Republic of Ireland – moves towards more direct democracy?




Donal O’Brolchain reviews pre/post- election developments on direct democracy

The February 2016 election continues a pattern of nearly 50 years ie. voters have not re-elected an outgoing government.  Since 1969, this has happened once in 2002.  Despite Ireland’s undoubted successes (eg. joining the EU, a rising population and workforce) over these years, we have had two major social, economic and fiscal crises brought on by bad governance.

Here, as elsewhere, there is a growing awareness of the need to find new ways for enhancing democratic governance, given the influences of new communications media in a globalised economy.  The Irish Water debacle indicates that, on some issues, people want to take part in politics directly, without waiting for elections.

During 2015, two independent movements (One Year Initiative, Reinstate48) started with the same aim ie. to introduce people-initiated referendums.

This suggests that people are becoming aware of a need to have a means of directly exercising their right to decide all questions of national policy, in accordance with the common good, which is one aspect of Article 6.1 of our Constitution.

In 2013, members of Constitutional Convention voted 83% in favour of direct democracy when considering electoral reform.  The last government rejected of this vote which was higher than the support for same-sex marriage.

Since the election, some scope has emerged for another look at people-initiated referendums as means of complementing our representative democracy.  These are the setting up of a Citizens’ Assembly and a motion on the Dáil’s order paper.

The manner in which referenda are held is among the five topics of the terms of reference for the Citizens’ Assembly.

Nearly 40 TDs supported a 1Yi draft motion which is now on the agenda for this Dáil.   This calls for a One Year Citizens’ Assembly to devise a new mechanism that will enable citizens to robustly scrutinise proposed legislation, assess and advocate for citizens’ initiatives, and table amendments and counter proposals to Government sponsored legislation.

Over the next few years, we will continue to mark the events that led to the foundation of this State.  Some attention will focus how democratic legitimacy was secured and sustained.  In 1922, the Dáil voted to include people-initiated referendums in the Constitution of the Irish Free State.  This showed extraordinary confidence in the democratic process and in the right of the people to participate directly in governing themselves, at the height of Civil War violence.

Full report available at Republic of Ireland – moves towards more direct democracy?  Democracy International 14 December2016


13 thoughts on “Republic of Ireland – moves towards more direct democracy?

  1. Great article. Well done Donal. The political system is crying out for accountability and greater checks and balances. Who better to do this than people. Giving greater power to the public is a great place to start.

  2. Poorly-calibrated referendums also allow angry voters to paralyse governments, leading to cataclysm and extremist rhetoric filling the void. See a remarkably large number of countries in Europe this year. Back when Weimar Germany was in more people’s lifetimes, we used to care about avoiding that outcome.

    • Anything that is poorly calibrated does not last, as Keynes pointed out (in 1919) about the post WW1 “settlement” in The Economics Consequences of the Peace. If voters are angry throughout Europe, I suggest that it is due to poorly calibrated governance, in some countries and also at transnational level. If such anger festers, of course voids will emerge, as the late David Thornley pointed out at another time of great change here.
      “There may be change in the criteria of decision-making at the top; change in social habits at the bottom. But unless these two are bridged by the mutual education of the democratic process, communication between the top and the bottom may cease. In Ireland, where the stimulus to change is external, something like this may in fact be happening”. Source: Thornley, David (1964). “Ireland – the end of an era?” Studies Vol LIII (Spring) Dublin. published as a Tuairim pamphlet No. 12. Dublin 1965.. Reprinted in Thornley, Y (ed) Unquiet Spirit – essays in Memory of David Thornley. Dublin. Liberties Press. 2008 p.167-184

      Thornley’s observation is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago, even taking account of more widespread education in the intervening period. We face challenges similar to those of the 1960s arising from significant changes to patterns of trade (eg. the rise of China) with the resultant pressures on resources and the emergence of new communications media.

      I suggest that people-initiated referendums is one means of enhancing the mutual education of the governed and the governors on issues. This promotes legitimacy and adds to checks&balances on the powerful in democracies.
      IMO, it is possible to consider, design and implement well-calibrated ways of having people initiated referendums which complement normal electoral processes at local, regional, national and transnational levels. We can learn from jurisdictions which enable citizens to initiate decisive referendums on issues complementary to elections for people and political parties. People can have a means to participate directly in governing themselves without waiting for elections. Consideration of issues can be accelerated or braked. People-initiated referendums can act a safety valve and/or a catalyst on issues that are not on the agendas of political parties, parliamentarians, policy-makers and people with influence.
      To start a consideration of how to go about calibrating methods of having people initiated referendums, you might care to look at this ~22 minute presentation to hearings held by European Parliament Constitutional Affairs Committee(AFCO) in 2012. Dr Andi Gross was then a Swiss MP, but he retired in late 2015. Dr Gross spoke on Governing with the People with particular stress on design criteria for decisive people-initiated referendums which complement parliamentary government. With his permission, his talk is available here
      Dr Andi Gross on the design of modern direct democracy. European Parliament AFCO hearings 18Sept2012
      On this forum, I do not have a means of uploading the nine slides he used to summarise his talk.
      The full podcast of the AFCO hearings is on the European Parliament’s website.

      Dr Gross spoke during the afternoon session, starting at about 14.20
      In November 2015, Dr Gross spoke at a workshop on direct democracy in UCD. In a ~30 minute talk, he added some useful reflections to what he said in Bruxelles in 2012. The complete podcast of this seminar is available here University College Dublin Workshop on Direct Democracy 30Nov2015

      I do not have a means of uploading his paper to this forum.
      Returning to Germany, in 1946, the first post WW2 premier of Bavaria brought in direct democracy in that Land, He had spent much of the Nazi era in Switzerland. Clearly he was not afraid of the people, despite the effects of the failure of Weimar Germany.
      Since then, all the other Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany have brought direct democracy.

      • Ok. In practice, the referendum isn’t a safety valve but a catalyst in the chemical sense: it speeds up problems to which it isn’t directly connected. The British referendum didn’t head off racism, it caused more extremist rhetoric against foreigners and the murder of a member of parliament. The Italian referendum led to the collapse of a bank rescue and the state’s implication in a bailout. It gives large lobby groups (the only people who can get enough signatures) a route into policy formation, but they have that anyway. There is no evidence that referendums do all these nice things for democracies, just opinion. (Political) science needs tests.

  3. Thanks, Donal, for a well-written and interesting report. I would be very keen to see a citizens initiative mechanism in our constitution, so it was nice to see efforts like Reinstate48 and the “One Year Initiative” in the lead-up to the last GE. I wasn’t aware of the Dáil motion. The podcasts for the UCD direct democracy workshop look quite interesting also (must check them out): :

    • Reinstate48 did put up posters (a number of sets) around Dublin during the Feb 2016 election campaign. Due to limited budgets, there was a focus on sites outside media offices eg. newspapers, broadcasters. The court case was not a stunt, even if it did get some publicity for what ReInstate48 set out to achieve. I do not know what the posters cost.

      • I did say that I do not know what the posters cost. Nor do I know how many were printed. I did see a number of posters on Tara, Townsend and Talbot Streets.
        Have you some particular interest in knowing how much was spent on these posters?

  4. sounds more like the €2,500 a figure mentioned on crowdfunding site, my main interest is whether newspapers reported you spent €30,000 without checking, how does a person on the organising committee not know how much reinstate48 spent on posters?

  5. Quota. your comment of 24 December last.

    Our banks were rescued by the State, even though we did not have a referendum. Note that this was the second time, in 30 years, that the state had to organise the rescue of AIB.

    Given that racism has been an issue in the UK since the 1960s, it is going too far to blame the Brexit referendum for the racism which emerged during and after the Brexit campaign. If racism and xenophobia are part of a political culture, there is nothing in any open electoral process that can stop it emerging, overtly or covertly. In the UK, senior politicians (mainly Tory) have spent decades being openly sceptical of the European project. To what extent has this fuelled xenophobia? In the last 60 years, at least two MPs have been murdered when there was no referendum in the UK.

    If people had the power to initiate decisive(not consultative) referendums without waiting for those in power to call them, who knows what issues might have emerged in the UK over the past 60 years? I suggest that there would have been much more open discussion on immigration, racism and European developments. In addition, the European Convention on Human Rights might have become part of UK domestic law earlier than 1998. Or it might have been completely rejected! Similarly, the mere possibility of people-initiated referendum might have led the UK to restrict implementation of the freedom of movement for citizens of the 10 Eastern European states which other EU Member States did, in varying degrees, up to 2011.

    Why would large lobby groups bother with referendums, if they already have routes into policy formation? It is possible to design and implement checks and balances on those promoting referendums, be they well organised interest groups, ad hoc groups (eg. the same sex marriage campaign) or governments. In fact, Supreme Court judgements have already set down some standards.

    In Ireland, I suggest that there would have been a referendum on water charges, had we the means to exercise our power directly, as provided for by Art. 47 of the Irish Free State Constitution. The mere existence of such power in the hands of citizens would surely have made politicians and policy makers much less cavalier in their approach and actions on this issue. All the issues on the provision of treated water to domestic residences and waste water treatment/disposal would then have been well-discussed and more widely understood, as would options for the organisatikon of these eservices and how to pay for them. Instead, we got legislation put through the Dáil using a guillotine, followed by a rush to set up a new national utility to take over existing staff and facilities, protests as water meters were installed and then a series of policy changes following the results of a by-election. This sorry saga is not a good way to govern ourselves. Well legitimated decisions are easier to implement.

    The key issue is that referendums be decisive – not just consultative. If the only source which can trigger of referendums is the government (as here), the catalytic effect will be limited. An example is the 1979 referendum on changing the electorate for the six university Senate seats. It passed, but the political/governmental class have not yet implemented the changes needed to cater for the creation of two new universities in the State. This suggests a culture of whimsical and arbitrary governance. This behaviour gives rise to cynicism about the incumbent elites.

    We do need to test new ways of governing ourselves. As an antidote to continuous accumulation of power (in public and private centres which have proved incompetent, by their own admission), I suggest that we introduce people-initiated referendums on issues sooner rather than later. But first let us spend a year learning from other jurisdictions which already have experience of people-initiated referendums.

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