Sunday 23 October 2016

I vote we have one more referendum - on abolishing all future referendums

Published 22/05/2015 | 02:30

Eamon de Valera
Eamon de Valera

Let's start with all cards face up on the table. I'm not a fan of referendums. I think even smart people's failure to get the plural of the word right is, in a curious way, a clue as to how ropey the process itself really is. But that sidebar row is for another day.

  • Go To

The big problem with referendums is that they are generally a very suspect form of democracy. At best you ask one question - and often enough end up with an answer to a series of very different questions.

That frequently comes after a tiresome number of leaden debates on radio and television characterised by people saying: "Ah, now that is a very different point entirely." Accusations of confusing arguments, not to mention crazy admixtures of metaphors, usually abound. The punters struggle to contain their bewildered indifference.

At its worst, the referendum is the last recourse of the demagogue who uses the apparently democratic vote to justify all kinds of undemocratic and even criminal behaviour.

Eamon de Valera's Constitution gave us the referendum in modern Ireland. On July 1, 1937, three-quarters of the voters turned out and endorsed Bunreacht na hÉireann by 56pc to 44pc, in the process giving us the referendum.

It was the single biggest ever turnout for a referendum in Ireland. The only other comparable turnout was in May 1972 when seven out of 10 people showed at the polls and voted by 83pc to 17pc to join the then-EEC.

In the interim we have had some utterly lamentable voter turnout figures. In July 1979, a measly 28.6pc of the electorate showed to vote on changes to adoption law and redrawing the university constituencies for Seanad Éireann. The latter change has yet to come into legal force and nobody much noticed that over the ensuing decades.

Even on issues of importance to the nation's future, turnout has been extremely poor. In June 2001, when the EU Treaty of Nice was voted down, just under 35pc of voters bothered.

In May 1998, when voters were asked to endorse the Good Friday Agreement aimed at ending 30 years of murder on this island, just 56pc of the electorate bothered to vote.

In today's referendum, most seasoned politicians will deem anything around 50pc "a good turnout". Surely, the other half - the ones who will not bother - are telling us something here?

There are other ways of doing the business. Surely it is time to talk about them?

But lump them or like them, those referendums are here to stay. Unless we vote to abolish them … in the mother of all referendums.

With a low turnout, who knows, we might win.

Irish Independent

Read More

Promoted articles

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice