Citizens’ Assembly discussion of referendums brought forward

Move aims to avoid any confusion with the referendum on the Eighth Amendment

The Citizens’ Assembly’s consideration of referendums in Ireland has been brought forward by two months to prevent any possible clash or confusion with the referendum on the Eighth Amendment.

The discussion on the manner in which referendums are held was scheduled to take place in March but it has been moved to next weekend. The decision was made by assembly members before Christmas to ensure its considerations did not coincide with any debate on the Eighth Amendment.

A spokesman pointed out that none of the conclusions reached by the assembly will have any impact on the referendum on abortion. Its report to the Oireachtas is not expected to be made until after the poll has been completed.

The terms of reference for the assembly’s consideration of referendums are vague and the debate will be partly determined by the public submissions which have been received.


In particular, of the more than 200 submissions, several were based on the same template calling for referendums to be held on citizens’ initiatives, or through public petition.

As a consequence, this issue will be the subject of a presentation by political scientist Dr Theresa Reidy of University College Cork. She is one of three political scientists who will address the assembly on Saturday. Prof Gary Murphy of Dublin City University will outline the history and outcomes of referendums in Ireland, while Prof Michael Marsh of Trinity College Dublin will present a paper on voter turnout and repeat referendums (such as the Nice and Lisbon Treaty polls). He will also field the concept of “super referendums”, days on which large numbers of referendums are held at one time.

Referendum Commission

One of the most contentious changes introduced by government were changes to the role of the Referendum Commission, which is now constrained in terms of what it can set out.

When the commission was first established in 1998, it was allowed to set out fully to the public the main arguments for and against the proposition. However, three years later, after the Nice Treaty referendum, it could no longer set out the pros and cons, but had a more limited role in setting out the factual position in an objective manner.

The commission has also complained in the past that it has been given insufficient time to mount a comprehensive information campaign.

Another interesting aspect of the commission’s work is that it stopped conducting polls of voters after the outcomes of referendums, as it was found that those polled were not truthful as to how they had voted.

The next topic to be discussed by the assembly will be fixed-term parliaments, which was included at the insistence of the Independent Alliance.

Britain has nominally moved to fixed-term parliaments but that did not prevent British prime minister Theresa May calling a snap election last year.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times