Fine Gael senator: "Ultimately you can't put a time frame" on abortion referendum

Jerry Buttimer defended the process of using a Citizens' Assembly

Abortion, citizens' assembly, eighth amendment, 8th amendment,


On Tuesday morning, Taoiseach Enda Kenny will bring a memo to cabinet on the setting up of a citizens' forum on the 8th amendment.

The convention is due to be set up within the next six months, but the full format of how that will work is still not entirely clear. 

The Irish Times have reported that a judge may be sitting on the assembly, and speaking to Breakfast on Newstalk, lecturer in political science at DCU Eoin O’Malley broke down the likely makeup of the assembly.

O'Malley explained that it comprises 100 randomly-chosen citizens and "can make a recommendation to the Oireachtas about whether to have a referendum and what the wording of the proposed change to the constitution would be."

He noted that for an issue like abortion you can't expect there to be consensus, but rather the aim of the assembly is that "people will speak to each other in a respectful manner because they're not partisan politicians, that they will sort of listen to each other, be willing to change their mind and you'll get a better conversation about what could happen."

However, he added that it doesn't necessarily happen that way, as people can have very strong opinions on the matter because those who attend tend to be "self-selected":

"It's not really a random sample because [...] if you're asked you only go if you're really very politically involved or interested in the issue, and so what you tend to find is you've got people with very strong opinions and so there isn't that much evidence of people moving." 

Fine Gael senator Jerry Buttimer, who served on the Constitutional Convention which discussed the possibility of having a marriage equality referendum, told Breakfast that he was backing the idea. 

He noted that while there are those who will attend who have strong opinions on the issue, "you can have a mature debate [...] and I don't subscribe to the view consensus is weak. Obviously the Constitutional Convention didn't agree on a consensus on everything."

Image: Jerry Buttimer having a laugh with Taoiseach and Fine Gael party leader Enda Kenny in the Gaiety Theatre as they launch the Party's campaign for a 'Yes' vote in the upcoming Marriage Equality Referendum. Leon Farrell/

One of the main differences between the Citizens' Assembly and the Constitutional Convention will be the absence of politicians from the process, something which Buttimer stated he would change. 

"It should include politicians because the last Constitutional Convention took politics out of it," explained Buttimer. "It wasn't lead by politicians, and it allowed for a balanced discussion and I think [...] it helped the situation and it enhanced it."

Responding to the claim from Ivan Yates that the assembly is a delaying tactic which will push any potential referendum down the line, Buttimer stated that this is rather a way of bringing citizens into the process in a more direct way. 

While he stated that "ultimately I don't think you can put a timeframe on it", Buttimer added that "we talk about new politics, we talk about doing things differently. This is a model that has been employed successfully [...] this is about an informed debate leading to a decision being made the people in some type of referendum. I think we should embrace it, we should welcome it, and we should be allowed to have this type of model as an expression of how we can bring about debate on challenging social issues."