What exactly are you being asked to vote on in the upcoming referendum?
The Referendum Commission can explain the basic facts, but can’t referee the debate, writes Judge Elizabeth Dunne
What injects energy into public discussion, raises awareness and encourages voting is strong, articulate argument on each side of the debate. Photograph: Frank Miller
Arguments for and against the proposal to abolish the Seanad have been made vigorously in recent weeks. Discussion on the proposal to establish a court of appeal has been more muted, but fortunately has picked up recently.
I say “fortunately”, because lively debate assists the Referendum Commission in its key tasks – to raise awareness of the referendums, explain what they are about and encourage people to vote.
On its own, carefully written factual information such as ours struggles to bring a campaign to life. What injects energy into public discussion, raises awareness and encourages voting is strong, articulate argument on each side of the debate.
In the course of that debate, the commission is often asked to arbitrate on points of controversy. For example, there has been considerable discussion of how much money might be saved if the Seanad was abolished. We have been asked what the Court of Appeal might cost, and whether other reforms might achieve better outcomes than what the people are being asked to vote on this Friday.
It is not our job to pronounce on these things. We are given proposals to explain and we explain them. In relation to the debate on the costs of the Seanad, we did ask the Houses of the Oireachtas for information as we had been asked for this by members of the public and there had been considerable debate about it. They gave us the information they had, and we have published it on our website.
The basic facts
Here are some facts on each referendum proposal. In relation to the Seanad, you are being asked whether or not you want to abolish it. You vote Yes if you do; you vote No if you don’t. It’s that simple.
Currently, if a Bill is to become law it must be passed by both the Dáil and the Seanad and then signed by the President. If the referendum is passed, a Bill will become law if it is passed by the Dáil and then signed by the President.
Some other changes will result. Currently someone can be nominated to run for President if they get the support of 20 members of the Dáil and Seanad. If we abolish the Seanad, in future 14 members of the Dáil will be able to nominate someone for President.
Currently the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad sits on the Presidential Commission and the Council of State. If we pass the referendum the Leas-Chean Comhairle of the Dáil will sit on these bodies instead. Other changes include how the President, judges or the Comptroller and Auditor General can be removed from office. They are explained on referendum2013.ie and in our guide.
The second referendum asks whether you want to establish a court of appeal, and to change how the Supreme Court delivers judgments in certain cases. Vote Yes if you want to do this; vote No if you don’t.
The new Court of Appeal would be set up between the High Court and the Supreme Court. It would hear most of the appeals currently heard by the Supreme Court. In future the Supreme Court would only hear appeals on matters of general public importance, or matters the interests of justice require that it hears.
The change in how the Supreme Court delivers some judgments relates to decisions on whether or not a law passed by the Oireachtas is constitutional. At the moment, the Constitution says decisions in these cases should be given by just one judge, so it is not known if other judges disagreed, and if so why. It is proposed that this “one judgment” rule be removed so each judge can give his or her opinion in such cases.
These are the basic facts. But it is for others to make arguments, and it is for voters to make up their minds.
Our Constitution is fundamental to how we order our society. In this country, changes to it are for the people alone to decide upon. This is our right but it is also a privilege – a privilege not shared in some parts of the world where people do not have free and fair elections, and where constitutions are written and rewritten by executive or parliamentary diktat rather than by the people.
Voting is a simple but important task. It is also a right we should value. The Constitution belongs to us, the people of Ireland, and only we can decide whether or not we want to change it. Be part of that decision.
Judge Elizabeth Dunne is chairwoman of the Referendum Commission, whose explanation of the proposals can be found at referendum2013.ie