Monday, January 15, 2018

On Referendums

The 'eighties, man.
RTÉ are guilty of some sloppy reporting of Ms Mary Laffoy’s remarks at the opening of the latest meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly in Malahide on Saturday last. RTÉ tell us that “Ms Mary Laffoy told the members that the holding of referendums is a fundamental part of democracy,” but what MsLaffoy actually said was “The holding of a referendum is a fundamental component of our democracy.”

The “our” is important. They never hold referendums in the USA. They hold them all the time in Switzerland. They are held very rarely in the United Kingdom and, after the unmitigated disaster of the last one, they will think long and hard before calling the next.

Ireland holds referendums to change the constitution because the constitution dictates that it can only be changed through referendum. The current constitution succeeded the Free State Constitution in 1937. The Free State constitution was changed by act of parliament, as the US constitution is. This is what happened to the infamous Oath of Allegiance – De Valera and Fianna Fáil dumped it in jig time, and quickly took apart other provisions of that Free State constitution that they found equally objectionable.

There then being nothing left but the bones, Fianna wrote up a new constitution which was accepted by the people in 1937. Eighty years ago, and counting.

There were fourteen referendums held in the first fifty years of the Constitution, of which ten passed and four failed. There were twenty-five more amendments passed in the next thirty years, and more failed referendums than your correspondent could be bothered counting (the numbering on Wikipedia seems a little inconsistent).

As European integration continues referendums will be needed more often and will be less and less suited to changing the constitution. Referendums are suited to broad-stroke topics, rather than Brusselspeak. The legalese will be too subtle to be suited to a referendum debate and vote, and it is the nature of referendums that when people are in doubt, they will vote no to be on the safe side.

The idea of representative democracy is that the people shouldn’t have to wade through this sort of legalise to make decisions. The sovereign people elect representatives to carry out their wishes, and its those elected representatives that are to do the wading through the legal thickets. If the people dislike how their representatives do that wading, they elect some other representatives. Representative democracy.

However. The nation is now lumbered with a series of problems when it comes to referendums. The first problem is that the Ireland of 2017 is starkly different to the Ireland of 1937 and the constitution is no longer suited to the governance of the country. Ireland needs a new constitution.

The second problem is that while the population is better educated in such things as skills and diet, we are less educated as regards civics, public standards, public behaviour and the very definition of nationhood. This is part of a general western malaise of course, but a small country like ours should have been better able to hold its public representatives to account.

Whatever the reasons, the fact is that if a new constitution were written by a joint committee of Pericles of Athens, Thomas Jefferson of the United States and Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, it still wouldn’t get passed because a combination of cranks, demagogues, ne’er-do-wells and out-and-out fools would get together to find a fault, any fault, and persuade a scared and gullible electorate to take no chances boys, take no chances, you wouldn’t know what they’d be up to. Don’t take a chance!

The third problem is that the current crop of public representatives are rather in love with the idea of referendums, as it means they don’t have to take responsibility for what they were elected to do. Taking responsibility is about the last thing they want to do.

A craven reaction to the Abortion referendum is only to be expected, of course. But the twenty members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Funding of Domestic Water Charges voted unanimously – unanimously! – in favour of a referendum on the ownership of the nation’s waterten months ago. There were usual suspects on that committee but there were also politicians there who aspire to governing the country, and who should hang their heads in shame. By whom I mean Barry Cowen, Alan Farrell, Kate O’Connell, Willie O’Dea, Lorraine Clifford-Lee and maybe one or two others. The full membership is here.

The chances of any government addressing this referendum issue and the datedness of the constitution are, of course, extremely slim. They’re quite content with this piecemeal, heads-down, rock-no-boat agenda while the European super-state is being built and Ireland is left out. Until the day comes when the Taoiseach of the day is called to Brussels and told there isn’t going to be an Irish constitution any more.

He or she will be told that the country’s economy has crashed four times and being bailed out three, and no matter how often you’re told you’re told that your insistence on seeing houses as capital assets, your limiting of access to justice to those who can pay and your inability to police the country is scandalous, shameful and a bridge too far, the penny just won’t drop. We’re sorry Paddy, but we’re taking the keys of the car. You’ll be much safer with us to mind you.

But, of course, it will be too late to cry about it then. The British are ninety-five years gone. We have no-one to blame but ourselves.