NICOLA Sturgeon unveiled plans for a new Citizens’ Assembly during her speech to the Scottish Parliament yesterday.

The First Minister told MSPs this would involve “a representative cross-section of Scotland” tasked with answering big questions, such as “What kind of country are we seeking to build?” and “How can we best overcome the challenges we face, including those arising from Brexit”.

Sturgeon said the assembly would also have a key role in shaping indyref2 preparations, with members to be asked “What further work should be carried out to give people the detail they need to make informed choices about the future of the country?”

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There was only a limited amount information available yesterday on what the assembly would involve. Government Business and Constitutional Relations Secretary Michael Russell is due to set out more detail in the future, and start discussion with the other parties over remit and structure.

However, the First Minister said she had been inspired by the Citizens’ Assembly set up in Ireland in 2016. Dublin created a group of 99 citizens, randomly selected to be broadly representative of the Irish electorate, to deliberate on a number of issues, including gay marriage, and abortion.

Initially, the group wasn’t hugely popular, with press and campaigners deeply cynical, believing it was a way for the government to delay important decisions.

But unlike politicians, especially in a country such as Ireland where the church is still powerful, assembly members didn’t have to worry about party allegiances or elections, and were able to look into the laws around abortion and gay marriage and discuss in some detail the arguments for change.

When, in 2017, they recommended unrestricted access to abortion, the politicians were furious, believing the assembly had gone too far and was wildly out of step with the rest of the country.

But when Ireland held a referendum on abortion the following year, 66% of those who voted agreed with the assembly.

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Sturgeon told MSPs: “I have been struck recently by the Irish example of a Citizens’ Assembly to help find consensus on issues where people have sharply divided opinions.

“Of course, the circumstances here are different, as are the issues under consideration. But the principle is a sound one and I believe we should make use of it.”

The news was welcomed by MP Joanna Cherry, who had been due to lead a debate at this weekend’s SNP conference on establishing the process in Scotland. “These initiatives have worked well in several countries – most notably in Ireland – to help advise on solutions to thorny issues and constitutional change,” she said.

Tory MSP Adam Tomkins was less keen, saying: “We have one. It’s the Scottish Parliament. And it should be spending its time on building Scottish education, health, economic growth, not on chasing the SNP’s indy unicorns.”

The Scottish Greens’ co-leader at Holyrood, Alison Johnstone, asked the First Minister if the Citizens’ Assembly would “inform the prospectus that is put forward by the government in the referendum”.

Sturgeon said there were still discussions to be had on the remit and operation of the assembly. She said: “That is very much about opening the process up to people who are not politicians, a representative section of the Scottish population who can start to consider these big questions about the future of our country.

“The issues we are discussing are not easy and there is no inevitability about them, but all of us – notwithstanding the differences of opinion that we have, which are valid in any democracy – can try to come together and see whether we can find areas of agreement and consensus.”

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There was support for the proposal from the chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Anna Fowlie said:“The First Minister’s commitment to establish a Citizens’ Assembly to forge a way forward on Brexit is a welcome one and mirrors views SCVO set out last year.

“Faced with another season of Westminster gamesmanship or a serious discussion about how to take the country forward, the choice is clear. People must be given a chance to shape their own future.

“Citizens’ assemblies work – and evidence shows they work well.

The Scottish Parliament itself was born of a Constitutional Convention which drew on an array of voices to help shape decisions in the national interest.

“SCVO looks forward to playing its part in designing and contributing to the new Citizens’ Assembly”.