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Noel Whelan: Varadkar’s referendums are a political stunt

The plans are nothing but a weak Government trying to prove it has vision and durability

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin. Mr Varadkar has announced plans for seven referendums. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

We Irish are among the most referenderised people in the world. We have been to the polls to vote on specific propositions for constitutional change no fewer than 38 times since the late 1930s. We voted No to 11 of these.

We have even voted on four propositions twice: on the Nice Treaty, on the Lisbon Treaty, on whether to change our PR-STV voting system in Dáil elections and on whether or not to allow for divorce. On three of these we changed our mind on the second time of asking.

Arguably the most important of the referendums have been those which enabled us to join the European Economic Community and then to participate in further European integration. The referendum giving effect to the Belfast Agreement was also highly significant.

Other significant Amendments have arisen from public pressure to address pressing social issues. This is what led to the two attempts to allow for divorce, the marriage equality referendum in 2015, and both the original Eighth Amendment on abortion and the four referendums on the topic since, as well as next year’s promised vote on repealing or replacing the Amendment.

Surprisingly few of our previous referendums have been concerned with redesigning our democratic institutions or system. Most of the referendums that were concerned with this have been rejected, including the vote on Seanad abolition in 2013. Indeed, the only significant constitutional change in this area was the reduction of the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1972.

I give this flavour of our referendum history to illustrate how strange a thing it was for the Taoiseach this week to announce an indicative timetable for seven more referendums over the next two years.

At one level, you have to admire the confidence of this makeshift minority Government that it will still be around in late 2018 and early 2019, when some of the referendums are scheduled to take place.

Varadkar’s Government doesn’t have the votes to get much substantial legislation through the Oireachtas this term, not to mention being sure it can shepherd eight referendum Bills through both Houses between now and the middle of 2019.

The first vote on the Taoiseach’s list is a referendum on abortion next May or June. As argued here previously, that timescale appears unrealistic, given the legal and political complexities involved and allowing for the fact that the Oireachtas committee on the issue has only just begun its work.

The lesson of previous referendum losses is that in order to successfully paint the case for constitutional change, politicians and campaigners first need to put down an undercoat of basic information and understanding about the issues.

What the Taoiseach was at this week was nothing more than decoy politics

Any one watching the Oireachtas committee hearing this week would have been struck by the absence of the necessary understanding even among politicians themselves.

Cultural wars

The next two referendums to which Varadkar is giving priority is one to reword the arcane constitutional provisions about a woman’s place in the home and another to abolish the crime of blasphemy. While doing both is all well and good, neither is a significant change. These proposals smack of positioning on modern-day cultural wars rather than any truly reforming political agenda.

The fourth in the list is described as a referendum on “whether Ireland should have directly elected mayors”.

I, for one, am at loss to understand why such a referendum is required, since the structure of our local government is left to legislation.

With cross-party agreement, the Government could make such a change through legislation well in time for the next local elections in 2019, without any need for a referendum.

In June 2019, the Taoiseach also promises three further referendums. One of these is about whether to give emigrants voting rights in presidential elections.

There has been little progress on this proposal since Enda Kenny touted it at various diaspora events last March.

If the Government were really committed to this change, it would be giving it priority before the next scheduled presidential election in October 2018.

The sixth referendum on the list is on a niche point of reducing the statutory waiting period for a divorce from four years to two. There was broad consensus on this when Fine Gael’s Josepha Madigan floated it in the Dáil earlier this year, and again one wonders why wait another year and a half before getting this minor referendum over with.

Last on Varadkar’s list is a substantial proposal to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16. This is an idea whose time has come. If passed it will take a few years to implement the necessary changes to the electoral register, but there is no real explanation here either for the 18 months’ delay in bringing on this referendum.

All of which points to the conclusion that what the Taoiseach was at this week was nothing more than decoy politics.

This rollout of referendums was a political stunt. It was merely a weak Government trying to suggest it has big constitutional ideas and that it has the life expectancy to deliver on them. It has neither.