Ronan McCrea: EU reforms call for new approach to referendums

Ronan McCrea has an op-ed in today’s Irish Times that is worth debating.    His proposal:

If we are to avoid an endless series of referendums in the coming years, we will have to give the Government a degree of authority to agree to treaty changes that have not yet been agreed.

This would require a more general amendment to the Constitution, giving the State the right to participate in a fiscal and banking union. Such an approach would allow the State to sign up to the numerous amendments that are likely in the coming years if the euro is to be saved.

Given the seriousness of the implications of fiscal union for our political system, it would be desirable that there would be a further referendum at the end of the process. Once a fiscal and banking union is fully in place, then voters could decide by referendum whether they would like to be in or out of such an arrangement.

Often lost in the recent referendum debate was recognition that developing the necessary fiscal and banking integration to underpin the euro is a two-way process.   The countries most likely to be net contributors under strengthened risk-sharing arrangements will be reluctant to agree to those arrangements without credible assurances of mutual discipline.   Given the necessity of these arrangements, it is not enough to lambast Germany for not being willing to move fast enough.   The extent of the political challenge means that there is responsibility on all countries to make the necessary changes feasible.

34 replies on “Ronan McCrea: EU reforms call for new approach to referendums”

This issue should be up near the top of the list of items to be considered by the Government’s proposed Constitutional Convention. There seems to little point discussing it here, unless there is some possibility of including it. However, the probability of that happening is vanishingly small , since the number of key topics the Government has excluded and the excessively narrow and self-serving list of topics it has included make the whole exercise a total charade.

However, our ‘public intellectuals’ who have knowledge and competence in this area, and who have a reasonable expectation of being selected to be members of the ‘expert advisory group’ appear to be intently focused on ensuring the process will be conducted in line with ‘international best practice’. A campaign has been launched by the ICCL along these lines. This, of course, will allow them to do a Pontius Pilate about the content of the process.

Bank supervision and financial regulation were declared to be ‘international best practice’ in the run-up to the bursting of the double-bubble – and woe betide any one who said it wasn’t. We now know the content was rotten. It is still delared that policy and regulation in every other area is ‘international best practice’. We’ll have to wait another while before we see that the content, again, is rotten. And here we have another exercise with a focus on ensuring the process is ‘international best practice’ and the content is rotten.

I don’t think I’d want Ronan McCrea representing me.

“My client is admittedly untrustworthy, but the alternative to trusting him with large sums of money is to keep dragging him before the court to explain his plans. Clearly that’s just too much trouble.”

Not many judges would find that persuasive.

Maybe I should be a bit more positive for once and present a proposal I might actually be willing to vote for. Amend the Constitution along the following lines:

Create a Council of Elders, consisting of the judges of the Supreme Court, the Governor of the Central Bank and maybe a few others, with power to render immune to constitutional challenge any EU treaty approved by a two-thirds majority of the Oireachtas, provided it complies with certain basic principles. The most important principle would be that any “pooling of sovereignty” must be such that the EU as a whole is not made less democratic. So, for example, it would be in order to give the European Parliament power to approve an EU Federal Budget and to appoint an EU Treasury Secretary manage it, but it would not be possible to give such powers to the ECB.

I’m well aware that the ruling farceurs have no intention of proceeding along such lines. That’s why I don’t generally bother trying to be positive.

@Kevin Donoghue,

You’ve captured the essence of the problem succinctly and eloquently. Most voters elect their TDs obviously with an eye on who they want to see in government – or, as happened last year, who they didn’t want to see in government – but they can never be sure what the outcome will be. However, they pay huge attention to who might advance and protect their interests, both individually and collectively, when they have to deal with government or any part of its expansive apparatus and allocate their preferences accordingly.

Since most voters know full well that any government with a secure Dail majority can, within fairly broad constraints, do what it wants, they greatly value any opportunity they might get between general elections to be consulted directly and ‘to put a bit of manners’ on government. Presidential, Euro and local elections follow a particular cycle; by-elections tend to be random; so any attempt to reduce the possible incidence of referenda is unlikely to be welcomed.

Most voters are also well aware that the focus of the opposition’s efforts in the Oireachtas is to make the government look incompetent and incapable so that enough voters will be persuaded to chuck it out at the next time of asking and they can take its place. And they know full well that this lust for power is not always in their interests. But, rather than demanding that TDs use the Dail and its procedures to hold government to account, it appears they prefer to do this themselves, directly but intermittently, whenever an opportunity to vote arises between general elections – and to assrt that they retain the ultimate authority. Unfortunately, this exercise of ‘discipline’ and assertion of authority is often blunt, crude and ineffective.

However, this, more or less, is the system that voters have been used to since the foundation of the state and it appears highly unlikely that a majority would welcome any significant changes.

I, for one, would prefer, if a majority were prepared to demand that their TDs secure and exercise sufficient powers and resources to subject government and its apparatus to proper scrutiny, restraint and accountability, but, unlike voters in many EU parliamentary democracies, this does not seem to be the ‘Irish way’.

This is probably the only way the issue Ronan McCrea has highlighted might be resolved. If voters were prepared to allow their TDs to subject governments to more scrutiny, restraint and accountability they might feel less need to exercise this ‘discipline’ directly themselves and to assert their ultimate authority.

In addition, since any increase in the work-load of TDs to subject government to effective scrutiny, restraint and accountability would likely reduce their activity advancing and protecting the individual and collective interests of voters, any changes would need to be accompanied by a signifciant re-empowerment and resourcing of local government and considerable decentralisation of currently centralised acitivities.

Can anyone seriously envisage such a restoration of effective parliamentary democracy and local governance in Ireland?

“Once a fiscal and banking union is fully in place, then voters could decide by referendum whether they would like to be in or out of such an arrangement.”

You’d have to ask how many times they would be required to decide. Likely until they got it right. But dont expect to vote twice if you say yes.

Good to see the fundamental problems of the EU are being side-stepped.

@Paul – you suggesting that referndums are used to punish the govt. but all that argument is is a rehash of you voted no because you were ignorant and confused or angry but you voted yes because you were mature and took the time to consider the issues.

Part of what K. o’Rourke highlighted with his post on “acceptable politics”

“Often lost in the recent referendum debate was recognition that developing the necessary fiscal and banking integration to underpin the euro is a two-way process. The countries most likely to be net contributors under strengthened risk-sharing arrangements will be reluctant to agree to those arrangements without credible assurances of mutual discipline.”

It’s far from clear that abandoning the right to treaty-by-treaty referenda is likely to improve our position in such a two-way process. Indeed its only by reference to our referenda that anyone appears to give any attention to Irish civil society’s opinion on such important matters at all. The better way to get support at any such referendum would be including both benefits-and-costs in any single referendum deal, rather than merely costs (the fiscal rules straightjacket) balanced (if that is the right word) by threats to pull the plug on the ATMs.

I understand that these referenda often seem a chore to those in power, and to many economists, but to use the terms above “given the necessity of these arrangements, it is not enough to lambast” the Irish constitutional requirement for referenda on constitutionally important treaties, but to ensure that any treaties agreed offer real and clearly explicable benefits to the people of Ireland.

Why in Gods name would you want to centralise further power to the EU mandarins and their bagman in Dublin castle.

Do people actually understand what Ireland has become under EU control ? – its a conduit ,not a country.
No rational domestic economic activity happens in this country anymore… ditto for Spain ,Greece and the rest of them.
Huge roads to nowhere in Ireland , high speed rail to once backwater NW Spain even ! , Greek dependence on credit hyper inflated tourists from elsewhere in the fiefdom.
And now no Duracell batteries for its new toys.

It all stated with the fishing industry and moved up the food chain from there.
The European experiment has been catostrophic for Ireland and its society.

Its now a non place because of this darkness….. and guys like the above want more !!!!
Lord give me strength….
Europe now has little redundancy from shocks as everything has become too specialised , too effiecent to maximise profits , in short leveraged on natural resourses it does not have.

A true banking fiefdom of immense scale and darkness.


Previously, I used to focus more on the ‘putting some manners on ’em’ aspect – rather than a desire to ‘punish’ government, but I now actually think it’s more of an assertion of ultimate authority. This ‘acceptable politics’ trope is another issue entirely.

All I’m highlighting is the apparent unwillingness of most Irish voters to demand that their TDs subject government to effective scrutiny, restraint and accountability and the compensating need to assert their ultimate authority quite frequently. If one looks across the full spectrum of parliamentary democracies in the EU there appears to be an inverse relationship between the extent to which a parliament subjects government to effective scrutiny, restraint and accountability and the demand for, and frequency of, referenda.

The stronger the parliament, the more voters will rely on it to make the big decisions – and only rarely demand or require a referendum; the weaker a parliament, the greater the demand for, and frequency of, referenda.

DOCM, a frequent commenter on this blog, often laments the Supreme Court’s Crotty judgement, but I think it reflected a proper assessment of how most Irish voters seem to want to operate ‘their’ system of democracy.

However, in the context of Ronan McCrea’s suggestion that, with numerous incremental EU treaty amendments likely in the future, the requirement for a referendum on each amendment should be removed, I strongly believe – and this is where I came in – that this issue should be addressed by the proposed Constitutional Convention.

But you can be absolutely sure that the Government will run a mile from any consideration of including it in any shape or form. Is it any wonder we’re in the mess we’re in?

So Ireland has opted out of the financial transaction tax. Not surprising for a country beholden to its bankers.
Fair play to the 9 countries which are going ahead with the financial transaction tax, its nice to see some people are thinking about doing the right thing rather than racing to the bottom on tax and regulation.
I applaud Germany France and the other countries in this case.

And while we’re on referenda/dums – and particularly EU-rated ones, it’s interesting to consider the results of the last one. If one ignores the likely limited changes in the composition of the electorate between Feb 2011 and May 2012, the drop in turnout meant that about 650K voters sat on their hands. The ‘no’ vote, at 620K, was only a little more than the total non-FG, non-Labour, non-FF 1st preference vote in 2011 and the difference between the total FG, Labour, FF vote in 2011 and the ‘yes’ total was roughly equal to the number of voters who sat on their hands.

Now I’m not saying that all FG+Labour+FF voters who turned out last May voted ‘yes’, or that all non-FG, non-Labour, non-FF voters who turned out voted ‘no’, but this suggests a bit of a cancelling out effect and probably gives a reasonable idea of the outcomes of any future EU-related referenda.

It is difficult to see the pathologically anti-EU, nationalistic, hard-left camp securing the support of more than 25% of the electorate. It is equally difficult to see the percentage broadly recognising that Ireland’s future lies in the EU falling much below 30% and with 20%+ broadly accepting this, but without any great enthusiasm. This 30% in favour + 20% accepting is more than 70% of a maximum likely turnout and corresponds to the 75% or so of TDs in favour.

This suggests that the division in the Dail broadly reflects the will of the people when it comes to deciding on incremental amendments to EU treaties, institutions and procedures and that referenda should be the exception, rather than the rule – and only, perhaps, when signifciant pooling of sovereignty is involved.

However, this falls foul of most voters apparent desire to have a weak parliament, by default, and to be able to assert their ultimate authority frequently. Still, it would be good to give citizens the opportunity to consider whether ot not this is what they really want – and a properly devised Constituional Convention would provide the best forum.

@ Chris

The biggest problem with this crisis was incredibly poor lending standards and excess leverage in the banking system. The FTT will do absolutely nothing to prevent these occurring again in the future. The cost of the FTT will impact on pension funds and investments products. That’s about it. It’s a tax, nothing more and nothing less.

@ All

This is a thoroughly bad idea and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the purpose of a constitution.

The issue in this instance is who exercises the authority of the State in international relations.

The Constitution could not be clearer;

“Article 29.4. 1° The executive power of the State in or in connection with its external relations shall in accordance with Article 28
of this Constitution be exercised by or on the authority of the Government.
2° For the purpose of the exercise of any executive function of the State in or in connection with its external relations, the Government may to such extent and subject to such conditions, if any, as may be determined by law, avail of or adopt any organ, instrument, or method of procedure used or adopted for the like purpose by the members of any group or league of nations with which the State is or becomes associated for the purpose of international co-operation in matters of common concern.”

The problem is that posed by another sub-section;

“10° No provision of this Constitution invalidates laws enacted, acts done or measures adopted by the State which are necessitated by the obligations of membership of the European Union or of the Communities, or prevents laws enacted, acts done or measures adopted by the European Union or by the Communities or by institutions thereof, or by bodies competent under the Treaties establishing the Communities, from having the force of law in the State”.

What does “necessitated by” mean? The provision is too tightly drawn and has given rise to a long series of additions to the relevant section of the Constitution.

The catalyst for this was the Crotty judgement in which a majority of the judges came to the conclusion that the element that was clearly caught by Article 29.4 – being intergovernmentalin character and not “necessitared by” EU membership – was somehow a threat to sovereignty.

There is no exit from this conundrum short of amending the Constitution in a manner which it is likely to prove unacceptable to the Irish people given the fraught nature of the country’s relations with the EU qua international organisation.

The situation has not been helped by a series of inept Supreme Court decisions on the manner in which referendums should be conducted.

@ Paul Hunt

I have just read your contribution. I am not lamenting the Crotty judgement, I am simply pointing out that it is impossible to escape from its consequences. A further series of largely pointless referendums is inevitable.


I don’t think there’s any specific disagreement. My simple point is that any attempt to corral this Crotty ‘free cat’ will have to be initially political-constitutional rather than legal-constitutional. Any legal or legislative attempt to curtail the excessive and unnecessary opportunities Crotty provides for the people to assert their ultimate authority will be fiercely opposed (and not just by those who are pathologically ill-disposed towards the EU), unless there is some balancing constraint on the executive dominance of government. And even then it may not prove possible.

The best example is the Danes who were annoyed and angry at the way the executive dominance of their government led to a popular rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and they were forced to vote again. They resolved to empower their parliament to curtail governments to prevent a repeat.

But Irish governments will never countenance any restraint on their executive dominance and much prefer to run the risk of defeat in these EU-related referendums.

The Constitutional Convention provides an excellent opportunity to present citizens with a broad choice between, on one side, a supine parliament and these apparently never-ending, but, in most instances, unnecessary, opportunities to assert their ultimate authority and, on the other side, a re-empowered and resourced parliament subjecting government to proper scrutiny, restraint and accountability and allowing parliament to make these EU-related decisions in most instances.

The fact that this would be the last thing that the Government would allow this Convention to consider demonstrates how broken the system of democratic governance in Ireland is. What is really galling is that this likely series of “pointless referendums” runs the risk of delaying and extending the very necessary incremental process of institutional and procedural reform in the EU. It introduces continuing and unnecessary uncertainty for all Ireland’s partners and all participants involved in the process – and runs the risk that Ireland will drop out by accident at some stage.

@ Paul Hunt

I do not think that it will because the difficulties in Europe are political, not institutional. The instruments exist, the politicians simply do not want to use them. Or, if they do, they pick a divisive or populistic one such as the use of the enhanced cooperation procedure to introduce an FTT.

The IMF has provided the menu for the summit next week cf.

The meeting is doomed to succeed. The curiosity is that its most significant steps are likely to be camouflaged as Merkel is no longer in a positionto be up front with her electorate.

As regards Ireland’s constitutional tangles, it is a chicken and egg argument. It is clear that we need to change the system of election in order to get the parliament of the quality that is required to control the executive but I do not see any party attempting this or the Irish people agreeing.

However, the outcome of the Pringle case will be of great interest. I see hints from the Sinn Féin case of a possible reference to the ECJ. How that would come about escapes me. Our Constitution is our own affair but seeing the mess that has been made of its interpretation maybe some outside assistance is called for.


Broadly agree, but just three quick points.

1. Yes, the EU institutions are in place, but there is a requirement to shore up the democratic underpinnings to match their proper and extended use;
2. The electoral system in Ireland is not the real issue; it is ultimately for voters to decide what they want their TDs to do – irrespective of how they are elected; and
3. It is now the settled will of the Irish people to engage with the ongoing EU process – even if not with any great enthusiasm. Judges will never concede that this might be a factor in their deliberations, but they would be wise not to ignore it.

@ Paul Hunt

I agree on 1 and 3.

As to 2, I could not disagree more. The system of PR coupled with multi-seat constituencies is at the core of the country’s difficulties and a day cannot go by without the pernicious effects being made evident in one way or the other, notably with the distorting impact of the local TD bringing home the bacon.

Or to sum up the impact in the minds of the electorate; Up Mayo!

I do not see much point in doing anything else other than trying to circumscribe the phenomenon. The Troika is very handy in this respect and it seems that the electorate agrees as there is no evident desire to see the back of it. A wide assortment of supernumerary ministers of state, and their overpaid advisers, can continue to pedal furiously seemingly unaware that the pedals are not connected to any wheels.

@Paul Hunt
I usually nod my head at your commentaries on Irish political dysfunction here. But the referendum as almost causation of executive dominance seems a step too far to me.

In Europe I’m not sure if there’s really much or any evidence of an inverse correlation between the use of referendums and weak parliamentary democracy. Ireland is indeed well ahead on the use of EU referendums, but in second place comes Denmark as you mention above, and then France (either hardly bastions of poor governance). For example, along with Ireland, France and Denmark were the only other two countries had referendums on the very major step of a single currency. More generally, the referendum is a seldom used tool in Europe anyway. An obvious exception is Switzerland and some of the Germany Lander too. Italy is another example, with its limited citizens initiative abrogative referendum mechanism. That has been on the constitutional books since after the second world war, but was only activated in 1970 when the Italian parliament actually finally passed legislation to make it usable. Did post-1970 Italian governance suddenly markedly take a nose-dive compared to the pre-1970 period? For former Soviet block countries it’s probably too early to say (many have referendum/initiative provisions in their constitutions, many don’t either).

Am not entirely convinced by the your Danish narrative on referendums and executive dominance. Danish politics has had for a long time a distinctly consensual flavour. Indeed, I suspect a referendum provision in their constitution may have been a significant contributor to this dynamic. Section 42 (see ) gives the Danish opposition (one third of MPs) the unusual ability to trigger a binding referendum on almost any bill (except mostly for money bills). This provision is only very rarely used but its mere presence probably tilts Danish politics in a distinctly consensual direction.

Back in 1972 (as pointed out in the IT not so long ago ) we could have gone with a EU referendum formula with the wording “consequent on membership” rather than “necessitated by membership” (though Garret Fitzgerald, then in opposition, and prompted no doubt by some democratic impulse argued for the current version). “Consequent on membership” would have meant far fewer referendums. But would that have made a iota of difference to the subsequent state of our democracy? I doubt it.

Maybe the use of referendums is indeed symptomatic of underlying problems here. But, as regards executive dominance, IMO it’s a side issue. The process has been inconvenient and messy, but at least the Irish people have been fairly willingly brought along with EU project so far. The two defeats (Nice 1 particularly) were probably more to do with government complacency and arrogance with respect to the campaigns.

If the populaces of many well-governed European countries also had such access to EU referendums, then I suspect some previous spanners might have been thrown in the works of the EU project (don’t think the Irish voters are exceptional). It’s just the fact that they’ve been granted the opportunity in the first place that’s unusual. And I’d find it hard to envisage the voters of most EU countries surrendering this power and handing it back to their parliaments. For good or ill, the genie is out of the bottle. It’s arguable as to whether it should have been left out in the first place. But it’d be no easy task getting it back in again (as the OP would like).

@ Finbar Lehane and Paul Hunt

Surely, the fundamental point is that the instrument of a referendum is ill-suited to decisions of detail in relation to treaty-making by a government except in circumstances where consultation of the people is self-evident e.g. a major shift in relation to agreeing to exercise more sovereignty in common with other EU countries. What one gets instead are campaigns where the two sides shout slogans at one another with little grasp of what is really at issue (lthough, it must be said, the Referendum Commission did sterling work on the most recent occasion).

The Suprem Court went off at a tangent in the Crotty judgement in relation to European Political Cooperation on an interpretation of sovereignty approaching the ridiculous; the ability to say no! It failed to understand that EPC, and its successor structures in the Lisbon Treaty, constitute a “treaty within a treaty” subject to special rules and not subject to review by the ECJ.

The Court also introduced a test which is not applied to other inter-governmental treaties cf. link above to blog Human Rights.

Another question is the failure of the legal establishment in Ireland to get a proper grasp over the years of Irish membership of EU law.

The situation needs to be sorted out by the Supreme Court itself. One can only hope!


Have previously read that article by Darren O’Donovan. Am not a lawyer but it has seemed to me that Irish court decisions on international treaty ratification perhaps make a bit more sense if one bears the two principles of national and popular sovereignty in mind. De Valera’s 1937 perhaps was not really legal in terms of the previous Free State Constitution. He appealed directly to the principle of popular sovereignty (plus got the judiciary to swear allegiance to the new document) to bring it in. I suppose a constitution that has swept away a previous one in this way will always vulnerable itself to the same treatment! 🙂 So popular sovereignty must remain one of its basic principles.

However, there also seems to be a strong thread of national sovereignty in Irish law, a self-image of Ireland now (after freeing itself from British dominion) standing as a full member of the internal family of sovereign nations, and able to fully act/participate/take on obligations like any other ordinary state. In this context there seems to be a very strong respect for international law and the self-image of Ireland as a member in good standing of the international family of nations.

Perhaps in that context Ireland’s membership of the UN (and the seeming lack of need for a referendum) might make more sense (and the same for some other international commitments). Even the bilateral Anglo-Irish agreement might be seen in that light. What about the referendum on the International Criminal Court? Perhaps that obligation would have involved potential possible deportation of Irish citizens from Irish soil, directly impacting on citizenship rights, and maybe was a step too far?

Clearly the EU treaties involve types of international obligations that ordinary countries don’t usually enter into. If the Irish constitution was solely based on the principle of popular sovereignty then perhaps, paradoxically, the courts might have allowed the government more freedom with regards such treaties. There might even be a similarity then to the UK doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, where in theory the decisions of a previous parliament cannot bind any future one. In principle, whatever about in practice, the UK parliament could simply tear up its EU treaty obligations tomorrow (international law be damned!). That’s something that would completely horrify Irish courts I suspect. In theory, we could do something similar here via referendum (delete the articles allowing the Irish government to sign the EU treaties). But that would fire our international law obligations out the window (and maybe have us become members of ill repute in the international family). It’s perhaps attempts to square these two principles that have to some degree led to some of the past court decisions. In terms of international law, we’ve curbed our sovereignty (and not in the sense that ordinary countries might do). I think the only real way to square popular sovereignty and this model of national sovereignty (and its adherence to international law) is by again appealing to more popular sovereignty via referendum.

Maybe the calibration for the frequency of this was set too high by the particular wording chosen. And referendum campaigns are typically messy sordid affairs here. But being messy and inconvenient isn’t enough in my eyes to say they shouldn’t have been held. Frankly, I think the legitimacy they’ve given the progression of the EU project here has been a good thing.

@ Finbar Lehane

A well argued contribution, without wishing to flatter you, with which I would not take issue but which drifts away from the main point viz. the treaty-making powers of the State. Are they in the hands of the government, in collaboration with the Dáil where a charge on the public purse is involved, or the citizens?

The situation following a series of inept Supreme Court judgements, demonstrating a lack of understanding of both international and EU law, has left the answer up in the air.

This thread has a 1930s feel to it:

“Article 1
In addition to the procedure prescribed by the constitution, laws of the Reich may also be enacted by the government of the Reich. This includes the laws referred to by Articles 85 Paragraph 2 and Article 87 of the constitution.[2]

Article 2
Laws enacted by the government of the Reich may deviate from the constitution as long as they do not affect the institutions of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. The rights of the President remain undisturbed.

Article 4
Treaties of the Reich with foreign states, which relate to matters of Reich legislation shall for the duration of the validity of these laws not require the consent of the Reichstag. The national government shall adopt the necessary legislation to implement these agreements.”

As regards Thomas Pringle’s challenge I have no idea really. I suppose if the ESM does exactly what it says on the tin and is merely there as a stabilization fund in case of genuine emergencies, and the no-bailout provisions in the EU treaties are taken seriously, then fair enough! I guess the fear is whether mission creep will set in and this body will slowly morph in this crisis in the direction of general debt sharing, and will end up de facto assuming this role.

We, purportedly, signed up to a no-bailout monetary union (however realistic that ever really was given the lack of convergence between the economies, or the wisdom of putting what was last first and ruling out a slower and more natural development of a federation) with supposed strict and hard economic parameters. Maybe a hyper-souped-up and even more minimal equivalent of the no-bailout Swiss federation (or even a little like the Canadian one). A currency union is one of the usual major milestones to a federation. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind a referendum was justified here for that step. Collective debt sharing is another major step to a federation. Perhaps this is what we’re moving towards? There’d even need to be a referendum in Germany to suitably modify its eternity clauses in that eventuality.

But there’s a whole spectrum of possible outcomes. Maybe (me being naive I expect! 😉 )current measures are just temporary and over time we’ll merely go back to the original envisaged no-bailout union (this time for serious and for real! 🙂 ). Maybe this is what the Fiscal Compact is all about? That would permit countries to hold onto the maximum amount of sovereignty.

Or we could end up anywhere in the middle from a small amount of debt sharing to a full-blown USE. Will Germany and other countries be prepared to fund a transfer/subsidy union? Would the resulting cost/benefit analysis be acceptable to Irish voters?

Our country came out of such a union with the UK with relatively generous subsidies and “pooling of sovereignty” to be maybe poorer but do its own thing. I’ve really no issue if voters want to go back into a European equivalent. But IMO these are questions that are too fundamental to be left to our TDs to decide!

Maybe ESM won’t trigger a referendum but surely somewhere along the way one will be required. Even if our parliament was functioning and purring along beautifully and with no executive dominance, I nonetheless still wouldn’t give it carte blanche to chart this path to some unknown final destination. Apologies for veering off on yet another perhaps slightly irrelevant tangent!

@ Finbar Lehane

Neither the politicians nor the people had any idea that they were signing up to a no bail-out single currency when they ratified the Maastricht Treaty. Which brings us back full circle to the inadequacy of our system of political representation. The members of the Dáil, with a few exceptions, are capable of running the Ballymagash Urban District Council. That’s about it!

Why not have a King like here in Saudi and forget all this wasteful fiddling with elections and referenda.

@DOCM and Finbar Lehane,

I see you’ve been at it ‘hammer and tongs’, as it were, to very good effect. And you seem to have come around almost full circle. The Supreme Court, with Crotty – and subsequent judgements about the ‘play-time’ of those involved in referendum campaigns – seems to have inadvertently imposed the people as the ultimate arbiters of certain matters (in particular, with regard to the EU) that should be at the discretion of government subject to proper scrutiny, restraint and accountability by an appropriately empowered and resourced parliament.

My simple point is, that if you wish to remove this burden from the people – for which they, in general, are ill-equipped to discharge, there is a requirement to restore a properly functioning parliament to provide the necessary safeguards and counter-balance to the executive dominance of government. And this is a pressing requirement in any event, irrespective of the need to restore government and parliamentary discretion over Ireland’s evolving engagement with the EU.

You both see reform of the electoral system as vital, but I’m not so sure – -though remain open to be persuaded.

However, the electoral system is perhaps the most important topic that the Government has permitted to be advanced for consideration in this proposed Constitutional Convention. Despite the fact that the Government will not, willingly, put any proposals that might emerge which would curtail its executive dominance to the people, there may be some potential to make a compelling case based on the deliberations of the Convention.

The Government does have a choice: either retain the current electoral system and supine parliament and run the gauntlet of numerous pointless referendums on EU-related matters; or consent to a restored, re-empowered parliament (possibly re-invigorated by an alternative electoral system) that will subject it to proper scrutiny, restraint and accountability – on all matters of governance.

I think we all know which option it would choose. But can the people be encouraged to demand the option that is in their interests? I don’t think changing the electoral system has shoulders broad enough to carry the burden of restoring properly functioning parliamentary democracy.

@Paul Hunt
Actually, I must admit to having interpreted DOCM’s term “system of political representation” in a broader sense than just the voting system, more as the entire system of representative democracy.

So I actually do agree when you say “I don’t think changing the electoral system has shoulders broad enough to carry the burden of restoring properly functioning parliamentary democracy”. Personally, if we keep PR-STV, I’d prefer more proportionality via bigger constituencies and a proper constitutionally-based electoral commission. Wouldn’t object though to MMP or a list-system (if it was at least semi-open) with the proviso that any degree of party control be exercised by the grass-roots (like in Germany where the party list ordering is determined by ordinary members in a secret ballot). A mix of 2/3 of TDs elected in six or seven seat PR-STV constituencies and another 1/3 elected in a list might be a relatively natural way of moving partially away from PR-STV in an Irish context.

Coincidentally, I just happen to have a much longer pre-prepared and canned answer to hand 🙂 As part of a personal little mini-project, sparked off by some posts over on, I have been attempting to put down in words (and figure out for myself) the broad parameters of what a proper constitutional convention might address, or the general categories that might be involved in a constitutional redesign, and flesh them out a little. I find writing stuff down good for figuring things out. Forces one to put some structure on things. No doubt it’s all rather a touch amateurish and half-baked (and poorly presented using only google sites, an editor and only some fairly basic html). And haven’t even gotten onto the real meat and potatoes of dispersion of power or the executive-legislature relationship yet, have mostly only written some rather rambling reflections on ancillary issues so far, which conveniently includes the electoral system. Anyway this is all at—the-voting-system and—other-issues-and-complications in case anyone is interested. I’m a bit evasive as regards any final personal preferences on the the voting system. I blow hot and cold, and regularly change my mind on this anyway.

@Finbar Lehane,

You’re putting in considerable effort. More power to your elbow. It’s very useful and necessary grist to the mill. It presents a striking contrast with the mix of silence and largely irrelevant obsessions of the ‘pol sci heads’.

But, at the most basic level, we come back to a fundamental question that voters must be encouraged to ask themselves and to decide on: do they want their TDs to continue being mini-onbudspersons and constituency advocates engaging on their behalf, either individually or pursuing reasonably narrow sectional interests, with government and the centralised, expansive government apparatus? Or do they want their TDs to devolve much of their current activities to re-empowered and suitably resourced local governance and to secure the powers and resources to act as effective parliamentary representatives who subject government – and its expansive apparatus – to effective scrutiny, restraint and accountability.

It’s not the citizens’ fault that, by default, they appear to favour the first option. They have been offered nothing else. However, they, quite rightly and commendably, are extremely jealous of their inalienable right to decide who governs. And they appear to be equally jealous of their right to decide, but only occasionally and primarily via referendums, how they are governed. So far as exercising oversight of how they are governed on all other occasions, they appear to be content that governing party TDs will bring matters of concern to the attention of government in (closed) parliamentary party meetings or via other informal contacts. And they seem to retain some pleasure in, if not any great reassurance about the efficacy of, opposition TDs pricking the pomposity and occasionally deterring the egregious wrong-headedness of government.

One would expect that the experience of the last decade should have convinced a plurality of voters – and the smug and arrogant behaviour of the current government should provide clinching evidence – that this, quite simply, is just not good enough. But, again to their credit, I expect enough of them will bide their time, as they did in the run-up to the last general election, and go to the polling booths to deliver a withering judgement at the next time of asking.

Only those either delivering or capable of delivering competent, honest governance – and, crucially, effective, continuing oversight of this governance – will survive or be elected. I would be very surprised if they are not some shrewd and perceptive members of the governing factions who have grasped this, but it appears that each faction has been so totally captured by the narrow, but influential, sectional interests in their respective camps that are totally incapable of developing any coherent strategy in advance of the inevitable earthquake.

“And haven’t even gotten onto the real meat and potatoes of dispersion of power or the executive-legislature relationship yet, ”

While it is over a year ago since you wrote that, I suggest that you might find the ideas in this 1986 article of some interest, found here as a submission to the Constitutional Convention

As I have not read all your writings to which you have linked, you will understand that I may not have caught up with whatever view you may now have formed on the issue of power.

As you have referred to my 1996 ideas on citizens’ initiative and direct democracy, let me just refer you to my more recent thoughts on these ways in which power is “dispersed”.

1) In October 2012, the Shadow Constitutional Convention series on the Human Rights in Ireland web-forum published my article
“The Mutual Education of the Democratic Process – a case for citizens’ initiative and direct democracy” see here, as a submission to the Constitutional Convention

2) On 6 February 2013, (
published “To mark European Year of Citizens, let’s rebalance Ireland’s political power” a shorter presentation of the case made in my October 2012 article – see here, as a submission to the Constitutional Convention

3). In February 2013, I submitted a case for citizens initiative and direct democracy to the Constitutional Convention

At its June meeting, the Constitutional Convention voted in favour of citizens’ initiative as follows

Should ‘direct democracy’ (i.e. citizens’ initiatives) with adequate safeguards be introduced? Yes 83% No 16% No Opinion 1%

In the event that the Constitutional Convention votes in favour
of direct democracy, which of the following should it apply to

a) Placing items on, or removing
them from, the legislative agenda Yes 80% No 19% No Opinion 1%

b) Requiring constitutional
referenda to be held Yes 78% No 17% No Opinion 4%

It remains to be seen how the Government will respond to these – very strong – recommendations of the Convention.

Comments are closed.