To inform government policy on biodiversity loss following consideration of assembly’s recommendations by both Houses of the Oireachtas (Parliament).
The coalition government which includes the Green Party committed to a citizens’ assembly on biodiversity loss as part of its partnership programme. The Citizens’ Assembly’s terms of reference were agreed by the Houses of the Oireachtas in February 2022.
How the State can improve its response to the issue of biodiversity loss, and to bring forward proposals in that regard.
Commitment to respond
Parliament committed to consider the recommendations of the assembly through a joint committee of both Houses and to bring its conclusions to the Houses for debate. Unlike previous citizens’ assemblies in Ireland, the Government is expected to provide the Oireachtas with a response to each recommendation of the Assembly and, if accepting some or all of the recommendations, to indicate the timeframe it envisages for implementation.
Independent Chair (Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, academic with public profile on science communication), Secretariat (seconded civil servants), Steering Group (the Chair and a group of Assembly Members elected by the wider Assembly), and Expert Advisory Group (specialists in biodiversity plus an expert in deliberative processes).
The Secretariat and Chair led the process, with the Expert Advisory Group designing programme (selecting evidence and witnesses) with oversight from the Steering Group. In-house recruitment of members using An Post’s geo-directory database. Quality Matters provided facilitation and note-taking – awarded through public tender.
99 members with substitute members also selected through a two-stage civil lottery. Selection criteria: gender, age, geography, and social class. Members were paid an honorarium. This is the first time an Irish assembly has used civic lottery. Previous assemblies used door-to-door recruitment. No figures yet available for attendance and substitution.
Scheduled to meet for an introductory meeting in June 2022, an optional fieldtrip to three different sites that take different approaches to habitat management, and then 4 weekends between September and November 2022. Additional time was added in January, at the members’ request, when the assembly was unable to complete its deliberations and decisions during the final November weekend.
The Assembly heard presentations from experts and civil society and advocacy groups about the science of biodiversity decline, national obligations, policies and resources and various specific areas that have direct impact on biodiversity loss: agriculture; woodlands and forestry; peatlands; freshwater; marine environments; industry and energy production; urban environment and infrastructure. Witnesses participated in question-and-answer sessions and discussions. During the fourth weekend, the members worked on the wording of a series of ballot papers to consider recommendations across the different areas (initially drafted by the Secretariat, the Chair and the Expert Advisory Group). [Note: the assembly did not break into sub-groups to consider particular topics]
Small table facilitation to ensure fairness in participation and completion of tasks.
Website with members-only section to share additional materials (see Evidence base).
The Expert Advisory Group selected evidence and witnesses. Members received presentations from biodiversity experts, industry and civil society and advocacy groups and summaries of over 650 written submissions from members of the public. Answers to questions remaining at the end of each week were solicited by the Expert Advisory Group. A members-only area of the assembly website has a resources library that contains links to TV and radio programmes, documentaries, podcasts and a brief list of books on Irish wildlife. Members are able to share resources on it.
Throughout the weekends, ideas were generated through small table discussions, collected by facilitators and notetakers and collated into proposals on draft ballot papers by the Expert Advisory Group. The ballots were refined in an interactive process between the members, the Secretariat, the Chair and the Expert Advisory Group. The number of recommendations generated by members meant that there was not enough time in the final weekend to consider all the ballot papers, so additional time was added in January 2023 for the assembly to complete its work.
Decisions were made by majority voting and secret ballot. At the end of the fourth weekend, one major proposal had been agreed with 83% support: a recommendation for a referendum of the people to amend the constitution with a view to protecting biodiversity.
The final report contains 73 high-level recommendations and 86 sectoral specific actions and priorities. The report does not only propose major shifts in government policy, but also changes to the Constitution to ensure people have a right to a clean, healthy, and safe environment, including specific protections for nature.
The Citizens’ Assembly website provides details of the terms of reference, recruitment, submissions and recordings of the evidence from all weekends (all of which were streamed live). Other elements of the process, such as the members of the Expert Advisory Board, are missing. Observers and media were able to attend assembly sessions. Media coverage of the process was quite substantial, with the RTE correspondent, George Lee, attending regularly and publishing relevant stories. The Chair has been highly active on TV, radio and public appearances at major events. The Chair and Secretariat met with a wide range stakeholders in June and the Chair met with the largest farming organisations at the national ploughing championships (Europe’s largest outdoor event). Two Tick Tok influencers were invited to the launch and to follow the process.
The public was invited to make submissions via the website. This was mostly used by individuals and groups active in areas of biodiversity. A Children and Young People’s Biodiversity Loss Assembly ran alongside the adult assembly, commissioned the Minister for Heritage and Electoral Reform. The CYP assembly was co-designed and facilitated by a youth advisory team and engaged 7 to 17 year olds. The CYP assembly agreed 6 key messages and 53 calls for action that it presented to the third meeting of the adult assembly.
The report of the assembly will be considered by a joint Oireachtas Committee which will make its own report to government. The terms of reference of the assembly include a requirement for the government to respond to each recommendation with timescale where it intends to implement a recommendation.
Oversight of official response
Members have no formal oversight role. Chair likely to continue to advocate for Assembly recommendations.
Too early to tell. A national Biodiversity Action Plan is currently under consideration which will not be published until after the recommendations have been received.
No independent research commissioned. Secretariat will conduct a detailed review of the recruitment methodology to refine and improve for future citizens’ assemblies. Data from each weekend member surveys has been analysed quickly by the Secretariat with the support of the deliberative specialist on the Expert Advisory Group to inform programme design.
Not yet public.