And next year whilst Ireland may be awash with Referendums, there will be little substantial reform

In Scotland there’s been talk of little else but the big referendum on whether Scotland should got it alone for two years. In Ireland the cycle of questions pushed out to the people seems to be speeding up…

Olivia Kelly in the Irish Times notes they concern “reducing the voting age to 16, reducing the age barrier for presidential candidates from the current 35, and allowing same-sex marriage”, with “a fourth referendum could be held on the establishment of a unified patent court”.

Unlike the Scottish case, the government will struggle in all but one to get the material case across. Technocratic fixes to the constitution are notoriously hard to communicate, and invite trip ups (like the last Taoiseach honestly but naively admitting he hadn’t read the Lisbon Treaty).

It’s in part the piecemeal nature of the changes that’s the problem. But there may be another much more fundamental problem with referendums as outlined in fastidious detail by Paul Evans back in 2010…

Doubt and equivocation are a good thing. Instinctive certainty often isn’t. As Darwin put it,Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. Doubters and equivocators are more likely to abstain in referendums, and – following the logic of the Dunning-Kruger effect, that’s a bad thing.

It’s hard to see in the case of Scotland (a subject I’ll be returning to tomorrow), or indeed gay marriage, how else these matters could or should be resolved. Besides the Irish Constitution (being the complex and detailed document it is) demands that any reforms that appeal to it’s primary force must refer the matter directly to the sovereign, ie the people.

But perhaps, we could learn a thing or two from the Icelanders who gave serious power and authority to their constitutional assembly to produce a constitution fit to defend it’s own national interest against for example “the institutional capture of governments by the investment banks, the world’s most powerful lobbying groups.”

It’s as though the effort to face the public with all these small granular matters is ebbing the will or the capacity of executive and legislature to think in larger terms.

Or as Paul has put it…

Referendums are often used to deal with the difficult questions that political parties dare not address during elections. They allow politicians to park awkward or divisive questionswhen they’d be better offering joined-up answers. They provide a way of letting the political class off the hook.

They drive out the deliberative element in policymaking. The referendum question is an appeal to reflexes rather than an attempt to get a thoughtful response from the public.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • kensei

    The alternatives are much more problematic – you just have to look at the UK and the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers or EU changes being foisted on a populace not much enamoured with it creating further alienation.

    The US seems to get by without a huge number of referendums (though some States use them a lot at their level). That seems to be a combination of the various courts acting to changing the law on many social questions, a broad strokes constitution enabling that and the difficulty in actually winning a constitutional change (particularly in a divisive modern era). Perhaps Bunreacht could be revised to be a bit more broad to allow more issues to be handled by legislation but EU Referendums really can’t be avoided. If you don’t want them, stop expanding EU powers.

    The government could easily package a number of smaller steps into larger packages and more serious reform. Nor does their responsibility lie in sending it to the people are washing their hands of it – they are expected to be active participates arguing for change. The Scottish debate has features some bad temper, but otherwise seems to have a lively debate an engaged populace. I don’t agree with it being a problem with referendums, more just a political class doing them wrong.

  • mickfealty

    “…just a political class doing them wrong.”

    How so?

  • kensei

    By not treating them with due respect and not engaging the electorate.
    The example you cite fo not reading the Lisbon Treaty is a case in point. We elect our politicians so they will read these things – if they don’t know it, don’t understand it and can’t cite specific benefits, why should the general population care?

    You can’t have a TV debate over a patent court, but you could probably package them all have one that covers all of them, and/or set up townhalls around the country with opportunity to debate them all. If the government is proposing them, then the Taoiseach should be able to defend them. If there is broad support and a political argument, you could dole out spots around the parties. But the key things is that the top brass taking them seriously sends a signal.

    There remains a risk that the populace will drop referendums to kick the government, part of curing that is developing a culture where these aren’t a chore but something to be respected. But direct democracy has it’s advantages and disadvantages and it’s up to the politicians to play to those rather than bemoan the fact that they can’t go over the heads of their citizens.

    Systems that concentrate power are inevitably easier to administer and easier for executives to get things they want done. By that logic though, why bother with parliament, we can just elect an all powerful executive. Or indeed, why bother with elections? China is doing well. But written constitutions everywhere set a high bar for changing fundamental law for very sound reasons.

  • Michael Henry

    ” Reducing the voting age to 16 “- this would be a welcome move in the 26-

    Personally I think if a child is fit enough to learn at school they should be fit enough to vote-primary / Secondary children are smart enough at the learning stage ( smarter than some adults)-they should have a voice also instead of ones telling them what’s what all the time-