Former Labour MEP to chair new Citizens’ Assembly

The National, by Kathleen Nutt

10.06.19

The former Labour MEP David Martin is to lead the new Citizens’ Assembly, the body being set up to examine the way forward for constitutional change, according to a report released yesterday.

Martin, who lost his seat in the European Parliament after 35 years last month, will also be tasked with seeking consensus among members of the public on more powers for Holyrood.

An announcement on his appointment is expected to be made within the next few weeks and it is understood that ministers are keen to appoint a joint convener, with a number of leading women under consideration, the Sunday Times reported.

Nicola Sturgeon unveiled plans for the Citizens’ Assembly in April when she noted that a similar body established in Ireland had helped the country find common ground on subjects there, such as equal marriage and abortion, where opinion was sharply divided.

Martin is said to be well respected across the political spectrum, and is seen as the ideal candidate for the job.

He already serves as an adviser to the First Minister as a member of her standing council on Europe and is due to continue in this role despite losing his seat in Brussels.

Following the EU election last month, he praised the First Minister, the Scottish Brexit Secretary Michael Russell and the SNP MEP Alyn Smith (pictured below) for their conduct on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and how they have fought for Scotland’s place in Europe.

Previously, in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, Martin admitted he could end up backing Scottish independence, and after his defeat in the EU elections last month he said he was no longer sure if it was worth fighting to keep Scotland in the UK.

The assembly will bring together a randomly selected group reflecting Scotland’s population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and social class, to discuss giving powers to Holyrood.

Martin’s appointment prompted differing reactions from figures in the pro-independence movement.

Andrew Wilson (pictured below), the chair of the SNP’s Growth Commission, welcomed the development.

“Brilliant move. Absolutely superb,” he wrote on Twitter.

However, Pat Kane, a columnist for The National, was less impressed.

“Not good. Doesn’t every fibre in Martin’s being, at least in 30 years I’ve seen him, point towards DevoMax at best? I know, judicious chairing, bla bla. But this is either a dumb move for an Indy party… Or a smart move for those privately-resigned to (con/)federalism. Humph,” he tweeted.

Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham responded “rubbish” to Kane’s post.

Announcing her plan for a Citizens’ Assembly, the First Minister said she had been “struck” by the Irish example and insisted there was a need to “lay a foundation that allows us to move forward together, whatever decisions we ultimately arrive at”.

Ireland’s assembly was an effort to put citizens at the heart of important legal and policy issues, including abortion, climate change and the challenges of an ageing population.

Its creation was approved by both houses of the Irish parliament in July 2016, and it was made up of 99 members chosen at random to represent the views of the people of Ireland. Members were representative of wider society as reflected in the census, including by age, gender, and social class.

There was also a chairwoman appointed by the government – former Supreme Court judge, the honourable Mary Laffoy.

In total, the assembly met on 12 occasions between October 2016 and April 2018. Each meeting consisted of a full weekend – Saturday morning until Sunday afternoon – at a venue in Dublin. In April 2017, it recommended Ireland introduce unrestricted access to abortion, following five months of debate.

Members voted 64% to 36% in favour of the move – and just over a year later, a referendum on the issue saw the law overturned by a majority of 66.4%. It was a dramatic and historic moment for Ireland, and the citizens’ assembly played a direct part in making it happen.

Addressing MSPs, Sturgeon conceded the circumstances in Scotland are different, but insisted the principle is sound. Scotland’s assembly will be tasked with considering the type of country Scots want to build and what information they need to make an informed choice about the future.

The Scottish Government declined to comment on Martin’s appointment.