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Citizens’ Assembly to debate how referendums are held in Ireland

Issue of media coverage expected to be raised at next meeting of the assembly in January

Members of the assembly will debate how referendum campaigns are regulated, and when and how they should take place. Photograph: Getty Images

The future of referendums in Ireland will be discussed by the Citizens’ Assembly at its next meeting in January.

Members of the assembly will debate how referendum campaigns are regulated, and when and how they should take place. They will also discuss the issue of media balance and how that can be achieved. Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has now asked the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to provide guidelines on how referendums are covered by the media.

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone recently expressed her disappointment that she was dropped from TV3’s The Restaurant programme because of the forthcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment. The episode was scheduled to be broadcast in the middle of next year when the referendum is likely to take place. The production company said it might be in breach of broadcasting regulations.

The Citizens’ Assembly debate on referendums will take place on January 13th and 14th next year. The work programme for the weekend includes discussion on the history of referendums in Ireland and an examination of voter turnout, super-referendums and repeat referendums.

Assembly chair Ms Justice Mary Laffoy has called on all interested groups, organisations and individuals to make a submission on the topic before the deadline of Friday, December 22nd.

Ireland has the second highest frequency of referendums in the world after Switzerland, and the numbers of referendums are increasing every decade. There have been 35 referendums since 1922.

Irish democracy

Ms Justice Laffoy described the assembly meeting as “an opportunity to examine this significant feature of Irish democracy”.

She added: “It would be remiss of the assembly to fail to consider the impact of how referendum campaigns are regulated, including in relation to the provision of information to the public by the referendum commission and the media.

“Further to this, and in line with the resolution establishing the assembly, we will also give some time to the subject of super-referenda days and matters of that nature, including voter turnout and repeat referendums.”

UCD professor David Farrell, who is the research leader of the assembly, has suggested that members should consider the idea of a permanent electoral commission to prepare for and supervise referendums. He said the current set up meant that the electoral commission set up for each individual referendum often responded to problems in an ad-hoc way.