Thursday 23 May 2019

Tiernan Brady: 'The UK could learn from us about how referendum campaigns should be run'

Fair contest: The breadth and depth of the marriage equality debate meant Irish people knew what they were voting about. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Fair contest: The breadth and depth of the marriage equality debate meant Irish people knew what they were voting about. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Tiernan Brady

The UK's future has never been more uncertain, as our near neighbour struggles with the fallout from Brexit. One potential solution - a second referendum - is becoming more plausible every day.

If the prospect of a second referendum is to be seriously considered, the UK could benefit greatly from examining Ireland's recent experience of public engagement in deliberative processes and, in particular, the constructive tone established through the citizens' assembly model.

A key question for British policymakers is how a second referendum would be different from the first. It cannot simply be a rerun. Just putting the same question to the same people will result in another divisive outcome.

This question would need to be put at the ultimate stage of a process in which the debate is led by deliberation and reason. The UK has learned that the alternative approach - campaigns led by untruths and soundbites - made the people question the legitimacy of a referendum's outcome.

Referendums are major moments for a society. They can have a much more profound impact of the social harmony and than other political processes like a general election. Elections come and go. There are always winners and losers, but you know that the result only lasts until the next election, when we all get to pick again. Referendums aim to permanently embed a change into society.

Our friends in Britain should look at how Ireland has managed divisive and difficult referendums. In the eight decades since our constitution came into effect, we have had 41 public votes. Through trial and error, we have learned how to conduct deliberative processes in a way that is constructive. The depth of our experience is in marked contrast to the UK where they have only ever had three referendums, two of which were about membership of the EU.

The Citizens' Assembly in Ireland was a real success. It created a forum of citizens, demographically representative of the wider population, who could calmly discuss constitutional issues, outside of partisan politics.

The assembly model enabled non-partisan members of the public to learn in depth about an issue from expert witnesses and through discussion.

The collective decisions that emerge from such assemblies, whether or not you agree with them, are not seen as politically motivated or tainted. The process also allows for a significant public conversation. Critically, it also helps to distil what the actual question will be. This may sound odd. Surely we understand what we are being asked? But, as we have learned from past, that is often not the case.

Any lack of clarity can be manipulated by one side to sow confusion to serve their campaign at the cost of a representative outcome. If a campaign thinks it cannot win the question, then it may try to create confusion as to what the question is.

The Irish vote on marriage equality is a good example of one side attempting this tactic. The polling data at the time showed a clear majority in favour of equal marriage. The No campaign therefore raised a whole range of unconnected issues in the hope of creating confusion and doubt.

However, the breadth and depth of the debate that had preceded the referendum campaign made it difficult to sow confusion. The Irish people were very clear about what they were voting about. When the referendum was over, no one could argue that the outcome had not been fairly won.

Recent advice on Article 50 says that the UK has a chance to take a breather. It can use the opportunity to turn away from divisiveness, to look for common ground between citizens and to build an authentic relationship with the rest of Europe, based on hope rather than fear.

Preparations for a new referendum in the UK could adopt a citizen assembly process right across the UK in all regions. Indeed, many people are already calling for a similar approach.

Public votes should be about how we unite a country, not divide it. A successful campaign must be built on respecting those who take a different view and creating space for real discussions to happen.

This is the approach taken in both the Irish and Australian marriage equality campaigns. The tone that we set in a campaign is the tone we will all have to live with long after the campaign ends. The one thing that is definite about a referendum is that, whatever the result, we will all have to share the same country, same communities and same workplaces the next day.

In the end, the real goal of big decisions such as leaving the European Union or marriage equality is how best we all live together, how we build a country or continent based on social consensus and peace.

When we ignore this purpose in our referendum campaigns, we leave our countries as scarred battlefields which the next generation will have to fix.

Tiernan Brady is the director of Equal Future. He was the director of the Equality Campaign in Australia and the political director of the Yes Equality campaign in Ireland, the only two countries in the world to pass marriage equality by a public vote

Irish Independent

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