A plebiscite cannot force a government to act

Only one national plebiscite has taken place since State’s foundation


Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly yesterday moved to allay fears that there is a long-term plan to privatise Irish Water. He said he would introduce legislation to ensure that if a future government wanted to take the utility out of public ownership it would be required to put the matter before the people in a plebiscite.

This offer partly reflects the position put forward by the Green Party and its leader Eamon Ryan in recent weeks that a referendum should be held to enshrine public ownership of water services in the Constitution.

But a plebiscite is not a referendum. Indeed, it cannot force or coerce the government of the day into taking, or declining to take, a particular action. Its effect is persuasive rather than compelling.

1937 Constitution

No plebiscite has been held in the intervening 77 years, although referendums have become commonplace.

Mr Kelly did not outline why the Government favoured a plebiscite over a referendum, but it is presumed the decision was taken after advice from the Attorney General Máire Whelan.

A number of local plebiscites have been held over the years, some under the powers of the Local Government Act 1946. These have largely concerned the names associated with towns or villages. The most recent was in 2006 when eligible voters in the town of Dingle voted overwhelming to retain its bilingual name on signage (Dingle – Daingean Uí Chúise) over the Irish version of the name alone.

More recently there were proposals for an all-of-Dublin plebiscite to decide if its electorate wished to have a directly-elected mayor with executive powers. However, under the regulations drawn up by the then minister for the environment Phil Hogan, there was a preliminary stage that had to be passed before a plebiscite could be held. That was that all four councils in the greater Dublin area agreed to it going ahead. Fingal County Council rejected the proposal.


Brian Stanley

Yesterday the Green Party justice spokesman Roderic O’Gorman asked why its idea for a referendum was rejected in favour of a plebiscite.

“In proposing to draft a law that would require a plebiscite before any privatisation of Irish Water, the Government are clearly acknowledging that there is public concern about this issue. Yet what they are proposing will provide no meaningful guarantees.”