24 November 2022 Edition
Time for an all island Citizens' Assembly
The campaign for the Irish Government to set up the Citizens' Assembly on Irish Unity was the first debate of the 2022 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. Emma McArdle reports on the key themes of this session and the follow-on Citizens' Assembly fringe meeting held during the lunch break
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Ard Fheis 2022 opened with a section on Irish Unity, and I have to admit to feeling a certain sense of nervousness that there might not be enough speakers or attendees in the RDS at 10am on a sunny Saturday morning to do the section justice.
I knew the event itself would be jammed but a niggly voice in my head wouldn’t let me forget that this was the first proper post-Covid Ard Fheis. And for many their priority might be having the craic with friends and comrades and enjoying the social aspect of the day, especially first thing in the morning after a long drive.
But as speaker after speaker lined up to take the podium, it became clear that delegates wanted their say and that discussions about constitutional change would be one of the dominant themes of the Ard Fheis.
The main demand from those who spoke on the uniting Ireland motions was for the government to begin the planning process in earnest with the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly on Irish unity. The keynote speaker for the section, Declan Kearney MLA, said:
“The new Ireland cannot and will not be the old Ireland. We are beginning the next stage of our journey. So, the mapping and modelling should start immediately. That is why it is time for the Irish government to establish an all-island Citizens’ Assembly. It has an important role to play in advance of a unity referendum, by bringing together all representative strands of civic society & political opinion.”
Kearney also flagged a fringe meeting on the topic of the Citizens’ Assembly which would take place during the Ard Fheis lunch break.
Kearney’s call for the government to set up the Citizens’ Assembly were echoed by other speakers including Francie Molloy, Mairéad Farrell, Carál Ní Chuilín and Ruairí Ó Murchú among others.
Delegates also spoke about the economic imperative of unity, the party’s Commission on the Future of Ireland which a few weeks previously hosted the Belfast People’s Assembly, and the impact of Partition on border regions.
The Ard Fheis had opened with unity at the top of the clár and the scene was set for the theme which dominated contributions for the rest of the day.
Listening to the remarks of delegates throughout the morning motions, I was fairly confident that there would be a good attendance at the fringe event.
What I wasn’t so sure about were how the audience would interact with the guest speakers – Tom Arnold and Ailbhe Smyth – or indeed if these guests might challenge the approach the party was taking.
Tom Arnold is a distinguished protagonist in the field of global food security, having served on many international bodies. Of greatest relevance for the Citizens’ Assembly campaign is the fact that Tom was Chair of the Constitutional Convention which sat from 2012 – 2014.
In many ways, the Constitutional Convention was a precursor to the series of Citizens’ Assemblies in the South which began in 2016 and led to referendums on same sex marriage, lowering the age of eligibility in Presidential elections, and removing the offense of blasphemy from the Constitution.
Tom also chaired the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit and the OECD Committee on Agriculture. Tom’s remarks outlined the positive contribution made by the establishment of Citizens’ Assemblies in the 26 Counties to the democratic process and how they have led to constitutional change.
However, Arnold was also cautionary, citing Brendan O’Leary and Jane Suiter, who have both remarked that citizens’ assemblies on divisive issues may be unhelpful and lacking in political legitimacy should a distinct cohort of the population, such as northern unionists, not participate.
Ailbhe Smyth has been a lifelong activist for social change; she was the founding head of Women’s Studies at UCD and she played a leading role in the successful Marriage Equality campaign in 2015. In 2013, she co-founded the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and was co-director of Together for Yes, the campaign for the legalisation of abortion in 2018.
Currently, Smyth is Chair of Women’s Aid and also of Ballyfermot STAR Addiction services. She is a board member of Age Action and of Women’s Global Health Ireland and is Patron of the Women’s Collective Ireland. Ailbhe is a founding member of Le Chéile: Diversity not Division, an alliance which challenges far right extremism.
Smyth’s contribution to the fringe event focused on the opportunities and risks associated with citizens’ assemblies and the need to build a broad and deep coalition to secure the Citizens’ Assembly on Irish Unity.
Smyth described the campaign to get the Irish government to establish the Citizens’ Assembly on unity as a practise run for the actual unity referendum as it raised the prominence of the unity question and it provides an opportunity to test and refine the key messages.
In terms of building the coalition, Smyth advised that it must be inclusive and diverse, drawing in all demographics and sections of society and she said that the best time to start is always now!
A lively discussion section followed, and it was clear that those in the room, which was at capacity, were interested and informed on the issue. Activists that
I spoke with following the event are enthusiastic for the campaign, which we know is popular and winnable.
As part of the campaign, the party has produced a discussion document entitled ‘Our Future lets plan for it - Why the Irish Government must set up a Citizens’ Assembly on Irish Unity’. This document is a guide to the Citizens’ Assembly on Irish Unity, how it could function, who would be involved, the topics it could consider, and the potential next steps in pursuit of a new united Ireland. The document will be accessible on the Sinn Féin website.
• Emma McArdle is a Campaign and Policy Manager on Sinn Féin’s Uniting Ireland project.