Low turnout a lesson not to tinker with Constitution
ANALYSIS:The referendum reflects poorly on Irish politics and flags problems that loom for constitutional reform
There is no disguising the fact that the size of the No vote in the children’s referendum is a slap in the face to the entire political system and raises serious questions about the viability of the Government’s programme of constitutional reform.
Given that the entire Dáil and Seanad, with the exception of South Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath, were calling for a Yes vote and there was no organised national No campaign, the fact that 42 per cent of voters rejected the constitutional amendment is remarkable.
The low turnout of just one-third of the electorate undoubtedly contributed to the high proportion of No voters but that in itself represents another warning to the Government about holding referendums unless they are absolutely necessary.
The Supreme Court judgment two days before polling that the Government’s information campaign was illegal undoubtedly contributed something to the scale of the No vote but it was hardly the decisive factor.
The scale of the No vote on an issue where not just all of the political parties but a vast array of civil society groups were calling for a Yes shows that a significant segment of the electorate is deeply suspicions about the motivation of the authorities, regardless of the issue.
The same rural and deprived working-class areas that voted No in large numbers in a succession of European referendums voted No again this time on a very different type of constitutional amendment.
The rejection of the fiscal treaty last June by the two Donegal constituencies was perceived as a manifestation of support for the Sinn Féin anti-EU position. But the same two constituencies voted No again this time by a very similar margin despite the fact that Sinn Féin had signed up to the Yes campaign.
It is clear that a swathe of rural constituencies, particularly those close to the Border, and urban working-class areas simply do not trust the State. The fact that the same constituencies generally benefit most from State transfers doesn’t make the authorities any more popular.
Another feature of the result is that it has come on an issue where the proposed constitutional change was actually quite minor. While the No campaign argued that it represented a big shift in power from the family to the State authorities, most expert legal opinion was that the amendment would make little difference in practice.
The symbolism of inserting a reference to children’s rights into the Constitution, after the litany of abuse scandals that emerged over the past two decades, appears to have been the dominant motivation for the amendment. However, it failed to engage the public and very nearly boomeranged on its proponents.
The outcome is a salutary lesson to the Government, other political parties and interest groups that constitutional change is not something to be embarked upon lightly. That has implications for the range of constitutional reforms that feature so prominently in the programme for government.
The convention tasked with examining these potential amendments to the Constitution is due to get under way at the end of this month. It will begin with an examination of the case for reducing the President’s term from seven years to five and lowering the voting age to 17.