Low turnout a lesson not to tinker with Constitution
The lesson of this weekend may be that putting such relatively minor issues to the people in a referendum could easily rebound. The same is true of the Government’s plan to abolish the Seanad.
If 42 per cent of those voting on Saturday were prepared to back the No side even though there was no coherent and well-funded campaign against the amendment, there have to be questions about the prospects of the Yes side carrying the day in the face of stiff opposition to the abolition of the Seanad.
One of the serious difficulties governments have faced since the McKenna and Coughlan judgments by the Supreme Court is that their hands have been tied in referendum campaigns. Governments cannot spend public money recommending a Yes vote, and the most recent Supreme Court decision has put the nature of that restriction beyond doubt.
In future, it is unlikely that there will be any government information campaign and the whole process will be handed over to the impartial Referendum Commission. It is doubtful in any case whether the €1.1 million spent on the Government’s booklet had any material impact.
The Coughlan judgment is arguably far more restrictive as far as government is concerned. It has been interpreted to mean that the Yes and No sides have to get equal time in the coverage of referendum campaigns on television and radio. This is a considerable advantage to the No side in the majority of campaigns, where most of the mainstream political forces are ranged on the Yes side.
The net effect of the two judgments is that referendums can only succeed when there is a huge effort by the Yes side to amend the Constitution and where the political parties and civic society groups go out and campaign as if their lives depend on it. It requires deep engagement by the political system and the media to get people to turn out for referendums.
The Irish public has rarely engaged with referendums in the same way as it does with general elections. It is probably no coincidence that, apart from the decision to join Europe in 1972, the highest-ever turnout in a referendum was on the abortion issue which took place on the same day as the 1992 general election.
One of the explanations for the apparently massive shift in voter sentiment since opinion polls a month ago showed the Yes side winning with 80 per cent of the vote was the low turnout. It is not the first time that polls, which survey the attitude of the entire population, don’t provide an accurate barometer when just one-third of the eligible population turns out to vote.
Yesterday’s outcome is a timely warning to the Government that voters do not appreciate being asked to vote in referendums unless they are absolutely necessary. At least one more referendum on Europe will probably be required in the next two years and the Coalition might be advised to conserve its energies for that make-or-break decision rather than frittering away public goodwill by unnecessary tinkering with the Constitution.
Stephen Collins is Political Editor of The Irish Times