PRESS RELEASE: Citizens’ Assembly must call for referendum on constitutional right to environmental protection

The Citizens’ Assembly must call for a referendum to give a constitutional right to environmental protection to the people of Ireland, says the country’s leading environmental coalition.

The Environmental Pillar – a coalition of 26 national environmental organisations – outlined its view in a submission for the Assembly’s upcoming session on “How the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.” [1] [2]

The Assembly now has an unparalleled opportunity to use its unique position to propose amendments to the constitution and fill the gap left by Government inaction on climate change.

Giving the people the constitutionally protected right to live in a healthy environment would encourage politicians to take real long-term actions and ensure that those actions are not diluted with the change of guard at Dáil Éireann every five years.

With Government inaction for so long on the issue, it is time for the people to force their hand.  A constitutional amendment is the only way to ensure we drop our embarrassing moniker of climate laggard and move up the international leaderboard.

Donna Mullen, spokesperson for the Environmental Pillar, and a former cardiac physiologist for 25 years said:

“This constitutional approach will yield benefits to our economy, society, and most importantly, health. Already 1,200 people are dying prematurely from air pollution in Ireland each year, with over 150,000 deaths across the globe already attributed to climate change every year. [3] [4]

“During my career in medicine I witnessed first-hand the effects of air pollution on my patients, and it is heartbreaking to see.

“Our Citizens’ Assembly now has an unparalleled opportunity to provide a game changer – and to use its unique position to propose amendments to the constitution which will raise the bar against which Government’s decisions and policy actions of the future can be measured.

“A Constitutional Provision to Protect the Environment is what is needed to make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change – and that’s what we’ve been asked to consider.

“Ireland is one of only a handful of EU members not to have some form of environmental protection in its Constitution. Clearly, we are laggards, not leaders when it comes to climate action.

“And the recently published national mitigation plan does little to change that, failing to set an end date for peat burning and coal-fired electricity generation and to commit to a transition plan for the jobs involved.”

John Sweeney, Emeritus Professor at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth and a spokesperson for the Environmental Pillar on the issue, added:

“Every Irish government since 1990 has endorsed the findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the serious implications of climate change. Yet the State has failed to deliver a meaningful response.

“The Government introduced legislation for Climate Action in 2015 which doesn’t even cover a number of semi-state bodies, including many of our major energy producers such as Bord na Mona.

“The decisions of these companies are key to Ireland’s emissions and our contribution to climate change, and the fact that they are either partially or explicitly exempt shows that the Act is a weak and inadequate piece of legislation.” [5]

Attracta Uí Bhroin, Facilitator of the Environmental Law Implementation Group at the Irish Environmental Network added:

“Yes, there are some specific climate actions across key sectors which are needed, but the task before us as a nation with our assembly of citizens calls for a paradigm shift in Ireland’s approach to climate change.

“Let’s use tools which have proven themselves as effective mechanisms to guide our courts and our legislature across many issues – let’s use the Constitution to set the bar for environmental protection essential to climate action.

“The Constitution is the people’s law. The Citizens’ Assembly has really reclaimed the Constitution as the People’s law, and has an incredible opportunity to shape it, and all of our futures and those of future generations across the planet, and for all species on earth, by ensuring Ireland plays its part and lead on climate change action.”

Professor John Sweeney concluded:

“Our Government poses for photos with documents promising action on climate, while it lobbies hard to water down our emission targets required under EU and international agreements.”

“This shift is needed now more than ever. Without action today, Ireland will soon suffer the impacts of climate change such as increased flooding, sea level rise, increased storm intensity, and summer drought.


[1] Citizens’ Assembly, How the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change:[2] Link to submission:[3] Environmental Protection Agency, State of the Environment Report 2016:[4] Health and Environment Linkages Initiative of the WHO and UNEP:[5] Under the definitions of “prescribed body” and “public body” as laid out in Section 15 of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, the likes of Bord na Mona, Coillte, the ESB  and other major semi-state players in power generation, fossil fuels, aviation, and public transport are either partially or explicitly exempt from the Act.

The Act also merely obliges bodies to “have regard” to adaptation and mitigation objectives.  This obligation to “have regard to” has been interpreted by the courts to mean that a public body is not bound to comply with the matters it must have regard to.  The courts have held that if the Oireachtas had intended the objectives to be binding it would have explicitly imposed such an obligation in legislation.