News & Media

Northern Ireland Citizens' Assembly needed to break Stormont Deadlock

25 April 2019

Statement by Brendan Howlin TD
Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Brexit and Justice

Howlin Calls for Northern Ireland Citizens' Assembly on Marriage Equality, Irish Language, and Termination of Pregnancy to allow Citizens’ Voices to Break the Stormont Deadlock

Speaking following the funeral of Lyra McKee, and in relation to the need to get the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running again, the Leader of the Labour Party Brendan Howlin TD has suggested that a Northern Ireland Citizens Assembly would be a democratic way to deal with issues that have prevented the DUP and Sinn Féin from re-entering government.

Deputy Howlin said:

“Yesterday’s poignant service for Lyra McKee was a celebration of her life and of her generation of young people in Northern Ireland who want to see the stability and social progress that was promised by the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.

“In addition to the scandal surrounding the Renewable Heat Incentive, which is being dealt with by an independent review, the issues of marriage equality, the Irish language and women’s right to termination of pregnancy have all become barriers to negotiation. Neither the DUP or Sinn Féin is willing to back down from their incompatible red lines on these issues.

“Labour fought for women’s rights and gay rights for many decades when we were a minority voice in a conservative political system. Labour in government found a path that ultimately led to marriage equality and termination of pregnancy becoming law in Ireland.

“I am confident that there is a silent majority in Northern Ireland that wants to see reform and liberalisation on these issues, but sometimes the political parties are behind public opinion, as was the case in Ireland.

“Rather than waste another two years because of a failure to compromise, one solution would be to allow the voices of the silent majority to be heard. Citizens Assemblies are democratic. They have worked around the world, including in Ireland, by giving a random selection of citizens the time and access to expertise to discuss and reflect on complex issues before making recommendations.

“Before Ireland’s landmark referendums on marriage equality and termination of pregnancy, both of these issues were discussed by Citizens' Assemblies. This process took party politics out of the debate and put the focus, rightly, on what mattered most to people in their daily lives. The result was that the opinions of Irish people were revealed to be well ahead of most political representatives, and a number of parties changed their policies when people’s voices were finally heard.

“Expertise on how to organise such a process is available from a number of countries around the world. And I’m sure an acceptable neutral figure could be found to act as chairperson for any such Citizens Assembly in Northern Ireland.

“All political parties in Northern Ireland have said that they want the restoration of devolved government. While it should never have been absent for so long, now is the time for the elected members to turn up at Stormont to provide the people of Northern Ireland with representation and decision-making on healthcare, education, infrastructure and countless other areas of public policy that have become stuck in limbo in the absence of a devolved government.

“Early agreement to establish a Northern Ireland Citizens' Assembly on the issues of disagreement, with a clear understanding that no party would veto the result using a Petition of Concern, could be the way to break the current deadlock.”