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'It is urgent': 'Frustration' that still no date set for Citizens' Assembly on biodiversity

The 2020 Programme for Government committed to progressing an assembly on this topic.

A PLANNED CITIZENS’ Assembly on biodiversity has not yet been scheduled, more than two years after Ireland declared a climate and biodiversity emergency, as “senior level” discussions remain ongoing in government. 

Environmentalists have said it’s “frustrating” to still be awaiting a timeline for this assembly after it was first raised by the previous government in 2019 and included in the 2020 Programme for Government (PfG).

The PfG mentioned the ‘progression’ of a number of Citizens’ Assemblies, including one focused on biodiversity, but without any details of timelines. 

Biodiversity refers to the different kinds of life on Earth such as animals, plants and bacteria, all of which are declining at an accelerating rate mainly due to human activity.

A Citizens’ Assembly on climate change took place in 2017 and made a number of recommendations on tackling the crisis. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said the Citizens’ Assembly is currently “under discussion at a senior level” between Housing and the Department of the Taoiseach.

“The timing and scheduling of the Assembly will depend on the outcome of these discussions and on a number of other factors which need to be considered before the scope and terms of the Assembly are framed,” the spokesperson said. 

“We do not, at present, know how long they are expected to last.”

A statement from Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform Malcolm Noonan said the assembly is a “vitally important PfG commitment”.

“We want to hear from the public on nature and biodiversity – as we learned with climate change, the people can be way ahead of the politicians on these issues,” Noonan said. 

We also want to engage with young people in a meaningful way and hear their views on nature. I’m keen that we prioritise those conversations.

This Citizens’ Assembly would make considerations around the issue of biodiversity. 

The PfG also sets out that an assembly will be set up this year to consider the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited for Dublin.

The Taoiseach said in the Dáil in July that it’s “envisaged” the biodiversity Citizens’ Assembly, along with other planned assemblies on drug use and the future of education, will be set up after the Dublin-focused assembly has finished its work. 

‘Frustrated’

The previous Dáil accepted an amendment calling for the biodiversity assembly in 2019 after the government declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. 

Director of environmental network Friends of the Earth Ireland, Oisín Coghlan, said the group is “frustrated” that the assembly hasn’t yet been set up.

Coghlan’s organisation – along with more than 25 other groups and charities – signed an open letter to the government in June to call for a date to be announced before the Dáil’s summer recess.

“It’s urgent that the assembly be convened as soon as possible,” he told The Journal

The government is set to release a new National Biodiversity Action Plan next year, according to Malcolm Noonan in July.

Noonan said at the time: ”It would be useful if the Citizens’ Assembly was also scheduled so that its discussions can respond to the new global policy framework for biodiversity and help inform Ireland’s role in it.”

This draft framework was set out earlier this year and is currently being discussed at the UN’s COP15 summit focused on biodiversity.

Coghlan said he would like to see the Citizens’ Assembly convene before the Irish plan is made to allow members to have a “chance to think about the issues and hear from experts and make recommendations for that plan”. 

He expressed concern that the government would “do a draft National Biodiversity Action Plan and give it to the Citizens’ Assembly for it to consider during its work”. 

“I think that’s the wrong order,” Coghlan said. 

I’m worried that it would be constraining and limiting the role of the Citizens’ Assembly if you produce a draft plan and just get them to comment on it.

‘We’re running out of time’

A Noteworthy report on biodiversity revealed in August that almost no protected sites in Ireland have management plans and the country is moving further away from a target for effective nature conservation.

The article states that Ireland is missing its chance to protect biodiversity with several species of bird, fish and mammals under threat. 

Elaine McGoff, natural environment officer for An Taisce, said it’s “frustrating” that the biodiversity Citizens’ Assembly has not yet been convened as “it’s been a long time in the making”. 

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“It’s indicative of how low down the pecking order biodiversity is in Ireland,” she told The Journal

“If we got the Citizens’ Assembly it would be a small step, but we have a long way to go and it really needs to be prioritised as we’re running out of time.” 

McGoff said that although there is more focus on climate at the moment, biodiversity is still neglected.  

“I would say it’s not something people think about in general,” she said.

The Citizens’ Assembly would be a big step in the right direction and would get media coverage and let people know it’s an important issue.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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