A tale of two referendums


On Friday the Irish will vote on two issues. Both are being sold as reforms, one a social reform, the other a political reform. Both can be said to have come from the the ‘People’ via the Constitutional Convention. If polls are even broadly accurate one will pass comfortably, the other will be easily defeated.

Why will the marriage referendum pass and the proposal to lower the age of eligibility for election to the office of the President be defeated? The major difference is the genesis of the proposals. The marriage referendum is a result of years of campaigning to extend the rights of LGBT in Ireland. It was a campaign led by demands from ordinary people. That it came through a Constitutional Convention is of little importance. That was politics; it was just a means of getting it by some Fine Gael backwoodsmen.

Labour may benefit from being identified as offering political leadership in this campaign. It has allowed it and some other parties to oil some of their rusty campaign machines. It offered the members, especially Labour members, a chance to be proud of their party again. It has also mobilised a group of people who were apolitical. They might now extend their involvement in politics beyond this issue.

The referendum campaign has been extraordinary. For the first time we see a vote where people are willing to buy campaign badges and T-shirts (not provided free by the party or some plutocrat). It has behind it a coalition from left to right, from ecologists, nationalists, state socialists to liberals. Opposed is one group from the Catholic right. Normally it takes more than this to defeat a government proposal. It’s the sort of movement that political campaigns will want to bottle. Certainly they’ll study it and try to learn lessons from it.

On the face of it the other referendum is also about equality – this time to end discrimination on grounds of age. I can’t think of many reasons why one would object to the change. But there is no mobilisation, no excitement, no debate, almost literally nothing. And it will be defeated.

This might seem odd. It’s a government proposal, with no real opponents. There is no coalition of different groups coming together in the way greens, nationalists, the socialists and conservative Catholics came together to defeat the Nice and Lisbon treaties. This is because it was (like a lot of the nonsense that came out of the Constitutional Convention) an invention of elites. Here the government wanted to give the illusion of reform. I doubt one twenty-something had ever being motivated to even tweet about the injustice of not being able to stand for election. No one really thinks that anyone under 35 would want to stand, and you’d worry for the mental health of anyone that age who would. It will be defeated for the same reason the Seanad abolition referendum was defeated: no one demanded it, it wasn’t an issue and it exposed a cynicism on the part of the government.

The lesson the government should have learned after the Seanad referendum, and might finally learn now is that constitutional changes should have some rationale for them. They should offer something approaching a real change for and demanded by at least a group of ordinary people.

7 thoughts on “A tale of two referendums

  1. Same Sex Marriage
    Interesting that you note that this referendum “allows Labour to be proud of their party again” An important issue for a relatively small group in society

    But it will not act as a check and balance to limit the scope for excess by the powerful. This is the the kind of issue that I expect parties with a social (and for that matter – christian) democratic perspective.

    An example is the treatment of Freedom of Information. The programme for Government promised to restore the 1997 Act. Instead this Government has replaced with a new act, which still retains fees, after a first request.

    Neither Labour nor Fine GAel have nothing to be proud of on this issue. Both were in government when the 1997 FoI Act was passed – with many of the same people as Ministers.

    re. the Presidential Poll.
    The Constituional Convention also voted in favour of giving citizens a say in the nomination of candidates for the offiice of President. The vote in favour was 94%. This means that some politician members of the Convention supported this proposal.

    Could the political science community throw some light on why this is not being voted on next week?
    I mean something more than simply the Government did not approve it.
    What kind of signal does that send?

    • the presidential candidate age referendum required little extra departmental work, thats why, although they could have examined limiting the presidents pension to retirement age.

      • DublinStreams, that is probably true – but it’s no excuse.

        The recommendation on presidential age had the lowest support of all recommendations of the Convention. Just 50% of the members supported it. Even when it comes to the President, there were more important and far better supported recommendations that have been rejected or put on the very long finger by the government.

        It’s scandalous that the 66 ordinary citizens who gave up their Saturdays and Sundays and left their homes and families to work in Dublin for over a year without pay on the Convention are being pissed on in the way Government are treating the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention.

      • just looking at a list of the convention political members, not even they let the ordinary members are speaking up about the gov parties lack of effort

  2. The referendum on lowering the age at which one can become president is merely a smokescreen to offer a modicom of cover for the referendum on same sex marriage. Never in the history of this small country have so many institutions, political parties and individuals clambered on to a bandwagon claiming to be rolled out in the interests of “equality” and never before has there been a greater lie. There is a great danger that this bandwagon will be infamous rather than famous. This referendum will lead to more court cases, lawyeriing and disharmony, more bitterness than Irsh Water and the failed banks combined. The claim that this country is liberal is the emperor without his clothes because when you force the will of the minority on the majority to the point that the words “husband” and “wife” will have to be taken out of the marriage contract and replaced with meaningless gender neutral nouns then we have become a laughing stock. I totally agree with Mr. Murphy in Cork.

    Why did they not ask the people if they wanted the control of their water to remain in state control and unable to be flogged off without the consent of the people by referendum? After all, hundreds of thousands marched and continue to march on the water issue. Nobody not a single person marched over the age of the candidacy for the presidency.

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