I stood outside the Dáil on Tuesday evening during the Repeal demo organised by AAA-PBP and it began to rain. An activist I know from another organisation happened to be standing beside me asked how I was. Tired says I, as I had just come from work and I was up before 6 that morning to walk the dogs. It’s a long day when you’re standing at a demo regardless of precipitation levels. That’s not to try and garner sympathies or kudos – the point is that you’d want more hours in the day for all the protests. You’d be sick protesting. I’m especially sick protesting to repeal the Eighth Amendment. There are literally hundreds of things I could think of that I’d prefer to do. These demonstrations are kind of samey after a while and there are only so many different ways you can point out the sheer horror of having no say in what happens your body before you start to feel like you’re going to lose your mind with frustration.
As I thought about what I would rather be doing (no disrespect to the speakers because the ones I heard were really, really great but let’s be honest, we all want to be somewhere else), the cabinet came to a last minute voting arrangement on the Bill. Minister Katherine Zappone, poster deputy of Liberal Ireland, and a number of other TDs had a dilemma; having previously committed to Repeal but gone into government with Fine Gael they couldn’t vote in favour of the AAA repeal Bill, but they couldn’t vote against it either. Thus a magical typically Irish formula was arranged; the Dáil would vote on a counter motion to the Bill to state that no legislation on abortion would be dealt with while the Citizens Assembly was still sitting. This has the handy effect of getting Zappone et al out of a tight spot in this particular vote, but also buys time for the Cabinet and Independent Alliance. The Citizens Assembly is due to report in a year. Any other attempt to remove the Eighth Amendment between now and then will be ruled out of order using a convoluted mechanism of parliamentary censorship. Meanwhile Zappone and others who have built a political career on “liberal” issues will never have to make an actual decision on it. Sweatshirts and badges notwithstanding, responsibility for the matter is conveniently devolved to the Citizens Assembly.
The Citizens Assembly is a bizarre concept. It teaches us that women’s bodies are so politically destructive and terrifying that the people who are theoretically *elected* to represent the population cannot legislate for the matters that affect those bodies. The “problem” has been discussed at length by numerous Oireachtas committees and Dáil debates, all in an effort to not actually resolve the matter, but demonstrate “Look! Women! We’re TALKING about it!” They need to be seen to be doing something, but the women who need or want, or indeed have had, abortions are irrelevant to their political thinking, The comfort of their Dáil seats and knowledge of extremely healthy pensions, and the leather under their arses in Ministerial cars are worth more to them than women’s lives. Their Mercs with State funded drivers are fueled by the tears of twelve women travelling for abortions to the UK every day and god knows how many more getting medication online and off dealers. What the criteria is by which a cabinet decides an issue is so socially toxic that they could not possibly attempt to legislate for a referendum on the matter is not clear.
The Citizens Assembly is a performance. It is political theatre. It will be fleeting plot line in the inevitable boring memoir by Leo Varadkar or Shane Ross when they have a fleeting reference to how they allegedly attempted to fight against it. It is a mechanism for kicking the can down the road.
Realistically it will be a year from now by the time the Citizens Assembly reports back. That brings us to the end of 2017. There is talk that a referendum could potentially be held in 2018. This seems unrealistic. After the Assembly reports it will, as is the practice with such reports, sit with an Oireachtas Committee for a few months. It will need to be debated to death. At the same time the ordinary business of bills and farcical Leader’s Questions will continue. They will need to pass a budget. There will also be preparations for the local and European Elections in 2019. They will need to address the looming Brexit situation. Political parties view time in election cycles. After the locals, there will be preparation for the next general election of 2021 – if the government manages to last that long. Fine Gael may have quietened any umbrage taken over abortion, but they still have the matter of annual budgets, judicial appointments, teachers striking, cops striking and whatever else is around the corner.
The Citizens Assembly gives them a get out of legislating card. Do not pass go. Do not collect your pension just yet. The idea that 99 random punters are qualified to represent the population in this manner is farcical. It is the outsourcing of democracy. There was a small glimmer of hope among some activists recently when the 2018 repeal referendum was mooted. Hypothetically, if those great 99 return with a verdict that indeed, the women of Ireland need access to free, safe and legal abortion, will we get it? Will we fuck; Our expectations will be managed appropriately. Zappone has been co-opted and regardless of Labour’s current protestations, they were co-opted when they were in Government. Calls for people to be reasonable will abound and those who wish for something as basic as wanting to control reproductive health will be lumped in with the “looney left” who are seeking something better in life that the government tells us is unrealistic. The fiscal space will not allow the eradication of poverty or the realisation of bodily autonomy.
During the Tuesday night debate, Bríd Smith whipped out a packet of abortion pills in the Dáil chamber and rightly asked to be prosecuted. It will never happen though, in the same way the women of the Contraception Train weren’t touched. State authorities will save their efforts for the most vulnerable. Not the woman who has the platform of the Dáil chamber, but the woman who has an abortion at home in Belfast, alone, for want of access to legal healthcare. Or the women who are consistently reminded that you may go to jail for fourteen years if you are caught trying to do what is legal in almost every other jurisdiction in Europe. The criminalisation of those who have abortions at home and the prospective jail sentence must remain for the State; if women take things into their own hands (as they so often do) how else will they control women’s bodies without the threat of violence and imprisonment? Little do they care that there is already a significant level of subversion of these inhumane laws. There are networks of women who help each other and no threats of jail will prevent that.
There is a back and forth where reasonable TDs plead for a reasonable response. Climate change deniers and old men respond that they care about the babies. The gombeen men TDs play to their local audiences. Government members talk a lot without saying much. It is theatre of the absurd. Enda Kenny likes to think he has the air of a gladiator about him, but transcripts of questions to the Taoiseach demonstrate that he clearly has no idea what he’s talking about and it seems more like a pantomime. Look at Micheal Martin, he’s behind you!
The standard rules of political decision making do not apply when it comes to abortion. The Citizens Assembly was an invention to outsource the talking shop elements of modern politics, while retaining the control over whether or not to take on board what they recommend. Each meeting of the Assembly is a staged performance. We are witnessing the dramaturgy of abortion politics in Ireland. Each participant carefully selected to ensure that they have never made any public declarations on the matter one way or the other. The actors will play the role that has been written for them accordingly. The audience reads notes on the drama of each theatrical episode in which pro-choice groups and forced birthers are positioned as two sides of the same coin; an expression of good versus evil. Lazy journalists portray fully staffed organisations backed by the Church and funded by the American Christian right as political equals to organisations filled with students and working class people who work voluntarily to assist women and stand outside Leinster House with home-made placards. Those who would see women jailed portray themselves as the guardians of the nation’s unborn babies, while children sit in homeless hostels, direct provision, schools with leaky roofs, and in counselling services having been abused by others. The orchestrated debates and prepared parliamentary speeches are designed to show us that those in power are truth-tellers. There of course will be the occasional plot twist, as will any political tragicomedy. Fine Gael TD Tom Barry drunkenly pulling Aine Collins TD onto his lap during a debate on legislation that was taking place directly as a result of a woman’s death was laughed off as banter between friends.
Naming it the “Citizens Assembly” was an important narrative technique to make the audience feel like they had some sort of participatory role in the event. We are citizens; therefore we own this Assembly even if we are not directly involved with the show. Women who remain undocumented or without the ability to travel due to complex and ongoing asylum procedures are among the most affected by the Eighth Amendment, but they are not citizens, so they do not matter. However, we are continually reminded that the Citizens Assembly and the debates surrounding it are for a higher, more moral cause. Their decision will be collectivised and distilled into a representation of the will of the people and we will be told that the nation has at last transcended the difficult Irish question of abortion. They are “the Citizens” after all, and they will redeem the State and the thousands of women forced to leave to access abortions in England will preach forgiveness. That is the hope at least. The rhetoric of citizenship and deliberation and participation is a fitting next act in the midst of state pageantry and a million 1916 re-enactments commemorating those who wished to be heard. The State through its Assembly tells us it is listening and delegitimises more radical acts, such as ordering medication online because you made a decision you do not want to be pregnant.
The cabinet member playwrights will take their bows following its choreographed conclusion; the hope being that future generations will commend them for their brave move in “letting the people decide” conveniently forgetting that letting the people decide will require an actual referendum. In the absence of allowing a Bill to proceed that provides for a referendum, it is merely a spectacle of compliance functioning to hold the government together. If Citizens Assembly did not exist, there would be no excuse in delaying a referendum. It’s the tv series that should have ended three seasons back because it’s starting to feel repetitive but just as back to back episodes of Come Dine With Me replaces anything decent on tv, the sanitised Citizens Assembly will obscure the views of those who think women should be able to decide whether to be pregnant or not regardless of the circumstance of conception or their health.
There was graffiti in Paris in 1968 saying “When the national assembly becomes bourgeois theatre, the bourgeois theatres must become national assemblies.” The outworking of the Citizens Assembly decisions will be done by those who do the banal work of overseeing the work of governance and the State over golf courses and in the Dáil bar and in departmental offices. This is separate from the public performance. In the 1571 a book called “Order and Usage Howe to Keepe a Parliament” detailed how members of parliament should not discuss the internal goings on of the chamber; politics and how decisions are made are not for public consumption or discussion outside. Up to the 19th Century, visitors from parliament were not allowed take notes of parliamentary sessions. There is no live feed in the office of the Secretary General of the Department of Health where decisions are actually made and Dáil committees regularly sit in private session.
We haven’t come that far from the practice of 1571, the Dáil is still just ritual theatre, and the Citizens Assembly is the interval act.