Referendum defeat does not necessarily have to spell trouble for government
Opinion: History will be kinder to Taoiseach if he learns a lesson and goes for reform
Abortion, however, was a different matter. Albert Reynolds in 1992 and Bertie Ahern in 2002 – acting on the implications of the 1983 pro-life amendment to the Constitution and the X Case Supreme Court judgement of 1992 – put to referendums the vexed question of the possibility of suicide as grounds for legal abortion, and were defeated by a combination of those who, on both occasions, felt
the proposals were either too liberal or too conservative.
There is no doubt these referendums caused tensions in the coalition governments in power at the time, but as this was such a divisive issue nationally, and because of an appreciation of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of building consensus on it, the political fallout was contained in the short-term. Virtually all politicians shared a distaste for the idea of bringing down a government or fighting an election on the question of abortion and they avoided dealing with it legislatively until very recently.
In relation to defeat of the first Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008) treaty referendums, there is little doubt the results caused panic for both coalitions involved, not so much because of the domestic implications for the governments – after all, the main opposition parties supported ratification in both cases – but because of the question marks they left over Ireland’s relationship with the EU and the evidence of a euroscepticism that had not been a significant aspect of Irish attitudes to Europe in the earlier decades of membership. Both treaties were ratified in subsequent referendums, but the defeat of the first Lisbon referendum had profound implications for Brian Cowen’s leadership of Fianna Fáil, partly because it got him off to such a poor start and because it became one of a succession of difficulties that undermined him. Initial defeat in the Lisbon referendum, a vote on a treaty that Cowen admitted he had not read in full, was followed not just by economic Armageddon, emergency budgets, floundering leadership and the bank guarantee but also, in 2009, by disastrous local elections results for Fianna Fáil (it received just 25 per cent of the vote), which indicated it
had lost its self-proclaimed status as a national movement.
It is too early to assess the damage the defeat in the recent Seanad referendum has done to Enda Kenny. As is clear from historic referendum defeats, all have their own particular contexts and short- and long-term implications, and there is no one common pattern. Personalities, political endurance, the core stability of a party’s vote, what precedes and follows the referendum vote and evolving societal attitudes are all relevant in terms of the legacy of the result.
What will be interesting is whether future historians will look back to the 2013 Seanad referendum as a turning point in relation to the reform of the Irish political system or whether it will be seen as a result that prompted a determination to maintain the status quo. History will undoubtedly be kinder to Kenny if, out of the ashes of defeat, he seizes an opportunity to give leadership on political reform.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD and was involved in the Democracy Matters group that campaigned for a No vote in the Seanad referendum.