Constitution Day - many referendums but too many choices?

Gay marriage referendum may be one of up to 11 held on the same day in 2015

Here are your 11 ballot papers...Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

Here are your 11 ballot papers...Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES


When you want to discover what a Government isn’t going to do, just read through its programme for government.

Such documents are proof of the human condition, the compromise between hope and nope, between aspiration and desperation.

The Government promised that it would hold a Constitution Day no less and within a year of the general election. This would be the day on which five or six major referendums would take place to decide fundamental (and maybe less fundamental) questions around outdated or anomalous aspects of Bunreach na hEireann.

Did it happen? No. Could we have told you it wouldn’t happen within a year? Yes. Did anyone challenge it at the time? No.

Another broken promise? Well, not quite either.

It seems that we may yet have the Constitution Day after all. But like a lot of things in politics, not in the way that it was originally envisaged.

My own impression (and you know, years of doing this job have not left me untinged on the cynicism front) is that the Government had kind of given up on Constitution Day and allowed the Constitutional Convention to go on and do its thing. It knew that there would be a series of referendums but had not given much thought to how they would be run.

Then came the defeat of the Seanad referendum and the political ramifications of that.

Labour has been insistent on real movement on gay marriage. Eamon Gilmore pledged to back it very early in the term and has made a point of returning to the theme on a regular basis.

When the Convention on the Constitution approved it, the Government had no option but to respond formally by this week. Kicking it into row G of the stands (which was the preferred option of some Fine Gael deputies) was not a choice. Labour was insistent that this not be delayed or sidelined.

So we have agreement on a referendum in 2015. But the Government this week indicated that it would be part of a cluster of referendums which might be run on that day.

The thinking is (I think!) that if the gay marriage referendum was run as a stand-alone, or as one of only two, it might prove to be too divisive and might be vulnerable to a loss that might otherwise be prevented. Nested in among other referendums – some of which will provoke interest and debate - might take the heat and the starkness away from it. Handily too, it will also give some cover to Fine Gael TDs who might be unenthusiastic about the prospect of gay marriage.

The highest number of referendums held on one day has been three, the most recent of which happened at the time of the Nice 1 referendum over a decade ago. The other two referendums passed – abolition of the death penalty and acceptance of the International Criminal Court – but Nice fell. Some analysis at the time attributed the loss to voters being distracted or not fully focused because of the other two referendums. But it’s hard to see how they had any bearing, given the markedly different way that people voted in Nice and in the other two.

Professor David Farrell of UCD who acts as an adviser to the Convention on the Constitution has estimated that as many as 11 referendums could emerge out the Convention’s work. He thinks (correctly, I think) that the final number will be somewhat less, but it will still mean a multiple of referendums on the day in 2015.

Referendums will be on:

1. Reducing the age of candidacy for Presidential candidates from 35.

2. Reducing the voting age to 16.

3. Same-sex marriage.

The Constitutional Convention has recommeneded that referendums be held on the following issues (although the Government has not decided to hold them yet):

1. Article 41.2 (on the role of women) should be made gender-neutral to include other carers both ‘in the home’ and ‘beyond the home’;

2. Inclusion of an explicit provision on gender equality;

3. The Constitution should be amended to include ‘gender-inclusive’ language

4. Non-parliamentary ministers;

5. Members of the Dail should be required to resign their seats on being appointed to ministerial office;

6. Citizen-initiatives should be introduced (both for influencing the parliamentary agenda and for the calling of referendums);

7. Rights for citizens abroad and citizens in Northern Ireland to vote in presidential elections;

8. The offence of blasphemy should be replaced by a new general provision to include incitement to religious hatred.;

It’s very unlikely, for example, the Government will agree to a referendum on TDs being required to resign seats on being appointed ministers (for very obvious reasons). But with one or two exceptions, I can see most of the other referendums going ahead.

The political question is: would the holding of so many different (and disparate) referendums on the one day be beneficial? Would it be asking too much of citizens? Would too many questions have to be decided? Could it be said that they were truly being provided with enough information (and enough space) to decide fundamental questions about the one document that defines the architecture of our State, its basic tenets and its limits?

It is clear that citizens have made very clear distinctions before when casting opposite votes when asked multiple questions. But ten or eleven? Given the unforgivably strict limits and restrictions that are placed on the Referendum Commission (which has no choice but to conduct an effete and ultra conservative information campaign) could we truly say that each and every citizen was as well informed as possible when being asked so many questions?

The whole notion – and the catchy title – sounded great as an election promise during an election campaign. But in practice holding multiple referendums in one day might prove to be a tricky proposition.

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