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Address by the Taoiseach at the Inaugural Meeting of Citizens’ Assembly, Dublin Castle

Justice Laffoy, thank you for inviting me here this afternoon.

I’m delighted to speak at the inaugural meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly.

That I speak on behalf of the government and the Houses of the Oireachtas signifies to you and to the people of Ireland that the issues you will discuss over the coming months are beyond party politics.

In fact, they are so clearly beyond party politics, the Oireachtas has voted to give you this mandate.
A mandate to consider, to assess and to examine matters that are deeply complex, hugely challenging and profoundly ethical.

We chose to go about our business in this way so that as a nation and a society we could move from a position of contention, even contempt and find valuable consensus - some common co-ordinates in a matter so publicly and privately tender.

Indeed even more so, when views held are so deep, and as we have seen in the past, so divisive.
Your work in addressing and achieving this vital consensus on behalf of us all will affect – indeed profoundly affect - how we live our individual lives and our national life in the Republic of Ireland in the years to come.

Therefore, on behalf of the Oireachtas I thank each and every one of you for your personal commitment, your civic generosity and above all your courage in contributing to this national discussion of such significant import.

In a world where anonymity seems to have so much power and so little responsibility, in this assembly, you are not only having your voices heard, you are putting your heads above the parapet.

And because you are, I’m asking Ireland, public and private, official and unofficial, to allow you undertake this vital work with the necessary dignity, space and freedom.

We are all aware that one particular aspect of your deliberations - the Eighth Amendment – has divided our country in the past.

Today the potential for such division is the same.

Today, equally, technology can see such public division deteriorate to personal derision

It can happen immediately and almost without limits.

Yes, this is the first time we will debate the issue in the social-media age.

Social media puts the Assembly within the reach and indeed the sights of those with deeply-held views on either side of any debate.

Regrettably, we live in a time when an opposing view is no longer seen simply as a diverse opinion on a topic worthy of attention and debate.

Rather we live in a time when a diverse opinion has become something, or someone to be pitied, ridiculed, virtually hounded, or indeed destroyed.

I would remind all commentators that posts that seem might seem devastatingly witty to them might be simply devastating to the people they refer t - to the people who receive them and indeed to their families.

San Ghaeilge ta seanfhocal againn na Castar nadaoine le cheile ach ni chastar na cnoic

Therefore, to people on both extremes of the debate, I would say please take time to reflect before you react - consider the person you are - the person you are addressing.

We understand very well the positions on both sides.

On behalf of the Oireachtas I ask everybody to please allow the members of the Assembly the necessary space and respect to go about their work.

As citizens of this Republic let us consider the work of the assembly and the issues at hand according to the highest standards of our best selves.

To do otherwise will be to diminish the Assembly and by extension who we are or wish to be as a respectful, tolerant, society that welcomes diversity of opinions and the dignified debate that ensues.

The Houses of the Oireachtas have set the Assembly a tough programme for the coming year.

As we all know Bunreacht na hEireann is integral to our nation state.

Bunreacht na hEireann is the beating heart of our legal system.

Our Constitution defines our freedoms and sets our limits.

It decides how we live together in this country.

Our Constitution is a living document. It has undergone numerous amendments by the people since its enactment.

In recent years, it has addressed the rights of the child, expanded the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions.

It must be subject to constant national attention, careful national scrutiny.

As a provision of our Constitution, the Eighth Amendment impacts on all of us in society and in every age group.
And on this and all matters related to the Constitution it is vital that all of us, together, have a say in how it functions.

This Assembly then is the voice of the people at this stage of the process. You will be heard and listened to carefully.

Under the direction of your Chairperson, and with the benefit of specialist expertise you will have the opportunity to discuss and debate the issue in an environment where all views can be safely expressed and respectfully interrogated.

The Assembly’s hearings will be streamed live. Everybody who wishes to will hear the debate and the complexities involved.

Because the timeframe is short the Oireachtas has asked the Assembly to deal with the issue of the Eighth immediately.

I am hoping the citizens will set out their views to the Oireachtas in the first half of 2017.

Thereafter, the decisions are for the elected representatives.

We will take the Assembly’s findings or proposals and consider them in detail in an Oireachtas Committee.

And if the time arises for a vote, people can vote freely in accordance with their conscience.

Naturally, the emphasis on the Eighth amendment should not detract from the remaining issues the Oireachtas resolution has assigned to the Assembly, which include our focusing on our ageing population – the challenges and the opportunities; and climatechange.

Climate is already affecting food security, migration, politics across our planet.

So many of the men, women and children fleeing for their lives, do so because of the political, social and demographic effects of drought, displacement, erosion, famine.

Even here at home we see the effects of increased energy in the atmosphere, the warming Atlantic.

Climate change will affect not just how well we live on this planet.

Ultimately, it will decide whether as humans we will manage to exist at all.

I am aware that there are individuals and groups who will have valuable insights and information to offer you in your deliberations on this and all matters.

I understand arrangements are being put in place to make sure you have access to them.

Your recommendations on all the matters discussed by the Assembly will be of vital assistance to the Government and the Oireachtas in assessing our courses of action in relation to each whether that action be referendums, amendments, legislation or various policy approaches.

You will inform yourselves, speak for the people, guide the policy-makers.

For now, I wish you well in what will be a challenging, complicated task.

Just how challenging and how complicated is seen in the fact we are inaugurating the Assembly on an international day of remembrance for pregnancy loss and infant death.

This co-incidence shows how exquisitely sensitive your work will be.

Once again, I ask for all respect and dignity to be afforded to you in your vital and valuable work.

I will listen carefully to all you have to tell us.