Another rushed referendum could be recipe for failure

Thu, Aug 23, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:The more hurried a poll seems, the more open voters are to believing conspiracy theories, writes MARY MINIHAN

THE GOVERNMENT could be sleep-walking into a second referendum failure.

With the Cabinet yet to name a date and wording apparently not yet finalised, it seems the Opposition’s hoped-for support in the autumn poll on the children’s rights referendum can no longer be taken for granted.

No one underestimates the complexity of the matter under consideration and the importance of agreeing water-tight wording in order to avoid creating constitutional hostages to fortune and, possibly, a glut of expensive court cases.

Campaigners say the continued absence of an explicit reference to children’s rights in the Constitution is having a negative effect on the welfare of vulnerable young people. Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald agrees.

But as far back as last December, Fitzgerald said the wording was being finalised and that she wanted to make sure there was “a good lead-in time” to the referendum to ensure people understood the complicated issues involved. Last month she said the wording would be published in time for plenty of discussion with all interested groups.

The Coalition has been criticised for rushing referendums in the recent past. The Referendum Commission, required by law to provide voters with an independent assessment of the implications of any new wording, complained of getting just five weeks to prepare its explanation of the proposals on judges’ pay and Oireachtas inquiries.

The latter referendum was lost.

Fitzgerald’s Fianna Fáil counterpart, Robert Troy, has warned she may struggle to ensure voters are not sidetracked by clever campaigners highlighting separate issues. Who is he referring to?

Former Fianna Fáil TD Mary O’Rourke predicted previously that “the forces of old” would wish to reassert themselves in such a campaign. “The same forces that were out during the Lisbon campaign and all of the early pro-life and anti-abortion campaigns,” she said.

The proposals produced by the cross-party committee chaired by O’Rourke in February 2010 may seem entirely sensible to many readers, but rest assured others will not regard them as reasonable.

Some may find this proposal particularly controversial: “Provision may be made by law for the adoption of any child where the parents have failed for such a period of time as may be prescribed by law in their responsibility towards the child and where the best interests of the child so require.”

Following its publication, then Fianna Fáil minister of state for children Barry Andrews said some of the committee’s wording had “unanticipated consequences”. A new, watered-down wording was tentatively agreed, shortly before the general election, between Mr Andrews’s office and the then attorney general, Paul Gallagher, but it moved too far from the committee’s original text for Ms Fitzgerald’s liking.

The Fine Gael/Labour Coalition, in its programme for government, promised to give priority to holding a referendum to ensure that children’s rights were strengthened “along the lines recommended by the all-party Oireachtas committee”.

Fitzgerald, a hard-working and passionate advocate of children’s rights, has correctly identified communication as a challenge in this upcoming referendum campaign.

It is possible the apparent lack of urgency about producing the wording was a political strategy to allow opponents limited time to parse and analyse the text. Such a strategy could easily backfire, because the more rushed a referendum seems to voters, the more open they are to believing conspiracy theories.