Chair of the biodiversity loss assembly Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin at today's formal launch. Sam Boal
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'One of the most important and defining issues': Citizens' assembly on biodiversity launched

A citizens’ assembly on Dublin’s governance will also begin this afternoon.

THE LONG-AWAITED CITIZENS’ assembly on biodiversity formally commenced its work today in a mostly-online meeting based at Dublin Castle.

Two new citizens’ assemblies, one on biodiversity loss and one on a directly-elected mayor for Dublin, held a joint inaugural introductory meeting from Dublin Castle this afternoon, with most members joining virtually.

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.

“Once again, we are at an important moment in the political and democratic life of this country – and once again we are placing the people at the heart of the consideration of proposals which could have a significant impact on the way we live our lives.”

Cabinet signed off on the establishment of the two new assemblies in February. It’s expected they’ll report back with their findings before the end of the year.

The biodiversity assembly will consider the threats of biodiversity loss and how to reverse it; the main causes and impacts of biodiversity loss; and how to improve the government’s response and measure progress. 

It will look at “opportunities to develop greater policy coherence and strategic synergies between biodiversity policy and other policy priorities including, but not limited to, economic development, climate action, sustainable development, agriculture and tourism”. 

The chairs of the two assemblies — Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin for biodiversity and Jim Gavin for Dublin — made opening remarks.

Members also heard from Art O’Leary, the secretary-general of citizens’ assemblies and Dr Clodagh Harris, a senior lecturer at UCC’s Department of Government and Politics.

A short panel discussion with members of previous citizens’ assemblies followed the addresses. 

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.

Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said that “biodiversity loss, its causes, and what we can do to address it is one of the most important and defining issues of our time”.

“I look forward to starting work with the members of the Assembly and identifying what practical solutions we can find to this challenge.”

She added: “It is a problem that is damaging the planet that affects us all. From the health of the soil, to the quality of the food we eat; from the populations of flora and fauna around us, to the cleanliness of the water we drink.”

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.

The Dublin citizens’ assembly will consider the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures that are best suited for Dublin. 

Its members will examine the strengths and weaknesses of local governance in Ireland and the potential benefits and risks for Dublin of a directly-elected mayor.

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.

It is the first time that two citizens’ assemblies are running concurrently.

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”.

However, some politicians and campaigners are disappointed that an assembly has not been convened on the topic of drug use.

A citizens’ assembly on drug use is expected to commence in 2023 after the work on biodiversity loss and Dublin’s governance ends, but many say the subject is too urgent to wait.

In an open letter to the Taoiseach in March, Senator Lynn Ruane called for an assembly on drug use to be created this year.

“Ireland deserves a better future than the one we have been offered. Every day that we wait to reform Ireland’s approach to drug use, another two people will die a drug-related death,” Ruane wrote.

“This doesn’t even take into account the other socioeconomic harms of drugs and drug-related crime. With every day that passes, our communities suffer,” she said.

“Taoiseach, it is time for a citizens’ assembly on drugs. The issue is a priority for us, and it should be a priority for your Government too.”

With additional reporting by Zuzia Whelan. 

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