly.
There were similar concerns raised when the Constitutional Convention was set up in 2012. It dealt with a number of issues including voting age and blasphemy, but the one that attracted most attention was same-sex marriage.
At the time, chairman Tom Arnold said the convention was keen to engage with interest groups who may wish to offer input but that there were fears among some members that they could be bombarded by unwanted contact.
Arnold said some members had expressed concerns that they might be on the receiving end of intensive lobbying from interest groups hoping to influence their decisions.
On that occasion, personal details were kept to a minimum. The names of the members were published with a general indication given as to where they were from.
The same framework will most likely be used to establish the Citizens’ Assembly.
The issue of repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution has been divisive in Irish society as well as in political circles.
Some critics of the idea believe that the Citizens’ Assembly is merely an exercise in ‘kicking the can down the road’ to avoid dealing directly with an issue which has been described by some political figures as a political hand grenade.
Amending the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act to allow pregnant women who have been given diagnoses of fatal foetal abnormalities to have a termination in Ireland already created a split in Cabinet in June this year when members of the Independent Alliance said they wanted to back the Bill.
Fine Gael has come under further pressure to tackle the issue following a UN ruling that Ireland is obliged to provide compensation to a woman who was forced to travel abroad to have an abortion.
A committee of experts from the UN’s Human Rights Commission found that Ireland’s laws on abortion have had a “chilling effect” on healthcare and contributed to “negative experiences”.
The closing date for the polling company tender is 19 August, while the hotel accommodation tender closing date is 26 August.