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A Tale of many Referendums

by Frank Schnittger Sat Sep 30th, 2017 at 10:38:06 AM EST

As the Catalonia referendum crisis reaches it's apotheosis the Irish Government has proposed to hold no fewer than seven referendums in the next couple of years which has even friendly commentators questioning their necessity. More hostile commentators regard the plan as nothing more than a stunt pulled by a weak minority Government trying to prove it has vision and durability.

But some of the proposed referenda are very important and likely to prove extremely controversial and difficult to pass. The proposal to remove or amend the Eight Amendment to the Constitution which prohibits abortion in almost all circumstances is one such issue. There is a broad consensus that access to abortion in Ireland needs to be liberalised, but little consensus on precisely to what degree.

The Eight Amendment was originally passed in 1983 (with a 54% turnout) at the height of the Catholic Church's powers and guaranteed "the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child". It has proved controversial then and ever since, but conservative forces will not give up without a fight.

Two further proposed referenda propose to reword the arcane constitutional provisions about a woman's place in the home and to abolish the crime of blasphemy. No one has ever been successfully prosecuted for blasphemy and the language about a women's place being in the home has had no practical effect in recent years.  That doesn't mean that those provisions don't need to be removed, however, especially as many Islamic countries have cited our blasphemy laws as evidence to support their own implementation of similar laws which often include a penalty of death.

Three further proposed amendments would give votes to recent emigrants while abroad in Presidential elections, reduce the waiting period for divorce from four years to two, and reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 years of age. Some people will feel strongly about some or all of these issues, but the greatest danger is that, if held individually, some will attract a very low turnout and thus a potentially very unrepresentative result.

Hence my letter to the Editor of the Irish Times published today:

Sir, - Stephen Collins writes that the plan to hold at least seven referendums over the next couple of years is a needless distraction from the pressing issue of Brexit and worse, could even undermine our system of representative democracy at a time when populism is doing great damage in the US and UK ("Do we really want seven referendums?", Opinion & Analysis, September 28th).

Some of the proposed referendums deal with pressing issues for many of our people and others are of more marginal concern. On their own, many may not command a high turnout, and there is nothing more damaging to the legitimacy of our democratic system than constitutional changes approved by only a small section of our population.

However, there is no reason why these referendums can't be held simultaneously, or even in conjunction with the next presidential, European, local or general election. The idea that our citizenry can only be trusted to think about one issue at a time is insulting. Holding the referendums simultaneously will save on the cost, on our citizens' time, and, most importantly, promote the legitimacy of our political system by helping to ensure a high turnout. - Yours, etc,


Conservatives have generally tried to entrench Roman Catholic dogma into the Constitution to prevent more liberal governments from legislating to liberalise them. They are aided in this effort by the generally more highly motivated conservative vote, and by higher turnout amongst older voters. Combining a number of different issues, important to different demographics but not necessarily to all will help to counter their disproportionate influence.

Referenda in Ireland typically attract turnouts in the range of 30-60% and so the level of voter mobilisation on an issue is important in determining the outcome. 27 amendments have been passed since 1972 but 11 proposed amendments have been defeated against the advice of the Government of the day - so there is no guarantee of a successful outcome. Proposals to liberalise abortion and divorce laws (and further EU integration) have often succeeded only at a second attempt when a higher turnout poll was achieved.

Catalonia may be fighting for the right to hold a referendum on independence, but in Ireland that right is too often taken for granted, or abused by entrenched minorities determined to impose their will on less motivated majorities. We take our freedoms for granted at our peril.

Having a referendum is the best way to get to the situation wherein one is able to ask 'How the hell did we get into this mess?'

(See: Brexit)

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sat Sep 30th, 2017 at 05:43:08 PM EST
I think it would be wrong to equate Irish Referenda with UK ones.  In Ireland, because we have a written constitution, referenda tend to be on quite specific topics with justiciable outcomes.  Although there can be confusion as to the precise meaning or implications of a wording, the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbitrator of what effect a provision will have.

Often the Government will also publish accompanying legislative proposals to illustrate precisely what effect the Constitutional change will have in much greater detail.  Voters are therefore generally very clear on what their choice means, although some attempts at misinformation have been attempted - e.g. when the Lisbon Treaty was painted by opponents as enabling abortion in Ireland or compromising Irish neutrality even more than it has already been compromised.

There is therefore, for example, little prospect of Irish voters voting for "Irexit" without being very clear on the political, legal, and economic implications of so doing.  Equally, I doubt any Irish government would attempt a referendum on Irish unity (in conjunction with one in N. Ireland under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement) without first coming to a detailed agreement with the UK as to precisely how a handover and transition period would be managed, what provisions would be made to safeguard Unionist's sense of "Britishness" and local government autonomy in N. Ireland, and how the whole exercise would be financed from the point of view of Irish taxpayers.

This is how an adult polity manages its affairs, whether you agree with a particular proposal or not. Having "advisory" referenda, on hugely complex and poorly defined proposals which are then interpreted any number of different ways is a different matter altogether.  For instance the Scottish Independence referendum was carried out without voters knowing how the national debt would be carved up, what defence and other "national" assets would remain in Scottish hands, and even what currency an independent Scotland would eventually use.

This vagueness was intentional, as uncertainty generally favours the status quo, unless, as in the case of the Brexit referendum, it becomes a generic catch-all issue for harvesting an anti-establishment vote which has built up for all manner of reasons not necessarily connected to the actual issue at hand. Irish referendum proposals proposed by unpopular or untrusted governments have often been defeated in a wave of anti-government sentiment not necessarily connected to the precise issue at hand, but nothing on the scale of the misinformation and misdirection which accompanied the Brexit referendum, precisely because an issue is generally much more narrowly defined.

In the case of the proposed abortion referendum, for example, the government will seek to tread a carefully defined path between the current very restrictive situation, and "abortion on demand" which it deems unlikely to secure majority support (presumably based on private polls in has carried out. Any compromise proposal runs the risk of pleasing neither side in a very polarised debate with the "pro-life" side claiming it will open the floodgates to unrestricted abortion (as they claim has happened in the UK) and the "pro-choice" side claiming it is altogether too restrictive and fails to give women control over their own bodies - on a par with men.

There is thus a danger than any compromise proposal will fail to garner a high turn-out from pro-choice voters while not diminishing the "pro-life" vote in any way. Leo Varadker has tried to straddle the divide (as leader of the most conservative party, Fine Gael) by saying he will not make a decision as to whether to support the measure until he sees the actual wording (yet to be agreed). Ideally the actual wording will just repeal the eight Amendment and leave it up to Governments to legislate in line with changing social mores and medical best practice but it's hard to tell whether future Governments will be trusted enough to do so wisely.

At a minimum, any proposal should allow abortions before fetal viability in the case of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormalities, and risks to the mother's health (as opposed to her life), but the devil will be in the detail.  There may be very little time to prove an allegation of rape, what degree of risk to the mother's health should be deemed sufficient to justify an abortion and already the pro-life movement is seeking to muddy the waters as to what constitutes a fatal fetal abnormality.

A much simpler solution would be to simply seek to leave it to the mother and her medical advisors, but we tend to move slowly and incrementally on moral issues. Failing that, Governments should be trusted to legislate, but trust in governments is in short supply these days...

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Sep 30th, 2017 at 07:05:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Repeal and legislate is minimal. Anything else is just lining up another referendum in a few years.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Sat Sep 30th, 2017 at 07:35:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but is it the best we can do at this stage?  Personally I'm not convinced a simple repeal accompanied by proposed detailed legislation couldn't pass, but opinion polling is not supportive on this point...

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Sep 30th, 2017 at 09:01:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Polling at this stage is probably at best misleading. Main problem will
be the "balanced" debate, where the media give half a dozen people, mostly related and representing  no one, utterly undue prominence.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Sun Oct 1st, 2017 at 07:15:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Not when it's part of your process for changing your constitution.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Sat Sep 30th, 2017 at 07:33:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In the USA the referendum was a product of the Progressive Movement around the turn of the 19/20th Century. As Prop. 13 in California has shown they can also be used for great mischief by conservatives. I don't know how that would translate to Ireland.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Oct 1st, 2017 at 02:32:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Eight Amendment is a prime example of such mischief, being a pre-emptive strike by the Catholic Church fearing the growth of "liberal values" in Ireland, they sought to entrench their dogma into the Constitution even though their was no legal abortion in Ireland then anyway, or likely to happen in the near future...

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Oct 1st, 2017 at 09:30:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The progressive movement (the political party) in California for Californians.

It is not trivial to remind, this analogy fails at the national, or federal, level of US government unless one is prepared to equate the sovereignty of each and every US state to the sovereignty of each and every European state --especially concerning determination of US states' constitutions.

Art. IV, Sec. 4

The US does not permit national referenda; public, or plenary, referenda is not a mechanism of national legislation USC or US Constitution. And let me emphasize the barriers to effecting introduction of and alterations to US public law by petition, from beginning to end, are manifold, ie. the US Congress itself.

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.

by Cat on Sun Oct 1st, 2017 at 02:29:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So what The Spanish don't permit them either, but it's happening. The question would be what would happen on the ground if California actually had such a referendum?  Would the army move in to stop it? Would the Fed simply crash the California economy? Would they vote for independence and then have everybody ignore it? (Like Staten Ireland).
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Sun Oct 1st, 2017 at 06:31:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the difference as to whether they are or are not legal is the difference between 'legally binding' and being 'bound by law' - as in the police putting one in custody, legal or not.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Oct 1st, 2017 at 08:15:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
more like the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, yo.
(that's AINO)

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.
by Cat on Mon Oct 2nd, 2017 at 12:47:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thousands attend Dublin rally calling for liberalisation of abortion laws
Organisers were claiming a turnout of more than 30,000 for the event.

Marchers called for an early referendum on the Eighth Amendment, which gives equal status to the life of the mother and the unborn, to be based on the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly for liberalised access to abortion.

Chants of "My body my choice" and "Hey hey, Leo, the Eighth Amendment has to go" were heard as protesters let off smoke bombs and held aloft signs reading: "Get off the fence Leo" in relation to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's stance on the issue.

There were no reports of flashpoints, and plans by some anti-abortion activists to hold counter-demonstrations along the route appeared not to have materialised.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Sep 30th, 2017 at 09:52:15 PM EST
it was a fine and significant year on the timeline of things. A fine and necessary capitulation to the "inalienable rights" of all people. "it was signed into law on 30 July by Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland,[3] and commenced on 1 January 2014." I was so happy, when news reached me, I posted this song for a week at calaculatedrisk.

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.

by Cat on Sun Oct 1st, 2017 at 02:53:13 PM EST
I hate it when that happens,URL is not identical to asset ID.

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.
by Cat on Sun Oct 1st, 2017 at 02:56:46 PM EST
"We are satisfied that the legislation in working in the way it was intended to," he said. "I know the figure of 26 may seem high but bear in mind it is three on the grounds of suicide and 23 on the grounds of physical illness where there is a threat to the life of the mother.

"If you read back on the evidence given by obstetricians to the Joint Oireachtas committee, the figures they used were in the region of 20 or 30 cases a year where a termination is necessary to protect the life of the mother."
Mr Varadkar said this was a personal and private matter for the women concerned and her doctors. He said it was not for politicians or other third parties to be investigating or getting involved in.

On this, it is for the people of Ireland to agree promptly and affirmatively, some day.

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.

by Cat on Sun Oct 1st, 2017 at 03:04:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I recall when I first heard this song by The Edwin Hawkins Singers in 1969 while driving through Topanga Canyon. Athiest-mystic that I was I was enthralled. But I have always had a fondness for certain types of gospel music.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Oct 1st, 2017 at 08:27:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
An Irish speakers here? Has anyone read the text and checked that it means what we think it means?
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Sun Oct 1st, 2017 at 06:33:20 PM EST
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Oct 1st, 2017 at 07:42:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
For the abortion referendum. The Irish language one is the binding one, and I wondering if anyone checked whether it was just allowing men to have abortions. Something similar may have almost happened with the gay marriage one.
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Mon Oct 2nd, 2017 at 08:05:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No proposed texts have yet been agreed.  That would indeed be "an Irish solution to an Irish problem" - allowing abortions, but only for men!

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Oct 2nd, 2017 at 10:42:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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