Gary Murphy – Referendum on the minimum age of the President of Ireland

This is a guest post by Professor Gary Murphy of the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland

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The decision by the Irish people to overwhelmingly endorse same-sex marriage in the referendum on 22 May 2015 generated headlines all across the world and induced extraordinary scenes of celebration rarely seen in democracies after popular votes whether at general elections or referendums. As the first country to introduce same sex marriage by dint of popular vote in a referendum that meant so much to so many, Ireland took a decision after a robust debate where both political parties and civil society groups ran vigorous campaigns. The result was a citizenry which took an informed vote.

If only the same could be said for the other referendum. How the Irish people ended up voting to change the age of eligibility for running for president from 35 to 21 will go down in history as one of the great mysteries of Irish politics. And yet when in future years those assessing this referendum analyse it, they will note that the turnout at 60.51 per cent was extremely high for referendums; the eleventh highest of the thirty five referendums that have taken place since the constitution was introduced in 1937. There is one simple answer for this high turnout and that is that it was held in conjunction with same-sex marriage referendum which itself had a turnout of 60.52 per cent. 1,949,725 voted in the same-sex marriage referendum and 1,949,438 people voted in the presidential age referendum. High turnout, however, should not be mistaken for high interest.

Changing the constitution in any democracy is a serious business and theoretically speaking the Irish coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour went through a very deliberative process before deciding to propose that the Irish Constitution be amended. The reality is completely different.

The proposal to reduce the age of eligibility for President from 35 to 21 was one of 19 recommendations that came from the Constitutional Convention. This convention was charged by the government with considering a variety of aspects of the constitution to ensure that it best reflected Ireland in the twenty first century and with making recommendations to the Oireachtas on future amendments to be put to the people in referendums.

The convention was an initiative of the government whereby in 2012 it established a decision-making forum of 100 people, made up of 66 citizens, randomly selected and broadly representative of Irish society, 33 parliamentarians, and the independent chairman. It heard evidence from a range of experts and engaged in serious debate on nine specific issues mandated by the government. None of these included the age of eligibility for president, although the convention did also have the power to debate other potential constitutional amendments. On the presidency the convention was asked to initially discuss whether the president’s term should be reduced from seven years to five. It ultimately decided to reject such a view by 57 votes to 43. It also overwhelmingly rejected the idea of a one-term presidency, but it did substantially endorse a proposal that citizens should be able to nominate presidential candidates.

Currently the situation whereby candidates can get on to the presidential ballot is rather byzantine and is dominated by the political parties. A candidate must either get the backing of twenty member of the Oireachtas, which consists of 166 members of Dáil Eireann (the lower house) and 60 members of Seanad Eireann (the upper house), or four of the country’s 31 city and county councils. On the proposal that eventually found its way on to the ballot paper of reducing the age of eligibility from 35 to 21 the convention voted 50 to 47 to endorse such a position. Given the narrowness of this vote the question must be asked as to why the government then decided to put this question to the people above others which were overwhelmingly approved by the convention. For instance the government initially agreed to put the convention’s proposal that the voting age in general elections be reduced from 18 to 16 to a referendum in but later reversed this decision arguing that other referendums should take priority.

And these priorities seemingly included the referendum that even the constitutional convention itself was pretty much split on. Giving citizens who are resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections was one of the nine priorities suggested by Dáil Éireann when it approved the establishment of the constitutional convention to consider various reforms to the then seventy five year old document. But once the convention did indeed suggest that Irish citizens resident outside the state should be given the right to vote in presidential elections, it was reckoned by the government to be too radical and so instead it plumped for the rather innocuous proposal to reduce the eligibility age of the presidency.

In comparative terms the Irish presidency is essentially a weak office. Presidents have very few constitutional powers of which to avail and so limited are these powers that a president has essentially no room for independent action. In that context reducing the age of eligibility was deemed by the government as being the perfect referendum accompaniment to the controversial same-sex marriage proposal; a safe proposal dressed up as a significant reform where the government could frame the change in the constitution as being indicative of inclusion and equality for a younger generation. Thus the proposal to amend the constitution, one of the gravest decisions a government can make, was decided upon by the Irish government who then decided not to bother campaigning on it.

The Tánaiste and leader of the Labour party, the junior partner in the coalition government, Joan Burton suggested during what campaign there actually was that the referendum was the result of a recommendation from the constitutional convention which had delivered its final report in March 2014. This of course was not only incorrect but also highly misleading. It was the government which decided to have this referendum. The Labour party then took the even more bizarre decision to declare it was staying neutral on the issue and would not campaign on it which was to in effect treat the constitution with disdain and contempt.

The major coalition party Fine Gael ran a campaign so desultory that it can hardly even be described as that and none of the opposition parties did anything beyond make the most rudimentary appeals to their supporters to vote yes. Ultimately the only real campaigning on a government proposal to amend the constitution was done by a number of youth advocacy groups. There was no real organised opposition to the proposal. A number of individuals were vocal on the issue but taking to Twitter to complain about the paucity of the campaign as a whole, one ‘no’ advocate, the public affairs consultant Gerard Howlin, was forced into asking whether only he and two others could be bothered to advocate a ‘no’ vote. One of those two others was my Dublin City University colleague Prof Colum Kenny who enthusiastically campaigned for a ‘no’ vote issuing no fewer than 37 press releases to the media and making numerous appearances in the print and broadcast media. And yet despite the individual nature of the ‘no’ campaign the proposed amendment was defeated by 73.06 per cent to 26.94 per cent with all 43 geographical constituencies voting no; the largest defeat for a referendum proposal since the constitution was introduced in 1937.

Writing just a day after the results were declared it is difficult to offer anything but the considered view that the reason 1,412,602 people voted against the proposal was simply because no convincing case was made that they should change their constitution. The Irish people are on the whole quite protective of their constitution. They are not opposed to changing it and doing so quite dramatically as in the same-sex marriage vote. They do need persuading, however, that it needs changing. Since 2002 they have twice rejected European treaties and in 2013 they rejected a populist proposal to abolish the second Oireachtas chamber, the Seanad, when the government again failed to make the case that it was necessary. On the same day that the Irish gave an overwhelming yes to same-sex marriage they also reminded their government that they know that changing the constitution is an important matter. It is something their government certainly needs reminding of.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University where he has worked for the past two decades. He has published extensively on the politics of modern Ireland. His latest book, a major reinterpretation of modern Ireland, entitled A brief history of continuity: Ireland since 1987 will be published by Manchester University Press later this year. He is a prominent contributor to political debates in Ireland in the print and broadcast media.

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