Rerun of 2011 referendum on committee powers to be discussed

Vote to give Oireachtas committees more power failed over fears of parallel justice system

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


The Government is considering a possible rerunning of the failed 2011 referendum to give parliamentary inquiries more powers.

A memorandum to be presented to Cabinet on Tuesday raises the possibility of a second constitutional referendum that would allow Oireachtas committees conduct more meaningful investigations into matters of public importance.

The memorandum refers to the lessons of the banking inquiry in 2015 which had limited powers and, despite being very well resourced, was not considered a success.

In 2011, the coalition of Fine Gael and Labour proposed to amend the Constitution to allow Oireachtas committees conduct wide-ranging inquiries, including investigation of the conduct of any person in the State.

However, in a shock setback for the government and minister for public reform Brendan Howlin, the referendum was defeated by 53 per cent to 46 per cent in October 2011. A key factor was the intervention of former attorneys general who warned such a change would set up a parallel justice system.

In 2013 Mr Howlin came forward with new legislation for committees of inquiries, but without the extensive powers envisaged in 2011. Under this legislation a committee could not make adverse findings against any party who was not either a TD or Senator. The banking inquiry operated under this legislation.

The inquiry that investigated the reasons behind the banking collapse produced a report that was widely criticised. The report, mindful of the limitations of the inquiry, recommended major changes in the running of future inquiries.

The memo to be discussed by Cabinet has referred to advice from the Attorney General’s office, which suggests a huge volume of research will be needed before a preliminary view can be offered.

There is hope within Government that a set of proposals will be sent to the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe. The proposals might contain a recommendation for a second referendum on the matter.

The issue is unlikely to be considered by Government until well into 2018 and on that basis the memo is understood to say the earliest a referendum could be held would be in the second half of 2018.

Two referendums have been rerun over that past two decades. Both concerned European treaties. In 2001, the referendum to ratify the Nice Treaty was defeated. It was decided to hold a second referendum the following year, which was passed. Similarly in 2008, the Lisbon Treaty was defeated in a referendum, prompting a second vote the following year.