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Opening remarks – Information session with Citizens’ Assembly members

By December 10, 2020February 3rd, 2023No Comments

Good Evening All

The main purpose this evening is to hear your questions and comments about the general organisation and direction of the Assembly. Since we cannot meet in person hope this session will be a useful opportunity to raise points anything that is on your mind in relation to the work and organisation of our Assembly

  • Before opening the floor to you, I would like to give you some background and to set the scene for our discussion
    • By recalling why this Assembly was called
    • What we are asked to do
    • How the Secretariat and I are working
    • How we will prepare to vote on our recommendations
    • What will happen after we have voted.
  • Some of you have already heard most of this – but we have some new members and, at this point in our work, the actual experience of the Assembly may prompt some of you to ask questions or make suggestions now that you have participated in our working sessions.

Why was this Assembly called?  In 2013/2014 a Convention on the Constitution (slide 2 here – photo of Convention) issued certain recommendations.  Of relevance to us are their recommendations to amend Article 41.2 of the Constitution on the role of women in the home. They voted to amend art 41.2 of the Constitution by making it gender neutral and including a reference to carers beyond the home.

  • The Government accepted the recommendation that the wording of the Constitution should be changed but said extensive consultation would be needed on whether to include a reference to carers in the Constitution. The consultations took place, no clear agreement emerged and so the Government decided to hold a new Citizens’ Assembly, not just on the “woman in the home clause” but on the broader themes of care and gender equality.  I think it is important to recall this background to why we are meeting.
  • What are we asked to do? The Resolution that provides our terms of reference covers 6 areas. (2 SLIDES on 6 indents of Resolution – 3 points per slide).  You will have noticed that I often refer to the Resolution and you can see from this and the next slide that we divided the Oireachtas Resolution into separate topics so that we could devote sufficient time to the discussion of each theme.
  • So far we have covered the themes of (Slide with each indent of the Resolution and reference to working session of the Assembly)
    • Social norms and attitudes and the family – in February
    • Women’s participation in leadership and decision-making in the workplace, politics and public life – in October
    • Economic and salary norms and the economic value placed on work traditionally held by women, and the issues of structural pay inequalities and the disproportionate representation of women in low pay sectors – in November and December
    •  In January 2021 we will discuss the topic of care, in response to the parts of the resolution that refer to early years parental care, work life balance and the women and men’s co-responsibility for care, especially within the family.
    •  In February 2021 our current thinking is to have a session where we can revisit the issues relating to the Constitution.
    • For March we are planning to have a separate session on the theme of gender based violence and then to have a wrap up session where we can bring all of the topics together. We can then to begin a discussion of the priority areas for recommendations and how we would word the issues we vote on.
    • Our last session, on 17/18 April would be devoted to finalising agreement on our recommendations. It is likely that the last meeting will be over 2 days.  This is to ensure we have enough time to discuss and agree the recommendations and – finally – vote. I will say a bit more about this later.
    • The current situation re Covid and the need for advance planning of meetings means we will still definitely be online in January and February. It is impossible to know the situation which will apply in March now so we will keep this under review in the New Year. Of course following the public health and safety advice will be our top priority.
  • How the Secretariat and I are working: So how do we organise our sessions?   How to we decide on the themes to be covered?  How do we find speakers?
  • You already know our great Secretariat and have experienced their help and support first hand. (Slide with photos and names of secretariat).  They are seconded to us from the Dept of the Taoiseach but work independently for the time they are with us.  They do not take instruction from their home Department.   Our Assembly is independent of Government and we are free to decide whatever we can agree on.
  • We are also supported by
    • Like previous Assemblies, we have an Expert Advisory Group. (Slide with photos and names) Our Group consists of academics, researchers, political scientists and people who were involved in previous Assemblies. They help us to find the facts and evidence needed to present you with objective information.  Through discussion with them we identify the key themes and priorities for each session – and this is not an easy task as there is a lot of information out there so we need to distil it into clear and relevant material to enable you to take position on the issues set out in the Oireachtas Resolution.
    • We also have a Steering group consisting of 6 members of the Assembly. (Slide with photos and names) You already know them and I hope you will contact them to raise issues and any concerns you may have.  We meet with them from time to time, sometimes before and sometimes after each of our sessions.  We test ideas on them – for example, whether to go online, how much time we should spend online etc, and they give us feedback on the breakout groups.  We are experimenting all the time, trying to find the best possible format to listen to and help the members of the Assembly.
  • How we will prepare to vote on our recommendations: At every stage we have been gathering information on your views – through the recommendations from the breakout groups, the notes taken by the note takers in the breakout groups and through the surveys that you complete as you watch the videos and after each session.  We are constantly sifting through this wealth of information to see where opinions are forming – or changing – and where there is a high degree of agreement or a spread of differing views.
  • It is inevitable in a group of 100 people that there will be differences of opinion. On some issues it may be easy to see where the majority view lies, on others we may need further discussion to ascertain views and on some issues, even if some members hold strong views, it may become clear that they are not supported by the majority.
  • Based on everything you have told us, together we will prepare a draft set of recommendations for discussion in our March and April sessions. It may be worth recalling that we are not drafting legislation or policy details. As I have already explained, we do not have the capacity (or the mandate)  to do cost benefit analysis or impact assessments – but the Oireachtas resolution does specify that we should prioritise proposals “…having regard to the legal requirements and the costs versus the potential impact”.
  • (new slide Recommendations) In keeping with our guiding Resolution I think we need to send clear messages to the Oireachtas, to tell them what this group of citizens thinks.  On some issues we can be very clear – for example if we feel the Constitution should be amended we should say exactly what should be added or deleted or replaced.  In other areas we may want to indicate the direction of change without necessarily spelling out the detail of how the changes should be implemented.  And we will need to say something about how the costs of our recommendations should be paid for – for example, by indicating whether we are open to increased taxes to pay for better benefits or whether we feel other funding measures should be considered.
  • In this context I think it is useful to look at the way other Assemblies have worded their recommendations.  For example (TBC) on this slide is an example from the last Irish Citizens’ Assembly on the topic of climate change. Here citizens voted on whether the State should take a leadership role in addressing climate change through mitigation and adaption measures. While they suggest examples of what should be done it is not fully prescriptive.
  • It is also useful to look at what the UK and Scottish Assemblies have done. (new slide on UK climate assembly) The UK Assembly on climate prioritised 25 principles and each Assembly member was then able to vote for the 8 options they saw as the highest priority.  They also looked at a number of more specific recommendations as you can see on this slide (new slide – recommendations on public transport).  The UK Assembly found ways of indicating where the majority lay without ignoring other views – I think the value of a Citizens’ Assembly lies in showing the range of views held by 100 citizens and not just the more crude measure of which ideas received the most votes.
  • The report of the Scottish Assembly will be published in January and we will look at it to see if there are any ideas that might suit us. We are not bound by any of these examples but they are worth bearing in mind.
  • How will we vote? It is too early to decide how we will vote. (new slide on voting).   My preference is for us to spend the April weekend physically together in one place and to have a voting system similar to previous Assemblies.  That means it would be like in an election – we would go into a booth and vote anonymously on a ballot paper.  However, much will depend on the Covid 19 situation and how many people are allowed to gather in one place by April.  We will always follow the public health advice and we will keep you posted as the situation evolves.
  • The whole Assembly will decide and vote on our recommendations, responding point by point to the Oireachtas Resolution. In addition, as Chair of the Assembly I will write a report (under my own responsibility) which will record our approach, the issues we covered, the people and organisations we heard from and the challenges and innovations we faced and made.  Of course we are the first Irish Assembly to go online so I believe we will have some valuable experience to pass on to the Assemblies that come after us (the Programme for Government commits to Citizens’ Assemblies on 4 more topics).
  • What will happen after we have voted? We are asked to make recommendations, we cannot instruct the Dail or Seanad or demand that they follow our advice, however wise it is. However, given the outcome of previous Assemblies and the commitment of the Government to react to each of our recommendations I think we can be sure that what we recommend will be seriously considered.  In October we heard the Taoiseach say in his video to us that ‘We have committed in the Programme for Government to responding to each of your recommendations. I can assure you they will be taken very seriously and considered carefully.’
  • So our work will feed into discussion and hopefully influence future policy decisions.  In the course of our work we have heard many advocacy groups and individuals arguing for different recommendations.  I have no doubt that these groups will want to follow up on our recommendations in the media and with the Oireachtas.  As we have heard during different presentations the area of gender equality is evolving at both national and EU level and I hope our recommendations will help Ireland take some important steps towards making us a more equal country.

Thank you