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Artillery Row

The grim reality of a citizens’ assembly

A seemingly democratic initiative was nothing of the sort

In the wake and wash of two recently defeated referendums in Ireland, the Irish political establishment has gone into a tailspin. The Taoiseach has resigned; some politicians have jumped party-ship, changed direction on controversial issues, and are now grappling to make sense of the biggest referendum defeat in the history of the State. Some overeager commentators have claimed that the crushing defeats occurred because the Government did not follow recommendations set out by the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality. That Citizens’ Assembly however, far from having offered viable proposals, is part of the problem, built, as it was, on a rotten foundation. 

The Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality consisting of 99 randomly selected unelected citizens was established in 2019 with the task of deliberating on the topic of gender equality and then bringing forward recommendations to the Oireachtas (Parliament) on policy, legislation, and constitutional reform. 99 random individuals to make recommendations on the running of the country. What could possibly go wrong? 

Despite all their combined experience and high-level qualifications, the Assembly was flawed and corrupted from the start

A well-experienced and highly qualified core-group of individuals was responsible for the operation and organisation of the Assembly. This group was made up of the secretariat, the chairperson, and an expert advisory group of seven people. There was also a research team to provide support. In addition, an Associate Professor in Sociology was contracted to design a document for the accompanying public consultation process and to analyse the submissions. Despite all their combined experience and high-level qualifications, the Assembly was flawed and corrupted from the start. 

A Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality could be reasonably expected to deliberate on the term “gender” but this did not happen. The Assembly, instead, took the term “gender” to mean “gender identity” and this route was taken without open deliberation or discussion with the 99 citizen members. This was the faulty foundation upon which the Assembly was built. 

At the first full meeting of the Assembly, the chairperson hinted at the path being taken when she said that the Assembly debates would be “inclusive”. Members of the Assembly not familiar with terminology associated with gender identity ideology may not have realised the import of her words. 

The citizen members were also not involved in any deliberations about the wording used in the public consultation document. At the inaugural Assembly meeting on the 25th of January 2020, members were told that the public consultation process would get underway on the 27th January, just two days later. The public consultation document stated: “It should be noted that the Oireachtas resolution establishing the Assembly refers to women and men, girls and boys. However, for the purposes of this consultation, please understand ‘gender’ to refer to any and all options in terms of gender identity.”

A number of individual public submissions raised concerns about gender identity but none of these were mentioned in any of the numerous presentations about the public consultation. One individual in his submission even suggested independent legal advice be sought by the Assembly about the consequences of modifying the Oireachtas Resolution and questioned if the change invalidated the Assembly’s deliberations. 

One speaker during the second meeting in February did acknowledge that the distinction between sex and gender is “often unclear and still debated” but then went on to define gender as a “social identification” and as existing on a continuum. No-one provided an alternative viewpoint. No one pointed out that Irish equalities legislation defines gender in terms of the sex-binary of male and female. 

During the October meeting, the chairperson provided another twist on the Oireachtas resolution when she said that their mandate referred to “men, women, and however people define their gender.” However, at no point in the Oireachtas resolution was there a suggestion that gender should be understood as “however people define their gender”. 

The chairperson, at that same meeting in October, went on to say that “this particular session that we are talking about today specifically highlights the wish from the Oireachtas that we would discuss the situation of women in leadership so that’s why it’s concentrated on women today”. Her introduction stressing the focus on women was then followed by a video about “women” in leadership. One of those featured in the video was Aoife Martin, a transgender activist who is biologically male.  

Prioritising gender identity above the sex binary of male and female has ramifications for education, law, prisons, sports, domestic abuse shelters and other single-sex spaces

At no point during the Assembly were members given any explanation of the concept of gender identity or the implications of prioritising it above biological sex. This is despite the fact that the expert advisory group was meant to ensure the members had access to “a broad, neutral and factual information base on which to base their discussions and recommendations”. Prioritising gender identity above the sex binary of male and female has ramifications for education, law, prisons, sports, domestic abuse shelters and other single-sex spaces. None of this was touched on. 

Other problems with the operation of the Assembly included that issues such as gender quotas and affirmative action were presented as unquestionable ideals to be aspired to rather than as contested ideas with sometimes controversial outcomes. Feedback from break-out groups was generally simply a reiteration of points raised during that day’s presentations. At points the Assembly seemed to view the Government like a magic porridge pot with unlimited finances to resource costs required to meet the final 45 recommendations that at points read more like a utopian wish list than a realisable set of proposals. 

Some ideas that conflicted with the thrust of overall presentations were not included in summary papers given to members. The November meeting, for example, featured a speaker from the Small Firms Association who raised issues with calls for quotas, flexible work, and the living wage. None of these points were included in the summary paper about that meeting that was provided to Assembly members.

Certain constitutional issues were discussed by presenters but often in a leading manner. One speaker, for example, said of Article 41.2: “It is, I think it’s fair to say, a sexist clause, really out of time.” Another spoke of the “derogatory and insulting language” of Article 41.2. No counter-view was presented. In addition, the potential implications of expanding the constitutional definition of the family were not adequately explored. 

Despite the issues with the operation of the Assembly, the evaluation report by independent researchers found that the Assembly was well run, “with high deliberative quality” and that it had followed good practice in terms of openness and transparency. It pointed out that the citizens themselves had believed the facilitators maintained neutrality and did not influence the group with their own ideas. However, if there are only two options presented and this is sold as a choice when the third option is not even on the table, the citizens are being misled. Does a fish know it is in water? 

Having reviewed almost 23 hours of video material from the Assembly as well as the accompanying final report, the public submissions, other associated material, it’s clear that aspects of the Assembly operated shambolically. The foundational problem of the Assembly is that it focused on gender identity rather than on the sex-binary. It is not clear who made this decision or why it was taken. There is no transparency on this issue. Although there was lots of excellent material presented during the various meetings, the overall process was built on this defective foundation. The overall level of critical thinking was weak in comparison to Oireachtas committees who had previously discussed the constitution. 

For any citizens’ assembly to operate effectively, organisers need to actively seek out diverse perspectives to examine the foundational ideas underlying the issue being examined as well as the ideals being aspired to. The Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality shows a lack of openness, transparency, neutrality, objectivity. It operated on a flawed foundation. Confidence in its findings and its recommendations is badly misplaced.

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