Referendums: Past and Present

Michael Marsh gave a talk at the Policy Institute last night on this topic –  slides are here.

39 replies on “Referendums: Past and Present”

Why do we persist in having these referendums in Ireland? No other country in Europe is holding a public vote on this issue. Why do we vote on relatively minor matters of European policy but not on major matters of domestic policy?

I would like a referendum to be held on whether to persist in these European referendums in future. Let the government and/or Dail decide as already happens for 99% of executive decision making.

@Carson because Raymond Crotty took a case to the Supreme Court in the ’80s which the SC made a hash of (imho).

Now that the “people” have the power to vote on this, no Government can be seen to seek to take that power away from the people, even though many of the people wish to use their vote in protest at some other, unspecified, Government action.

While I’d be there with you in happily passing a referendum to restore the power to the Oireachtas can you imaging the No campaign on such a vote? Best hope is that they rewrite the constitution and try to sneak a change in there before we end up like Switzerland where almost any substantive legislative change requires a referendum.

“…before we end up like Switzerland….”

We should be so lucky! Thanks, I haven’t had such a good laugh in a while.

Completly off topic but I do think it deserves a thread.

The Total Primary Energy Supply for the country appears to have taken a major dive for Y2011.
These are based on provisional data that is open to major revision I suspect but they are dramatic numbers none the less.
TPES (inc non energy) : Y2010 : 15,155 KTOE
TPES (excl. non energy) : Y2010 : 14,829 KTOE

TPES (inc non energy) : Y2011 : 14,174 KTOE
TPES (excl non energy) : Y2011 : 13,892 KTOE

So we seemed to have lost 1 MTOe !!
If our Euro energy import was down for Y2011 this might even be considered good news but it was not – it was a record !

+ 1 Dorc

Its actually beyond belief the rising cost of energy and its hidden cost is not more documented. I suspect its due to percentile increases in the amount of tax being raised by government as it too benefits from rising prices. But the hidden cost to business and the restrictions higher costs for energy impose are not being fully explored. Cost of a litre of petrol must have increased by at least a third over the past 18 months.

The tax on oil needs to be high , but we are operating withen a inappropriate monetary envoirment which means we cannot get effective good substitution , unlike what is happening in the UK where Rail & Bus travel is increasing dramatically.
People are being thrown under a Bus to beat these figures down – its carnage.
Things can be done I guess but……. maybe the green line can get back on Track….. its now gone off the old Harcourt street line a bit….. a simple turn east and it can link onto the next bridge……

Certainly all road construction plans need to be halted – as these are unprecedented energy declines.

I regret missing the talk last night, I think it would have interesting.

I would like to follow up on the point that “we are not very good at Referendums”.

IMO, it is the Establishment that are not very good at referendums. We have seen time and again that grassroots activists barely know or care about issues outside their local parish and that most politicians and establishment media journalists have a very rudimentary grasp of the substance of various referendums. This often leads to scaremongering and asinine arguments on both sides, with little discussion of potential consequences.

For example, during Nice I and II, there was very little debate about the actual implications of the treaty i.e. that Ireland would be flooded with immigrants from the East. I happen to think this was a good thing, but I’m sure most of the elecorate was ignorant of this possibility.

During Lisbon, there was very little debate about the impact that intergovernmentalism would have on the governance of Europe. Declan Ganley warned about this, but it was ignored by most and now we have the awful Merkozy dictating from on-high.

During the current campaign we have seen a very narrow focus by Establishment politicians, journalists and economists on access to the ESM or “economic stability”, but little discussion on the long term political consequence of kow-towing to a defunct Germanic economic ideaology (a refreshing exception is Terence McDonagh in today’s IT).

In my opinion, the electorate is quite sophisticated but given the usual arrogant and patronising debate in the run up to referenda, it is no wonder that huge numbers typically abstain or simply vote against the wishes of the Establishment.

God forbid we end up with a political system like that notorious banana republic, Switzerland. Who knows where that would lead? Perhaps unemployment might even fall below 10%.

“…before we end up like Switzerland….”

“We should be so lucky! Thanks, I haven’t had such a good laugh in a while.”

Just want to second Kevin Donoghue’s aspiration to end up like Switzerland

I don’t think all of Switzerland’s prosperity can be attributed to the large number of referendums there. If anything, it could be considered a minor positive or negative factor I think. California is also a wonderful place to live and extremely wealthy, but in some instances its citizen-led referendums have been damaging in my opinion.


“I would like a referendum to be held on whether to persist in these European referendums in future”

I thought they had nailed that one with the Lisbon Treaty but of course, this specific referendum is messing with Bunreacht Na hÉireann – and that’s one place you don’t want to be caught with your hands in or someone is likely to take a camán to your fingers.

Yes, prosperous though California is you’re probably right that referendums have done more harm than good there. Still, even the Californian setup has its points. Could the state legislature have got away with issuing an Irish-style bank guarantee, for example?

@The DOrk of Cork

In the absence of another thread to tell you this….. Spain has just announced it is to sell (privatise) its high speed Renfe rail network.

Me too

I think the plan is to privatise these assets while we are in this artifical debt crisis.
When they raise the money supply anything on rails will be a Gold mine.

We are dealing with a criminal cabal.

Ah, here we go with the spin again.

Ignoring the Euro 3bn PN deferral; ignoring (or orchestrating) the timing of tax receipts, ignoriing the deficit and reforms, etc, etc, etc

While the Irish people may not be the best at referenda, better they are given the opportunity to vote for their future rather than leave it in the hands of these “magicians”. All smoke and mirrors, no substance. I wonder whether the ‘objective’ Fiscal Council will endorse this ‘positive message’ (aka BS).

Local government taxes are voted on by citizens in Switzerland – participation rates in such voting are high – local services are also of a very high quality. this tends to lead to a very active public sphere; in contrast, the Irish public sphere is particularly weak with agendas set by dominant interest groups; participation in public consultations is minimalist in the extreme; the back benchers are literally powerless in policy making; and the central polit-bureau, with unseen influences, is all powerful in terms of policy.

We need more democracy – not less democracy.

Why do we have referendums, foreigners are puzzled. But we are not puzzled, we have referendums because we do not trust our politicians at the local, county or national level. We vote for politicians to work the fiddle to our advantage in the short term and they do not disappoint us on that score. For serious matters requiring thought, foresight and analytical skills we know that we do not vote for that type of politician. Hence what we have elected are not fit to govern responsibly and we insist on referendums and to make things worse our craven vote hunters go along with us.

This does not happen only in Ireland but we have perfected scheming over a long period of time.

Ann Pettifor on getting politically involved if you want change. Play a role in selecting politicians, get your hands dirty, consort with people you would not ordinarily give the time of day to. You can do your bit to save the country.

@ All

The presentation deals with the problems created by the holding of referendums in Ireland on “European” issues but fails to pose the obvious question; why, alone among the countries of Europe, are we seemingly condemned to ask the people advise on European issues which are clearly so complex as to constitute on their own the justification for the concept of a representative democracy; which the Republic of Ireland, incidentally, happens to be.

For anyone seeking an answer, it is necessary to read the rather curious opinions of the majority of judges in the Crotty case cf. the accurate, but curiously unexpanded, Wikipedia entry.

In short, a majority of blinkered judges made a silly majority decision and several generations of pusillanimous politicians have failed to correct it. The Constitution, after all, is the property of the people, not the judges.


No problem paying our own bills – I strenously object to having to pay for the bills of the vichy_financial system.

Your patrician high tory elitism and implied judgement on the ignorance and stupidity of the lumpen citizenry wrt to the Crotty Judgement is noted – and simply noted are you are being true to form. Deliberative democracy is such a nuisance at times as it may place the privileged positions of the goughing upper_echlelons at some risk and possibly engender nightmares of the French Revolution in such elevated circles.

Raymond Crotty has done the Citizenry of this State some service.

The economics of the fiscal compact is NonSense; this is more than sufficient for me to vote NO. There are also political arguments for voting NO. But I’m not getting into the little spat between Karl Whelan and Peadar Toibin, two intelligent men of standing, on the distinctions between economic and political – in this case, both apply.

@ Aisling

It is patronising and insulting to people to hold that if the great unwashed don’t vote the way you would like then it is not due to the substantive issue of the referendum but because of some entirely unrelated matter. You get nutters on all sides but, collectively, there are neutralised and the people are well capable of making up their own minds and changing them if necessary (as I did for Nice I and Nice II).

I agree with David O’Donnell. We need more democracy not less. I see no reason why we couldn’t have a referendum every second month (seriously). Just think of all the issues that could be addressed such as the need for Government departments to be allowed share data (apparently this needs a referendum or something of that magnitude), or to bring in a unique patient identifier in the Health Services, or the enormous prices that were paid to farmers for agricultural land needed to build motorways and other infrastructure (didn’t Mrs Gilmore herself earn a fortune selling a field to the Dept of Education down in Loughrea or someplace?). The Constitution could be completely overhauled and modernised in a matter of 2 years with a planned series of referenda every second month.

@Bunbury Could you please explain to me what changed between Nice I and Nice II to alter your vote because the treaty itself did not?

Given that the treaty did not change, and the no arguments did not change, and I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of voters did not read the treaty, or if they did not understand it, I’m left with the curious position of assuming that votes changed because of matters unrelated to the treaty.

If that happens then I’m happy to stand over the assumption that Irish referenda are not the exercises in democracy that many would hold them out to be.

By the way, in an ideal world while my preferred option would be to have no referenda on European treaties, my fall back option would be to have just one and accept the result.

Where we are now is the worst of all worlds in my opinion because both the Irish electorate, and the previous Governments, have demeaned the concept of referenda being the people having their say on the matter at hand.

@Kevin & Bazza We’re talking about a country that gave my gender the vote at a federal level in 1971, having rejected it in 1959, so I’m pretty comfortable with being uncomfortable with a system of Government which enshrines tyranny of the masses.

Their system of direct Government led to them lagging most of Europe by more than a generation in this regard.

I would have thought it was the political elites, specifically the Catholic Church and those politically aligned to them, rather than the ‘tyranny of the masses’ that held back progressive reform? (The Catholic social provisions written into the Constitution by specific political actors)
I ask that in good faith and out of curiosity as to whether you’d argree. I’m not from that generation and haven’t read enough to have an informed opinion. But I dont think pre 1970s Ireland can be described as a tyranny of the masses

@rf Catholicism is not the majority religion in Switzerland therefore, alas, the lack of universal suffrage there (until 1990 in some cases) cannot be blamed on that Institution. It can, however, be blamed on their system of direct democracy. If only men can vote, and there is no temperance of “direct democracy”…. direct democracy has its [obvious] limitations.

Ireland, by contrast, where the Catholic Church did wield an influence, had the first elected female Minister in the world (although we didn’t repeat it until 1979).

Ah, I see I misinterpreted your point completely. My apologies. I probably should have paid closer attention
I dont know anything about the Swiss system so have nothing to add, though that seems a convincing argument

@ David O’Donnell

I normally do not reply to bloggers such as yourself who seem incapable of avoiding making rather unpleasant ad hominem remarks. In this instance, however, I will make an exception as you state that I made an implied criticism of the “lumpen citizenry” when I did nothing of the sort. I was highly critical of the Crotty judgement and two of parties associated with making it, the deciding judges and the politicians, the latter for failing to deal honestly with the consequences. I made no comment on the litigant who was simply exercising his constitutional rights. Nor to the right of the people to be consulted if that is what the current interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court requires.

On the issue of democracy, I subscribe to what is in the Constitution as to the character of the state, that of a representative democracy, with provision for direct democracy with regard to changing it, for instance, to bring it back into line with normal democratic practice in relation to the ratification of intergovernmental treaties.

I repeat my invitation, especially to you, that you read the judgement, or rather the sections of it where the judges did not in agree in relation to the implications for sovereignty of the European Political Cooperation aspects of the treaty then under discussison; the Single European Act. The arguments of the Chief Justice, unusually in the minority, are the persuasive ones, especially in relation to the powers of the Dáil in matter of ratifying inter-governmental treaties which, in terms of their very description, involve no loss sovereignty. This is equally true of the TSCG.

Incidentally, the TEU states that the EU is based on representative democracy.

@ All

As a measure of the suitability of the ratification of the TSCG by popular vote, take the following from the thread just opened by John McHale.

“The 1/20th Rule

The actual application of the rule uses both backward and forward looking averaging. To keep things as simple as possible, I will just look at the rate of debt reduction in the current year.

The change in the debt/GDP ratio is given by a simple formula:

Δd = [(i – g)/(1 + g)]d-1 – ps,”.

@DOCM you forgot to factor in that even if you can read the current treaty, and get through John McHale’s explanation of the calculations, you also need to understand existing rules in order to understand the consequences of allowing the Government ratify the TSCG.


I normally tend to reply to anonymous sophisticated spin-bloggers such as yourself who seem incapable of avoiding making rather unpleasant ad hominem remarks on the capabilites of the lumpen citizenry to make up its own mind.

‘… involve no loss sovereignty. This is equally true of the TSCG.

You gotta be kiddin me!

Δd = [(i – g)/(1 + g)]d-1 – ps

Refer to my first point above. Blind Biddy’s comment is unprintable. Or are you referring to the mathematically challenged within the Fine Gael gene pool? Does Lucinda have an ‘opinion’?

Finally, I agree with the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Raymond Crotty Case.


Reference by the Referendum Commision to unknown consequences of a No decision by the lumpen citizenry on ESM is, imho, open to legal challenge.

“Could you please explain to me what changed between Nice I and Nice II to alter your vote because the treaty itself did not?

Given that the treaty did not change, and the no arguments did not change, and I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of voters did not read the treaty, or if they did not understand it, I’m left with the curious position of assuming that votes changed because of matters unrelated to the treaty.”

Unrelated to the Treaty, perhaps, but not unrelated to the vote. Despite the braying cynicism of some commentators, in general the Irish public accepts that the government is working broadly in their interests, and is probably best placed to determine whether a treaty or a constitutional change is in their interests.

Governments will lose referendums, however, when their approach to an issue is insufficiently respectful, and/or fails to deal adequately with concerns raised by the No side. By the latter I don’t necessarily mean being able to refute the concerns comprehensively or logically, but being able to show that such concerns have at least occurred to them and been thought about, and that the government have answers to those concerns which they believe are adequate.

In both Nice 1 and Lisbon 1 the approach of the government to the electorate was particularly dismissive, while the concerns raised by the No side went apparently unaddressed. A similar effect was observable in the Oireachtas Inquiries referendum, where the government appeared highly surprised and irritated that anyone had any concerns about their plan – which swung the electorate in the last week or so of the campaign.

So the outcome of referendums on complex issues like treaties is, quite reasonably, determined largely by the Irish public’s perception of whether the government really believes the treaty is in our interests, whether they have really thought about our interests, whether they have really thought about the potential drawbacks, and whether they approach the public in a sufficiently respectful way.

All in all, it’s not unlike deciding whether to agree to a request by your teenager to go holidaying with friends – you’re not automatically averse, the considerations are complex, and in the end it stands or falls on the way they approach you, and whether they appear to have properly thought it through. And, much like that decision, there are people who will always say No, because they don’t trust their teenagers at all.

@Aisling: “We’re talking about a country that gave my gender the vote at a federal level in 1971, having rejected it in 1959, so I’m pretty comfortable with being uncomfortable with a system of Government which enshrines tyranny of the masses.”

When it comes to civil rights I’d certainly prefer that courts call the shots, though they’re not perfect either. But when it comes to economic policy I’ll take my chances with Sean Citizen in preference to Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi.

@ Aisling

ibis answered for me above. I cannot access IE during my working day so it is only in the evenings, usually after 9pm, when I catch up on posts.

In fact, I often wonder what sort of jobs posters on this blog have that they can seemingly check the blog very regularly, post comments, and respond to them at will. I’d lose my job or at least be disciplined if I was on this website every day.


I have to keep up to date with news, events and opinions in the economic/financial services sphere.

Apart from that, I’m a creative genius and need distractions to keep me in one place for any length of time. I also paint watercolours during the working day to stimulate myself.

Fortunately, my reward in exchange for all this creative energy is not based on attendance or hours…. just on results. If only it were so for all of us, it would present some interesting situations. As far as I can see, most people simply attend a place of work for social reasons or they can’t cope with being alone.

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