October referendum is bad timing due to Brexit, warn Ministers

Government urged to postpone poll and focus on Britain’s impending exit from EU

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said a decision on when to hold the referendum, on extending the vote in presidential elections to Irish people living abroad, does not have to be taken until September. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said a decision on when to hold the referendum, on extending the vote in presidential elections to Irish people living abroad, does not have to be taken until September. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Ministers have expressed concern about the timing of a referendum on extending the vote in presidential elections to Irish people living abroad.

The referendum is scheduled to take place in October, but the Cabinet heard concerns yesterday that this may not be the ideal time if there is a Brexit crisis.

The UK is due to leave the EU on October 31st and Boris Johnson, the favourite to succeed Theresa May as British prime minister, has vowed to leave on that day, with or without a deal.

At Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting, it is understood that some Ministers said all the focus of the Government should be on Brexit later this year, with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed and Minister for Business Heather Humphreys said to be among those who expressed concerns.

Sources said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said a decision on when to hold the referendum does not have to be taken until September, and insisted the Government is serious about the proposal.

One Minister predicted the referendum would not be held until early 2020.

Critical period

Several Ministers questioned if it was wise to hold the referendum at the same time as the Brexit process enters a highly critical period, with the high likelihood of Britain leaving the European Union in a no-deal scenario.

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In a separate decision, the Government has given approval to establish a long-awaited electoral commission which will oversee all aspects of the electoral process in Ireland.

At the Cabinet meeting, it gave approval to Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy to set up the commission on a statutory basis.

His department will now begin to draft a Bill to give effect to the decision.

The decision comes at the end of a long public consultation process.

SIPO said many of the current electoral laws are out of date, incoherent and have a serious lack of teeth

The planned functions for the commission will be oversight of the security of the electoral process, registering political parties, oversight of the Referendum Commission and regulator of political funding and election expenditure.

The new body will take over some of the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) and also of the Constituency Commission, which draws up the boundaries for the general election.

Consultation phase

In a submission during the consultation phase, SIPO said many of the current electoral laws are out of date, incoherent and have a serious lack of teeth when it comes to enforcement.

The State’s ethical watchdog also identified a number of “gaps and challenges” in the current laws.

It has argued that if the long-promised electoral commission is to be established, it should first involve a “comprehensive review of the electoral Acts”.

For example, it said current laws did not cover many new “third party groups” which were self-funded and were not foreseen at the time the laws were being drafted.

A number of issues have also arisen in relation to the influence of groups and interests who have used the digital space, online advertisements and social media to campaign on issues germane to Ireland. Much of this activity has been outside the scope of current legislation.