Irish citizens' assembly recommends referendum on biodiversity

27. November 2022
Citizens' Assembly of Ireland

In Ireland, the Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity on 27 November 2022 voted in favour of a referendum on enshrining the protection of biodiversity in the country's constitution. 83 per cent of assembly participants voted for this proposal to the government.

The assembly concluded that the State has comprehensively failed to adequately fund, implement and enforce existing national legislation, national policies, EU biodiversity-related laws and directives related to biodiversity. It said this must change. The members of the assembly have also voted for the ambition of the State to be significantly increased to reflect the scale of Ireland's biodiversity crisis. It said adequate funding must be made available to address this crisis. This is likely to require substantial and sustained increases in expenditure, which the Citizens' Assembly said should be made available immediately and guaranteed in the long term.

Substantive and procedural environmental rights

Regarding the refendum the vast majority of the assembly members also voted very specifically that the proposal to amend the Constitution to protect biodiversity should include substantive and procedural environmental rights for both people and for nature. For people, such an amendment if passed in a referendum, would for example, confer a constitutional right to a clean, healthy, safe environment; a right to a stable and healthy climate; rights of future generations to these or other environmental rights.

It would also confer rights regarding access to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making and justice in environmental matters. For nature, the proposed constitutional change would recognise nature as a holder of legal rights, comparable to companies or people. This might include the right for nature to exist, to flourish and perpetuate, and the right to restoration if degraded. It would also give nature the right not to be polluted or harmed or degraded.

Right of nature to be a party

In addition the procedural rights it would confer on nature would include the right of nature to be a party in administrative decision-making, litigation and other situations where rights of nature are impacted or likely to be impacted.

The Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity has been meeting since 9 April 2022, the same day a Citizens' Assembly on Mayoral Direct Election in the Irish capital Dublin had also started its work. Taoiseach Micheál Martin addressed the members over video message at the start of the meeting. “These two new Citizens’ Assemblies will provide a means by which everyday people, who normally don’t get the opportunity to be involved in policy development or legislative proposals, to make a very real and direct contribution to the State’s response to both Biodiversity Loss and the structure of Local Government in Dublin,” Martin said.

Citizens' Assembly will recommend action

Biodiversity loss means a growing number of animals and plants are becoming extinct at an accelerating pace, and it’s caused by factors like overexploitation, habitat loss, and the climate crisis. The biodiversity assembly considers the threats of biodiversity loss and how to reverse it. It also considers the main causes and impacts of biodiversity loss and how to improve the government’s response and measure progress. 

The assembly furthermore looks at ways to develop greater policy coherence and synergie between biodiversity policy and other and other policy priorities including, but not limited to, economic development, climate action, sustainable development, agriculture and tourism. The citizens' assembly will decide on its recommendations and ideas on how to determine their effectiveness in January 2023. A parallel organised Children's and Young People's Assembly had already adopted its recommendations for the protection of biodiversity on 25 October 2022.

Citizens' assembly adopted in 2019

The Irish government declared a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019 and passed an amendment calling for a citizens’ assembly, but it has taken nearly three years for the assembly to be convened. 37,000 invitations to participate in the assemblies were issued to people in randomly selected households. There were 3,700 responses, from which the members were chosen randomly. The Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity loss has 99 participants.

On the announcement of the assemblies, a government spokesperson said it “presents a significant opportunity to design and implement an operational model that can allow for a greater number of citizens’ assemblies to be run”.

Citizens' assemblies since 2016

Since 2016, citizens' assemblies in Ireland have addressed abortion, challenges and opportunities of an aging population, fixed term parliaments, the manner in which referenda are held, climate change and gender equality. Previously, from 2013 to 2014, there was a constitutional convention made up of two-thirds randomly selected citizens to discuss same-sex marriage, blasphemy, the right to vote, a minimum age for presidential candidates, economic, social and cultural rights and the role of women in politics.

Recommendations of the citizens' assemblies on abortion, same-sex marriage and the deletion of the paragraph on blasphemy from the constitution found a majority in compulsory constitutional referendums. On the other hand, reducing the age threshold for candidacy for presidential elections from 35 to 21 years, as proposed by the Constitutional Convention, was rejected by the voters.

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