Vote often: You might spend a lot of time in polling stations in 2018
There is at least one referendum, and possible presidential and general elections
The most likely date for the referendum on the Eighth Amendment is the start of June. Illustration: iStock
For a few days in November, as the controversy surrounding then tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald escalated, it looked like we might be going to the polls around now in a general election. Even though the unedifying prospect of a Christmas election was averted, it does not mean that 2018 will be a year free of ballot boxes.
There is one certain referendum (abortion); a possible presidential election; likely plebiscites in Dublin and Cork; and slightly slimmer chances of several other referendums. And then, of course, there is always the lurking possibility of a general election.
Now that the all-party special committee has issued its recommendation, this referendum will go ahead and be a dominant theme in Irish politics and life in the first half of the year.
The Government wants this referendum to be held in May, and that is possible but only if they can adhere to a very tight time frame. The Dáil is not due back until mid-January. Each party will have to meet to decide its position, if they have not done so already. Then there will be a debate on the report in the Dáil.
The next step would be a Government decision to draft legislation for a referendum. If it’s repeal simpliciter (in other words, no new laws replacing the amendment that has been removed) the legislation would be relatively straightforward, although this might not be politically acceptable. Drafting legislation to provide for restrictive access to abortion would be more difficult.
There are also the practical difficulties of how the new laws will operate in practice – these issues take a lot of time and a lot of thought.
Officials in the Department of Health and the Attorney General’s office have set out a sequence of events leading up to the referendum. If a bill is approved by the Oireachtas and passed into law, a referendum must take place not less than 30 days, and not more than 90 days, later.
Given the contentious nature of the debate and the complexity of the issues involved, it would be surprising if the Government were to opt for the minimum 30-day period.
There is a also a requirement that a Referendum Commission be established. It has complained in the past that it has not been given sufficient time to prepare a comprehensive and accessible information campaign.
Even with a minimal referendum campaign, the early summer target is ambitious, according to an informed source. The more likely date for the referendum is the start of June.
Presidential elections must take place every seven years –unless there is only one candidate when the nominations close.
That scenario last occurred in 2004 when Mary McAleese emerged as the only candidate after Dana Rosemary Scallon failed to secure the backing of four local authorities, or of 20 Oireachtas members. In contrast there were seven candidates in 2011 after McAleese stepped down.
So will there be an election in October 2018?
If Michael D Higgins seeks a second term, there seems to be a reluctance within the leadership of the two major parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, to contest an expensive election with a popular president.
But that sentiment is not shared among all party members, and there are significant numbers of parliamentarians within both parties who believe the election should be contested.
President Higgins was the Labour nominee and is seen as too far to the left by some within the two centrist parties.
In addition, he himself implied strongly that he would serve only one term, a change of mind he would need to explain should he decide to run again. Then there is his age, 77. He will have to show he remains in robust health.
McAleese was an overwhelmingly popular president and there was no appetite for a contest. However, it is more likely this time that even if the big parties decide against fielding a candidate, an Independent candidate might secure sufficient backing for a successful nomination.
A presidential election is more likely than not.
In September the Government was briefed on all referendums that might be held in 2018 and 2019. There were eight in all, most recommendations from the Constitutional Convention.
Some of the least contentious could be held on the same day as the presidential election, should it go ahead. They include a referendum to remove blasphemy as an offence and a referendum to remove the references to woman’s place in the home.
There is also the possibility of two plebiscites (nonbinding polls seeking the views of voters) in Dublin and Cork to decide if the cities should have directly elected mayors.
The Government’s position is ever precarious. The confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil ends in October after the budget, and unforeseen events happen in politics. But the real prospect of a general election any time soon has receded.
The common belief around Leinster House is that if a general election takes place, it will be at the end of the year, or even in the earlier part of 2019.