Stephen Collins: Do we really want seven referendums?

The votes have the potential to further undermine representative democracy

The Government wants to hold eight referendums over the next two years, including one on abortion next year. Sarah Bardon reports.

 

The Government’s plan to hold at least seven referendums over the next two years is a strange move at a time when the looming challenge of Brexit threatens to undermine the foundations of the economy and the fragile peace in Northern Ireland.

Referendum campaigns require time, energy and focus from Ministers and they have far better things to be doing than campaigning for a variety of constitutional changes most of which have little or no bearing on the everyday lives of voters.

The one referendum for which there is a public requirement is on the issue of abortion. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has surprised people with the suggestion that he will not campaign for his own Government’s proposal if he doesn’t approve of the wording.

This approach is most likely a tactic to try to ensure the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment and his Government colleagues face up to their responsibilities to devise a wording capable of winning majority approval, but it seems an odd way for him to go about it.

Varadkar’s office has issued a statement saying “his personal views should not determine the final referendum”, but it is inconceivable that the Taoiseach of the day would not take a position on a proposed constitutional change.

If he cannot approve the wording of proposed change to the Eighth Amendment, the campaign to change the Constitution will be hamstrung from the start and will hardly be worth proceeding with.

Unnecessary pressure

By insisting that the referendum should take place by next May or June at the latest, Varadkar has put himself and his Government colleagues under unnecessary pressure and probably made it more difficult to come up with a formula that can win wide public approval.

As for the other six, seven or possibly eight referendums being floated over the next two years, some are worthy but hardly a priority, some unnecessary and some possibly damaging in the longer-term.

For instance, removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution is hardly a pressing political issue even though it was suggested as far back as 1991 by the Law Reform Commission.

No one has been prosecuted for blasphemy by the authorities since the foundation of the State. When a citizen attempted to initiate a private prosecution in 1995 the Supreme Court found that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of conscience meant that it could not succeed.

The plans represent a shift to direct democracy at a time when the dangers of populism have never been more evident

In this era where hate speech, promoted by social media, is becoming so all pervasive that it threatens democratic discourse, the constitutional encouragement of respect for those who hold religious views is hardly our biggest worry.

There is a stronger case for deleting the constitutional reference to a woman’s place in the home, which is a clearly outdated provision and can be removed only by a referendum.

The suggestion of a rerun of the referendum to give Oireachtas committees more power raises the question of whether the politicians got the message the public delivered to them when a similar proposal was rejected in 2011.

Since then the behaviour of some committees, particularly the Public Accounts Committee, have made it blindingly clear that giving more power to politicians to conduct quasi-judicial investigations will simply create star chambers where citizens can have their rights trampled on at the whim of elected representatives.

Giving votes to emigrants and reducing the voting age to 16 are equally problematical and there are strong arguments against both. Some of the other proposals such as the plan to have directly elected majors do not require a referendum and should simply be put before the Dáil if Ministers agree that it is a good idea.

While the Constitution cannot be changed without a referendum there is a need to more selective about the nature of proposed constitutional changes and the timing of referendums.

If there is a wide view that substantial sections of the Constitution are no longer appropriate, would it not be better to propose an entirely new Constitution rather than have an endless serious of referendums amending the current one?

Plethora of proposals

By establishing the Citizens’ Assembly, following on from the Constitutional Convention, the previous Government embarked on a road whose logical conclusion was inevitably going to be a plethora of referendum proposals.

The worrying thing about the trend is that it represents a shift from representative democracy to direct democracy at a time when the dangers of populism have never been more evident, as was demonstrated in the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

The current issue of Studies, the quarterly review, contains a number of thought-provoking essays on the current state of democracy. In a review of the history of democracy since ancient Greece, former provost of Trinity College Tom Mitchell points to the consensus that emerged from the framers of the US constitution that representative rather than direct democracy is the best defence against tyranny.

It is no accident that referendums have not been held in Germany since the Hitler era, when they were used as a device to dismantle democratic institutions.

While the planned referendums here over the next two years don’t have any such sinister implications they have the capacity to further undermine representative democracy. That could have serious implications down the road.

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