Government knows stakes are high on referendums


Amid the alarums and excursions of recent weeks, few noticed that we are into a spate of imminent referendums. And in Drapier's view there is little reason for the Government to be complacent about the outcomes.

When we got down to debating the 25th Amendment to the Constitution Bill this week - the Nice Treaty, in other words - the debate was notable for the number of ministers who contributed.

Generally, ministers stick to their briefs and rarely stray into wider debates unasked. This time there was clearly a threeline whip, a clear indication that the Government knows the stakes are high and that its polls are saying it cannot take anything for granted.

There are two reasons for this, as Drapier sees it.

First, referendums are notoriously unreliable from a government's point of view, as all parties now know. Even Eamon de Valera in his swan-song election, could not carry the 1959 referendum and Fianna Fail, under the most popular modern leader, Jack Lynch, lost two in a row in 1968.

Garret FitzGerald mired his administration in months of bitter controversy with the 1983 abortion referendum and did little to enhance his election prospects with the failed divorce referendum of 1986.

And it is not so long ago since the Rainbow government stared into defeat on the 1996 divorce referendum, saved only by the vigorous last-minute rally of John Bruton and Dick Spring which pushed that campaign over the line - even if Des Hanafin still wonders if the ball was actually grounded on that occasion.

So the Government knows the referendum is a two-edged sword. An electorate angry or disgruntled or merely bored can use the referendum to teach a lesson or send home a message, especially if the electorate is not persuaded the issue is all that important.

In a way, the Government is paying a price for the self-indulgence of its recent Euroscepticism. The fact is that we are fully paid-up members of the EU. Our mouths should be where our money is but when Sile de Valera more than once, Mary Harney and later Bertie Ahern sent out repeated Eurosceptic signals, the message was not lost on many voters.

If the Government is trying to face in both directions at once, one eye on Boston, the other on Berlin, then why can the voters not do likewise?

The message that some damage has been done has got back to the Government and since the McKenna judgment it can no longer rely on the taxpayers to hire PR firms and advertising agents to get across its message.

As a result, we saw the beginning of a concerted effort this week and the whip will stay on until there is a safe result. The whip is likely to be more effective on ministers and those on the payroll vote than it will be on backbenchers, many of whom are largely bored with the issue or see it as having little relevance to their re-election prospects.

That said, Drapier does not have much doubt about the outcome of the Nice poll. With Michael Noonan and Ruairi Quinn on board - in fact, probably more enthusiastic than the Government - the essentials are in place for a positive result and few of the issues involved are likely to provide the sort of material from which the Greens or Sinn Fein can make huge profits or capital.

Drapier has strong reservations, however, about the second of the four referendums, the proposed 22nd amendment, which could lead to the dismissal of judges on a two-thirds vote of the Oireachtas. Drapier thinks we are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Over the 80 years of independence, the number of complaints of judicial impropriety has been tiny. In the one and only celebrated case of recent times, the two judges resigned. So if the system is working, or rather if it has already been modified, why not see how it actually works before rushing into what many people here, and not just on the Opposition benches, consider to be an ill-considered and hasty amendment?

Changing the Constitution is a serious matter and if the Government is anxious for change there are far more relevant things in Ken Whitaker's Report on the Constitution which deserve attention but which are gathering dust. Why the rush? And to what end?

Talking of things judicial, the Supreme Court threw in its own little depth charge on Wednesday. Many remember the campaign of the former senator, Pol O Foighil, to have his constitutional rights as an Irish speaker vindicated in practice as well as in theory. Pol's point was that since Irish was the first official language, he was entitled to have legislation and official documents available to him in that language.

In spite of raising the issue on many occasions, and in spite of many noisy protests, he got nowhere. This was not out of malice but because Official Ireland thought it too expensive or too complicated to make it happen.

The Supreme Court did not mince its words, describing the behaviour of the Government as "an offence to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution" and as being guilty of inexcusable inertia. Do nothing and the problem will go away.

The matter is of more than academic importance. Few recent Bills - and by recent Drapier means at least a decade - are in Irish and if Drapier's reading of the judgment is correct, we may be faced with a barrage of claims and objections based on this fact. In hindsight it is hard to believe the Government thought it could get away with this one.

The Constitution is unambiguous about the status of Irish and it is extraordinary that the Government's own legal advice did not warn it on this score. This is one that Michael McDowell needs to clarify - that is if clarification is either possible or helpful.

The judgment also carried a warning message that the new Supreme Court may be on the edge of a bout of judicial activism. Certainly the judgment of Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman was vigorous and forthright and may well be a taste of things to come.

Finally, this week's whisperings about the date of the election. Maybe it's all the talk of the timing of the British election or a surfeit of feel-good factor on the Government's side but a new nervousness has crept in that Bertie Ahern may be gearing up for an autumn election.

This feeling is fed by the belief that the economy is heading for a period of difficulty and that it would be better go to the country now than wait until times become tougher.

Drapier still thinks not. He does so for one reason above all others. Nothing in the current party polling figures points to significant gains for any party. Therefore, why take the risk of an election which could leave you worse off and which offers no Blair-like guarantees of success? Drapier for one is still looking at this time next year.