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
Taoiseach Seán Lemass with President de Valera in 1969. De Valera had been anxious to ensure the long-term dominance of Fianna Fáil. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
Does history suggest that a referendum defeat suffered by a government knocks it off course, or has it been the case that, after the wounds were nursed, it was just back to business as usual? Much, of course, has depended on the context, the substantive issue at the core of the referendum, and the degree of political security the particular government has had. Irish governments have suffered referendum defeats in relation to proportional representation (1959 and 1968), divorce (1986), abortion (1992 and 2002), EU treaties (2001 and 2008) and, most recently, before last week’s defeat on the Seanad referendum, Oireachtas inquiries (2011).
In an interview given after he had retired from politics, former taoiseach Seán Lemass was asked about the 1959 and 1968 referendums on getting rid of proportional representation (PR). He responded that de Valera had always harboured doubts about the suitability of PR for Irish elections but “there was always the political question as to whether it was feasible to make the change and whether it was desirable”.
The real issue, however, was when it would be deemed to be in the interests of Fianna Fáil to change the system. It was no coincidence that de Valera opted for a referendum in 1959 on the same day he resigned as taoiseach and stood for the presidency; he was anxious to secure the long-term dominance of Fianna Fáil after his departure. The electorate chose to elect him as president but to retain PR (by 52 per cent to 48 per cent) and, because they did that on the same day, were praised for their discernment; this newspaper, for example, reacted to the decision by declaring “Irish democracy has come of age; its political maturity is no longer in doubt”.
Lemass duly took over the leadership of the party but the referendum defeat had knocked its confidence and Lemass lacked Dev’s pulling power; Fianna Fáil did not perform well in the general election of 1961, dropping from 78 to 70 seats, and formed a minority government. There was a subsequent determination to come back to the issue of a referendum on PR, but in 1968 the proposal to abolish it was again rejected, this time by a margin of 61 per cent to 39 per cent. There were suggestions that this setback could herald an electoral defeat for Fianna Fáil at the next general election in 1969, but the opposite happened; the party gained three seats, a result that seemed to shore up the position of Lemass’s successor, Jack Lynch.
As leader of Fine Gael, Garret FitzGerald launched his “constitutional crusade” in September 1981 and there were attempts by the coalition he led from 1982-7 to change what he and some of his colleagues regarded as outdated attitudes and laws in the Republic, including the law on contraception, which was liberalised in 1985, but FitzGerald was soundly defeated in the 1986 divorce referendum. He suggested this was “a setback to the long-term prospect of the two parts of Ireland coming closer together politically”, but his coalition also faced other battles; the defeat was the beginning of a torturous time in government due to an evaporating majority and increasing rows over budgetary measures. There is little doubt the conservative wing in Fine Gael had a loathing for his constitutional crusade and this contributed to internal party divisions, but FitzGerald’s defeat in 1986 did him little harm in the long run in terms of his wider reputation. He remained exceptionally active in public life long after he stood down as leader of Fine Gael in 1987 and, if anything, the 1986 defeat enhanced the sense that, in the words of historian Roy Foster, “the future was with him”.