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.