News Analysis

Monday 22 September 2014

John Downing: Why shouldn't governments be let take sides in referendums?

Published 12/11/2012 | 17:00

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IT IS very tempting to call upon the Irish electorate to resign today. There are arguments for saying that we need a new population of voters -- ideally people who could get their carcasses around to the polling booth and indulge in the hard labour of wielding a pencil for a second to put a tick in a box.

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But sentiments such as these will not help us understand what has happened over the past number of weeks. On Saturday, two out of three voters did not feel the need to go out and vote, and four out of 10 of those who did vote rejected this proposition aimed at enhancing children's rights.

It means that the Coalition Government definitely has some very practical political self-assessments to do. Its handling of this issue has been less than skilful, and it could very easily have ended in an embarrassing defeat.

This Fine Gael-Labour Government has strongly signalled its desire for at least some political reforms which could necessitate quite a number of referendums before its term ends.

This plebiscite on children's rights, since it enjoyed cross-party support, appeared to be one of the easier ones on the horizon, and everyone imagined it could be handily dealt with.

But the outcome very strongly suggests that a more contentious issue could very easily have been defeated.

It is true to say that referendums have always been low down the political pecking order and usually have limited capacity to enthuse the electorate.

Anecdotally, there is very strong evidence that those favourable to Saturday's referendum were less driven than the apparent small minority who were opposed to it.

In reality, the 'Nos' were determined to go and vote. The 'Yes' supporters -- even those who frequently do vote -- presumed on their neighbours to take the strain and carry this referendum.

Putting the vote on Saturday did not help, though it was worth trying. The reality is that people do not need a reason to stop at home on polling day. Inertia and indolence can do the trick on that one, and continual casting about to fix an ideal polling day is a mug's game.

Make it the Friday after Pancake Night, the eve of St Patrick's Day, or the second Tuesday after Listowel Races. It does not matter one whit if people are not minded to vote. It is, in all honesty, also harder to get people fired up when all the main political parties take the same side in a referendum campaign.

The McKenna judgment, which has seriously restricted the Government's room for manoeuvre, is also a bugbear. It is this writer's personal view that it is a complete nonsense in practice.

We hire a Government to order our affairs and if it goes to all that trouble to put on a referendum, it should in all logic be able to advocate a Yes vote with all the power it can muster. Surely, it is not beyond the wit of man to devise a funding system which could cap state campaign spending and make a similar sum available to the opposing side?

The Government has some grounds for arguing that "lawyers differ and taxpayers pay" in this instance. We are told the Attorney General gave the green light to the Government's information actions.

The High Court endorsed the Government's stance only to be over-turned by the Supreme Court last Thursday. There may have been some rough justice at play here -- but that is the way things are, and it is up to the Government to deal with the situation as it is.

It is notable that the Referendum Commission has successfully negotiated these tricky waters and delivered a dispassionate information campaign which has remained unscathed. The Government should be able to do likewise.

At all events, the so-called McKenna rules may well be with us for some time yet. The only prospect for change is to have "a referendum about referendums". And that could well prove a risky, fraught and ultimately a time-wasting political adventure.

In these straitened times, there is clear evidence of a disconnect between the political class and the voter. It is reasonable to consider that the disconnect was a big factor in the low turnout and the surprisingly high No vote.

We have heard some legitimate olagoning about Ireland's "loss of sovereignty" over the past two years since the EU-ECB- IMF rolled into town in late 2010.

Most of us are looking forward to seeing the back of this troika and a return to the Irish administration running the nation's finances, parlous though they may continue to be.

It is clear that the Government's handling of this issue was flawed. But we must acknowledge that sovereignty also calls for some effort by the citizen -- effort such as stopping by the polling booth every now and again and putting a tick in a box.

Irish Independent

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