Low turnout a lesson not to tinker with Constitution

Mon, Nov 12, 2012, 00:00

ANALYSIS:The referendum reflects poorly on Irish politics and flags problems that loom for constitutional reform

There is no disguising the fact that the size of the No vote in the children’s referendum is a slap in the face to the entire political system and raises serious questions about the viability of the Government’s programme of constitutional reform.

Given that the entire Dáil and Seanad, with the exception of South Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath, were calling for a Yes vote and there was no organised national No campaign, the fact that 42 per cent of voters rejected the constitutional amendment is remarkable.

The low turnout of just one-third of the electorate undoubtedly contributed to the high proportion of No voters but that in itself represents another warning to the Government about holding referendums unless they are absolutely necessary.

The Supreme Court judgment two days before polling that the Government’s information campaign was illegal undoubtedly contributed something to the scale of the No vote but it was hardly the decisive factor.

The scale of the No vote on an issue where not just all of the political parties but a vast array of civil society groups were calling for a Yes shows that a significant segment of the electorate is deeply suspicions about the motivation of the authorities, regardless of the issue.

The same rural and deprived working-class areas that voted No in large numbers in a succession of European referendums voted No again this time on a very different type of constitutional amendment.

The rejection of the fiscal treaty last June by the two Donegal constituencies was perceived as a manifestation of support for the Sinn Féin anti-EU position. But the same two constituencies voted No again this time by a very similar margin despite the fact that Sinn Féin had signed up to the Yes campaign.

It is clear that a swathe of rural constituencies, particularly those close to the Border, and urban working-class areas simply do not trust the State. The fact that the same constituencies generally benefit most from State transfers doesn’t make the authorities any more popular.

Another feature of the result is that it has come on an issue where the proposed constitutional change was actually quite minor. While the No campaign argued that it represented a big shift in power from the family to the State authorities, most expert legal opinion was that the amendment would make little difference in practice.

Symbolic motivation

The symbolism of inserting a reference to children’s rights into the Constitution, after the litany of abuse scandals that emerged over the past two decades, appears to have been the dominant motivation for the amendment. However, it failed to engage the public and very nearly boomeranged on its proponents.

The outcome is a salutary lesson to the Government, other political parties and interest groups that constitutional change is not something to be embarked upon lightly. That has implications for the range of constitutional reforms that feature so prominently in the programme for government.

The convention tasked with examining these potential amendments to the Constitution is due to get under way at the end of this month. It will begin with an examination of the case for reducing the President’s term from seven years to five and lowering the voting age to 17.

The lesson of this weekend may be that putting such relatively minor issues to the people in a referendum could easily rebound. The same is true of the Government’s plan to abolish the Seanad.

If 42 per cent of those voting on Saturday were prepared to back the No side even though there was no coherent and well-funded campaign against the amendment, there have to be questions about the prospects of the Yes side carrying the day in the face of stiff opposition to the abolition of the Seanad.

One of the serious difficulties governments have faced since the McKenna and Coughlan judgments by the Supreme Court is that their hands have been tied in referendum campaigns. Governments cannot spend public money recommending a Yes vote, and the most recent Supreme Court decision has put the nature of that restriction beyond doubt.

In future, it is unlikely that there will be any government information campaign and the whole process will be handed over to the impartial Referendum Commission. It is doubtful in any case whether the €1.1 million spent on the Government’s booklet had any material impact.

The Coughlan judgment is arguably far more restrictive as far as government is concerned. It has been interpreted to mean that the Yes and No sides have to get equal time in the coverage of referendum campaigns on television and radio. This is a considerable advantage to the No side in the majority of campaigns, where most of the mainstream political forces are ranged on the Yes side.

The net effect of the two judgments is that referendums can only succeed when there is a huge effort by the Yes side to amend the Constitution and where the political parties and civic society groups go out and campaign as if their lives depend on it. It requires deep engagement by the political system and the media to get people to turn out for referendums.

Half-hearted engagement

The Irish public has rarely engaged with referendums in the same way as it does with general elections. It is probably no coincidence that, apart from the decision to join Europe in 1972, the highest-ever turnout in a referendum was on the abortion issue which took place on the same day as the 1992 general election.

One of the explanations for the apparently massive shift in voter sentiment since opinion polls a month ago showed the Yes side winning with 80 per cent of the vote was the low turnout. It is not the first time that polls, which survey the attitude of the entire population, don’t provide an accurate barometer when just one-third of the eligible population turns out to vote.

Yesterday’s outcome is a timely warning to the Government that voters do not appreciate being asked to vote in referendums unless they are absolutely necessary. At least one more referendum on Europe will probably be required in the next two years and the Coalition might be advised to conserve its energies for that make-or-break decision rather than frittering away public goodwill by unnecessary tinkering with the Constitution.

Stephen Collins is Political Editor of The Irish Times

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