Voters favour full review of the Constitution
Next Saturday the members of the constitutional convention will meet in Dublin. The convention comes out of the last general election campaign, in which all parties committed to reforming the political system.
Potentially one of the most interesting reforms is the way in which future changes to the Constitution might be proposed. Whereas normally the government of the day proposes changes put to the people in a referendum, the convention gives some power of proposal to an assembly of 66 ordinary citizens and 33 elected politicians (from the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly).
In setting up the convention the Oireachtas passed a motion to allow it to look at eight topics, including the provision for same-sex marriage, the position of women in Irish society, a number of changes to the political system and removing the offence of blasphemy.
Any amendments proposed by the convention would have to be passed by the people, which can be a stern test. With that in mind the Ipsos MRBI survey provides an important guide to what the Irish people think about the issues facing the convention, and other topics that could be put to the people.
Desire for reform
One of the strongest results from the survey relates to the desire for a full review of the Constitution. Sixty per cent of voters want Bunreacht na hÉireann to be reviewed in full rather than through a series of changes, which has 36 per cent support. The desire for reform, it is apparent, is still there.
On the questions facing the convention, there is some support for the reduction of the president’s term from seven to five years, and significant support to extend the right to vote in presidential elections to citizens living abroad – 68 per cent in favour to 17 per cent against. There appears to be much less appetite for reducing the voting age – opposed most strongly by Fine Gael supporters. Demographics such as sex, age or social class don’t affect views on these topics.
The findings relating to same-sex marriage, blasphemy and the reference to women’s life in the home are possibly more interesting. A clear majority is in favour of allowing gay marriage (53 per cent to 30 per cent). Over-55s are clearly against the proposal, however, and men are much less likely to support it than women.
Women in the home
There is a two-to-one split in favour of removing the constitutional reference to the position of women in the home. Perhaps most surprising is the size of the number who are uncertain (40 per cent).
This may be because they are not aware of what the Constitution actually says. There is no gender difference, with men just as likely to support its removal.
While there is strong support among those who express a view for removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, a high proportion don’t know or refuse to answer. Older people are less likely to support this proposal (36 per cent), and the middle class are more likely to do so (49 per cent).
Another question likely to go to the people, though it is not on the agenda of the convention, is whether to abolish the Seanad. The Government will be relieved to note a majority support it (55 per cent to 22 per cent, with 23 per cent undecided).
It is important to remember opinion polls give no more than a snapshot of opinions at any one time. These opinions can change during a referendum campaign. The purpose of deliberative exercises such as the convention, and referendums that follow, is that people learn, debate and are willing to change their minds. A historic debate is just beginning.
David Farrell holds the chair of politics at UCD. Eoin O’Malley lectures in the school of law and government at DCU. Jane Suiter lectures in the school of communications at DCU.