Political spadework key to likely Yes in children's vote

Sat, Nov 3, 2012, 00:00

The foundation for the safe passage of this amendment has been laid over the last decade

IN THIS country we have had no fewer than 32 proposals to amend our Constitution. Of these 23 have been approved and nine rejected. On the bald statistics, therefore, any referendum’s chance of success is better than two to one.

Some amendment proposals have been spectacularly successful, most notably the adoption referendum in 1979 which was approved by a massive 99 per cent of voters. A referendum extending the right to vote in Seanad elections to all third-level graduates was passed on the same day by more than 92 per cent of voters, although curiously has never been implemented.

Another set of amendments which proved extremely popular were those required to implement the Belfast Agreement. There was a 94 per cent Yes for that referendum in 1998.

The Yes vote for the children’s referendum may not reach these dizzy heights but the limited polling to date indicates it will be passed by an overwhelming majority. The recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll suggests the proposal could pass by more than six to one.

Paddy Power is offering odds of 1/33 on the referendum passing.

Getting to this point did not happen by accident. It is due to the painstaking groundwork laid over the last decade or so and most recently by Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald on child welfare-related issues generally and on the careful framing of the actual amendments to be put to a vote.

In order to avoid confrontation and restrict the misrepresentation of the impact of a children’s amendment the Government has been cautious, some argue too cautious, in the amendment wording.

The only element of the proposed amendments which will have immediate legal effect (once necessary legislation has been enacted) is the provision enabling children of married parents to be adopted in certain circumstances. The remainder of the amendments will, ultimately, tilt judicial interpretation in the direction of stronger protection for children’s rights. The impact of these insertions is likely, most legal commentators suggest, to be modest although welcome.

The process of getting to what now appears to be an almost universally acceptable formula of words for such an amendment has taken a very long time and some careful consensus-building across the political spectrum and beyond.

This children’s referendum now looks like it will be an easy win but the Government wasn’t to know that. Previous amendments on social issues, most notably the two divorce referendums, proved more divisive once campaigning began. Given the solid support revealed in the polls, Fitzgerald may regret not being more ambitious in the wording but it is easy to be wise in hindsight. On balance there was little to be gained from a confrontational referendum in such a sensitive area.

The most striking aspect of this vote has been the near complete absence of any No campaign. The Yes side is not only shooting from the penalty spot but is doing so at a goal mouth which is essentially empty. Most potential opponents have been assuaged by the careful text of the amendment and have sat out the campaign, leaving that part of the pitch to a handful of commentators and loosely co-ordinated individuals.

These have brought some technical balance by their contribution to the media campaign but they have no capacity on the ground.

By comparison the Yes campaign in its various forms is well staffed, highly visible and well funded. The extent of the postering campaigns and the spread of public meetings also suggests the Yes campaign has a genuinely national reach.

The other threat for proponents of constitutional amendments is that if a sense emerges among voters that they don’t understand a proposal, it tends to benefit the No side.

There is often a point in these types of campaigns where a lazy assumption sets in that voters have not been given enough information about the amendment. This scenario is more likely to happen where the referendum is rushed.

In this instance, however, the years of talk on the topic and the fact that there was a full seven weeks between the date of the publication of the wording and polling day have assisted the process. While a stronger No campaign might have helped raise the profile of the issues surrounding the referendum the publicity and information activity by the Department of Children and the Referendum Commission have been extensive enough to offset this risk.

With the result now looking like a foregone conclusion the real worry for the Government and the wider Yes campaign is that apathy will deplete turnout, perhaps to an extent that might allow opponents to suggest that public support for the proposal was lukewarm.

It is difficult to be definitive about the precise turnout levels in Irish referendums given the disastrous state of our electoral register until recently. It is also difficult to compare turnouts between referendums because many of them have been held on the same day as local, European or even general elections.

Of those held separately from any election, the turnout falls into two categories. High profile issues like divorce, abortion, the Belfast Agreement and the second votes on the Nice and Lisbon treaties have attracted turnouts in excess of 50 per cent.

By comparison the three referendums on the International Criminal Court, the death penalty and the first Nice referendum held on the same day in 2001 attracted just 35 per cent. The prize for lowest turnout is shared by the bail referendum in 1996 and the adoption and Seanad university representation referendums held together in 1979. For these the turnout was just 29 per cent.

The Yes side will be hoping that the decision to opt for Saturday voting will ensure the turnout can at least beat that figure.

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