Tag Archives: Ireland

Gary Murphy – The Irish Presidential Election of October 2018

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

The re-election of Michael D. Higgins as President of Ireland has been widely welcomed across the Irish political landscape. His overwhelming victory on the first count with 55.8 per cent of the first preference vote has vindicated the decision of the two main political parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to support him. The 822,566 first preference votes he received is by some distance the largest number of votes ever secured by a candidate in an Irish presidential election. The turnout in the election was, however, the lowest in Irish presidential history at just 43.3 per cent.

Higgins was first elected in October 2011 for a seven year term from a total of six candidates and has proven to be a very popular president. He has what one might call the common touch. He presided with great dignity over the state’s hundred anniversary commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising which heralded the beginning of the move towards Irish independence in 1921, and became the first Irish president to lead an official state visit to Britain in 2014.

For pretty much all of his pre-presidential political life Higgins was a devout exponent of left-wing causes both internationally and domestically. Many were fashionable in certain avant-garde circles but had little wider resonance. His two short spells in Cabinet between January 1993 and June 1997 as Minister for Arts, Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht were the oases around long barren spells in the political wilderness. Even when Labour was in government in the 1970s and 1980s, Higgins was against coalition. Then came the economic crash, the presidential election of 2011 and a political career that had all the signs of petering out to a footnote in Irish history was dramatically resurrected. Higgins’s victory had a type of last man standing quality about it. As his opponents were undone one by one by various foibles the avuncular Higgins was duly elected winning 39.6 per cent of the first preference vote.

In office Higgins has remained true to his beliefs and has made a number of speeches critical of what he sees as the global neoliberal project. He caused some controversy with his encomium on the death of the Cuban leader Fidel Casto in November 2016 where he praised Casto’s record on human rights but this was entirely consistent with his long held views of anti-colonialism and his opposition to American foreign policy. He has, however, been very careful not to overstep the constitutional boundaries of his office and made no specific criticisms of the Irish government’s policies during his seven year term.

Higgins showed a nimble dexterity in getting out of his original promise to only serve one term as President by solemnly declaring that while he did at one stage say that getting through one term was the length of his aspirations he decided he had to run again to build upon the very solid foundations he had laid in office. In that context he used his constitutional prerogative to nominate himself and the major political parties rowed in behind him.

Getting on to the Irish presidential ballot is a rather byzantine affair and is dominated by the political parties. While an incumbent can nominate themselves other candidates must either get the backing of twenty members of the Oireachtas which consists of 160 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, most of which are dominated by political parties.

Only one of Ireland’s political parties, Sinn Féin, decided to use their members of the Oireachtas to nominate a presidential candidate. When Mary Lou McDonald took over as Sinn Féin party leader in February 2018 she stated that she would like to see the party contest the election. Even though it had been clear for some time that President Higgins was more than likely going to run again, McDonald was determined that Sinn Féin would put forward their own candidate to challenge the popular incumbent. In mid-September the party duly nominated Liadh Ní Riada, one of its Members of the European Parliament to be its standard bearer in the election.

Most political observers were of the view that Sinn Féin would use the election campaign as a vehicle to accelerate its political momentum in the Republic of Ireland. The widespread perception was that while Sinn Féin could not realistically expect Ní Riada to mount a serious challenge to Higgins it expected to come a strong second and increase the 13.7 per cent of the vote its candidate Martin McGuinness secured in the 2011 contest and the 13.8 per cent of the vote it received in Ireland’s February 2016 general election.

When Eamon de Valera wrote the constitution in 1937 getting the support of four county or city councils for a presidential nomination would have been a gargantuan task given that Ireland was essentially a two party state and the councils were dominated by members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who displayed strict loyalty to their party candidate. But since 1997 when the council route was first used to nominate independent candidates councillors have become somewhat intoxicated by the one real national power they have and 2018 became the third election in a row where independent candidates managed to get on the ballot through this route.

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. Nevertheless the draw of the presidency is such that the presidential elections of 2011 and 2018 have seen numerous candidates attempt to use the council route to get their name on the ballot. In 2011 three candidates were successful by dint of this route and this rose to four in 2018. These were Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, Joan Freeman, and Seán Gallagher, who had come second to Higgins in 2011. Rather bizarrely, Casey, Duffy and Gallagher had all been part of the popular RTE television programme, Dragons Den, where the so-called dragons decided whether to invest in ideas and businesses pitched to them by putative entrepreneurs. Freeman, by contrast, was a noted campaigner for mental health initiatives and had established one of Ireland’s largest charity organisations, Pieta House.

Gallagher was a late entrant to the campaign and had received some notoriety after having sued RTE over the 2011 campaign. He had held a substantial lead until the last week of that campaign and argued that the state broadcaster’s behaviour in a television debate essentially cost him the election. This suit was not settled until December 2017. By the middle of September all four had received the required amount of nominations from the country councils and a short five week campaign of six candidates began. Four opinion polls held between 16 September 2018 and 16 October 2018 were very consistent and showed Higgins with a massive lead of close to 70 per cent, Gallagher in the low teens and the rest in single figures. The strong Sinn Féin challenge never materialised. Gallagher’s campaign was nowhere near his 2011 showing and the other independents gained no traction with the voters.

This changed dramatically in the last ten days of what had been a relatively dull campaign up to then. There has been various mutterings about supposed lavish expenses being incurred by Higgins but these gained little momentum and it appeared that none of the candidates could offer a persuasive case to unseat the incumbent. Then in a podcast interview with a national news organisation Peter Casey made somewhat incendiary comments about the travelling community wherein he criticised the decision by the Dáil to give formal recognition to Travellers as a distinct ethic group in 2017 and claimed that they were basically camping on other people’s land. He also vociferously criticised many people on social welfare claiming that Ireland had become a welfare-dependent state, with people having a sense of entitlement that had become unaffordable.

Casey was widely criticised by the other candidates and various media commentators but his comments seemed to strike a chord with various parts of the electorate and he continued with these themes in a number of media debates over the last week of the campaign. Casey had never been at more than 2 per cent in any of the polls taken during the campaign but when two exit polls were released after voting had finished on Friday 26 October he was close to 21 per cent. When the votes were counted he had received 342,727 first preferences and 23.3 per cent of the votes. The most likely explanation for the rise in the Casey vote is that it was a protest against the political establishment added with elements of prejudice against marginalised groups. The other challengers all polled in single figures with Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riadh polling a disastrous 6.38 per cent to finish fourth.

Incumbency proved to be a real advantage for Higgins. The electorate were clearly happy with their president who had represented them with distinction abroad and had caused no real controversy at home. Given the constraints of the office it was extremely difficult for the other candidates to offer a persuasive case of why they should replace him. Ultimately in a resounding manner the Irish electorate were quite happy to settle for a repeat of the last seven years of the Higgins presidency safe in the knowledge that the next seven are likely to see a continuation of a safe pair of hands as their head of state.

Ireland – The problems of government formation

This is a guest post by Gary Murphy from the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

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The Irish general election of 26 February 2016 has thrown up an inconclusive result which has made government formation extremely difficult. A month on from the election we know that when the Dáil reconvenes for the second time since that election (today 22 March) a new government will not be formed. The new Dáil originally met on Thursday 10 March and with no new government or Taoiseach elected on that day a caretaker Fine Gael Labour government led by a caretaker Fine Gael Taoiseach Enda Kenny continues in office. The intervening two weeks have seen no substantial progress made on forming a government and in that context we can expect that the caretaker government will continue in office for some more weeks yet.

The result of the general election continued the trend of austerity governments in Europe being rejected by their electorates. The two party coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour elected in 2011 with a massive majority of 30 seats in the 166 seat parliament was roundly rebuffed by the Irish voters. Fine Gael’s vote fell from 36.6 per cent in 2011 to 25.5 per cent in 2016 and they lost twenty six seats since 2011 falling to 50. Their coalition partners Labour did even worse collapsing from a record high vote of 19.6 per cent in 2011 to a record low of 6.6 per cent while recording a crushing loss of thirty seats going from thirty seven to just seven.

The main beneficiaries of these catastrophic losses for the government were the main opposition parties, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin and a plethora of independents ranging from those on the far left of Irish politics to a number of former members of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil known colloquially as gene pool independents.

Fianna Fáil the party which has dominated governance in the Irish state since it first entered government in 1932 performed a Lazarus like resurrection in the 2016 election. Dumped unceremoniously out of office after the economic crash by an angry electorate in 2011, Fianna Fáil’s vote fell to 17 per cent in that election down from 41.5 per cent in the previous 2007 election. They also lost a barely believable 58 seats going from 78 in 2007 to just 20 in 2011. Many (but not the present writer) predicted that Fianna Fáil was in terminal decline and would no longer be a major force in Irish politics. But despite being somewhat becalmed in opinion polls for the past twelve months on between 17 and 19 per cent of the vote Fianna Fáil had an excellent campaign and ended up polling 24.4 per cent of the vote and winning 44 seats, just six behind Fine Gael. In fact the 2016 general election results mirrored the 2014 local election results giving lie in an Irish context at least to the view that second order elections are meaningless come a general election.

This was nevertheless Fianna Fáil’s second worst general election since the foundation of the Irish state. Just over three decades ago the three main parties of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour received 94 per cent of vote. Now it stands at barely 55 per cent and the combined vote of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is less than 50 per cent. As recently as 1977 Fianna Fáil received over 50 per cent of the vote on their own. The stability of the party system that was the hallmark of Irish politics since the foundation of the state was originally diluted by the collapse of Fianna Fáil in 2011 and has surely been finished off by the Fine Gael result in 2016.

For their part Sinn Féin won 13.8 per cent of the vote, up 4 per cent since 2011, and increased their seat total from 14 in 2011 to 23 in 2016. Yet while this result on the surface looks impressive there can be little doubt that Sinn Féin, running on an anti-austerity agenda will be ultimately disappointed that both their vote and seat tally did not increase more substantially, particularly given the levels of dissatisfaction the electorate clearly felt towards the governing parties.

The fragmentation of Irish politics and the anti-party sentiment that has been pervasive within Irish society since the Troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund arrived to bailout the Irish state in November 2010 was crystallised in 2016 by the rise of independent candidates who won 23 seats and received seventeen per cent of the vote. We can also add in the new Social Democrats party into this independent mix as their three existing TDs, all independents prior to the party’s formation in July 2015, were re-elected and they managed to have no other candidate elected. The People Before Profit – Anti Austerity Alliance can be included here as well as party cohesion has never been a strong point for those of the far left of Irish politics.

Given that Fine Gael were 30 seats short of being able to govern and Fianna Fáil 36 seats, as the new Dáil contains 160 seats, down from 166 in 2011, government formation has proved exceedingly difficult since the election. The only plausible coalition option is one between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil yet for that great Rubicon to be crossed in Irish terms will take a great leap. The antipathy both parties feel for each other is very great indeed. The alternative of a minority government led by either main party and tacitly supported by the other aided by help from like-minded independents and smaller parties seems far-fetched at this stage. The difficulty here is that any Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil led minority government which doesn’t have some sort of binding agreement by both parties would be very difficult to make work. Such a government would most likely fall and pretty quickly at that as it simply couldn’t govern effectively knowing that the main opposition party could bring it down at any opportunity. An added difficulty here is that the third main party in the Dáil, Sinn Féin, refuses to have any input into government formation at all, seemingly content to grow in opposition while those in government wither.

But government formation and the difficulties therein were not on the minds of the Irish voter when they went to the polls on the last Friday in February. The RTE exit poll showed that just nine per cent of voters viewed government stability as the most important issue when casting their ballot. Further data from that exit poll shows that just 13 per cent of voters viewed a Fine Gael Fianna Fáil grand coalition as their preferred governmental option. Only 15 per cent of Fine Gael voters and 20 per cent of Fianna Fáil voters wanted it when they went to the polls and it’s most likely probably even less now given Fianna Fáil’s resurgence and Fine Gael’s retrenchment.

In a previous post I wrote on the limitations of the role of the President in the Irish system. One of the few substantive powers the Irish president does have is the absolute discretion to refuse a dissolution of Dáil Eireann – Article 13:2:2 of the Irish Constitution Bunreacht Na hEireann. There has been much talk in the Irish media of the possibility of a second election in the next short number of months if a new government cannot be formed. In that context it might yet fall on President Michael D. Higgins to play a far more central role in government formation in Ireland if those TDs elected to Dáil Eireann cannot agree on a new government. By the power vested in him by the Constitution he will be fully entitled to refuse to dissolve the Dáil and to thus insist that some form of government be formed. These are strange days in Irish politics and they could become even stranger in the fraught weeks ahead.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics and Head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. His latest book Electoral Competition in Ireland since 1987: the politics of triumph and despair will be published by Manchester University Press in March. Twitter @garymurphydcu

Gary Murphy – The Irish President and the Council of State

This is a guest post by Gary Murphy, Professor of Politics at Dublin City University

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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. Yet the President does have one significant power, which is the ability to refer bills to the Irish Supreme Court for a judgment on its compatibility with the constitution. The president usually signs bills into law as a matter of course, but can decide to refer bills to the Supreme Court. This is a significant power on the grounds that if a bill is referred to the Supreme Court and is found to be constitutional, then the validity of that bill may never again be questioned by any court no matter how that bill affects society and individuals over time. In essence the bill is immune from all further challenge.

Before referring a Bill to the Supreme Court the President must convene the Council of State. Article 26.1.1 of the Constitution states:

‘The President may, after consultation with the Council of State, refer any Bill to which this Article applies to the Supreme Court for a decision on the question as to whether such Bill or any specified provision or provisions of such Bills is or are repugnant to this Constitution or to any provision thereof.’

In December 2015 President Higgins decided to convene a meeting of the Council of State to discuss the government’s International Protection Bill 2015. This Bill dealt with the provisions for asylum seekers. In this case, the question put to the Council was:

Whether the International Protection Bill 2015 should be referred by the President to the Supreme Court for a decision on the question as to whether the Bill or any specified provision or provisions thereof are repugnant to the Constitution or to any provision thereof.

In particular

  1. Whether section 56 and section 57 of the International Protection Bill 2015 should be referred by the President to the Supreme Court for a decision as to whether either Section or any specified provision thereof is repugnant to the Constitution or to any provision thereof.
  2. Whether the Bill or any of its provisions are repugnant to the Constitution in light of Article 42A (Children)

iii. Whether section 78 of the Bill is repugnant to the Constitution in light of Article 29.6.

Article 42A was approved by the Irish people in a referendum in November 2012 and concerns itself with protecting the rights of children. Article 29.6 for its part states that ‘No international agreement shall be part of the domestic law of the State save as may be determined by the Oireachtas’ (both houses of parliament).

The current Irish coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour is its last days of office and most political commentators expect an election to be held in late February. In November 2015 this government’s International Protection Bill was passed by the Irish parliament and presented to President Higgins for signing. The principal purpose of the International Protection Bill is the introduction of a single procedure for the examination of applications for international protection (or asylum) in Ireland, incorporating eligibility for refugee status and eligibility for subsidiary protection status.

In essence its aim is to reduce the length of time asylum applicants spend in the direct provision system through establishing a single applications procedure for international protection. Currently applicants can spend literally several years waiting for a decision on their asylum applications and in the meantime live in a system known as direct provision  where the state houses them in residential institutions. The average wait on a decision is three years while some applicants have been waiting for up to seven years.

To its supporters this bill creates a more efficient application process by introducing a single procedure mechanism and appeals process for new applicants and demonstrates the Government’s commitment to ensuring that asylum seekers are given the respect and dignity they deserve while their application is being considered. To its critics the bill is more concerned with making quick decisions which will inevitably lead to deportation as it is with early identification of refugees and will thus be used as a means of enforcing immigration control.

Michael D. Higgins was elected in November 2011 polling 39.6 per cent of the first preference vote from a total of six candidates and has proven to be a very popular president.  He has what one might call the common touch. He is routinely seen in the stands at League of Ireland football games where attendance tends to be low as a matter of course, and has been memorably photographed queuing up to take out money from a bank machine in a busy city centre street. While he initially stated he would only serve as president for the one seven year term there has been much speculation that he will seek a second term in 2018. The only obstacle to that second term might perhaps be his age as he is currently 74 years of age. In fact were to declare that he would seek a second term it is likely that he would be an agreed candidate across the political spectrum. Long associated with left-wing causes both internationally and domestically Higgins has been an outspoken critic of austerity but as Costa Lobo, Elgie, and Passarelli point out in their recent post he has not been critical of specific government policies and has clearly caused much less difficulty for this government than some of his predecessors did for theirs. In fact while Higgins has made various speeches as president questioning the whole neoliberal project and has long voiced concern at what he sees as the triumph of the market over social solidarity, he has not in reality crossed the line into public policy which is the prerogative of the government.

It seems to me that President Higgins summoned the Council of State to discuss the International Protection Bill out of a long-standing passion for social justice, a genuine concern for the plight of refugees and the possibility that this bill did not go far enough in the pursuit of either. The Council of State has few functions and meets rarely. This was only the thirtieth time since the constitution was inaugurated in 1937 that it had actually met. Its one true power; the requirement to make provision for the exercise of the president’s powers in any area not covered by the Constitution, has never arisen.

The Council of State eventually met on 29 December 2015 to discuss the International Protection Bill and the president’s twitter account (@PresidentIRL) issued a message that day simply stating that President Higgins has concluded the meeting of the Council of State. The following day the account tweeted that ‘In accordance with the terms of the Constitution, President Higgins has today signed the International Protection Bill 2015 into law.’ Press reports speculated that all but one of the members of the Council of State had suggested that the bill be signed by the President, but that he himself had given no indication at the end of the meeting as to what he would do, but that he would announce his decision the following day. By deciding not to refer the bill to the Supreme Court President Higgins continued down a path he has trodden since his inauguration; that of raising his doubts in public about various aspects of government public policy, but in effect being happy on consideration to stand by them.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics and Head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. His latest book Electoral Competition in Ireland since 1987: the politics of triumph and despair will be published by Manchester University Press in March. Twitter @garymurphydcu

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.

Ireland – Referendum on the minimum age of presidential candidates

In May, Ireland will hold two referendums. One is on marriage equality, or same-sex marriage. The other is on the minimum age of presidential candidates. Here, the focus is on the second issue.

In January 2013 the issue of the length of the president’s term was debated at the first session of Ireland’s Constitutional Convention. There was a long discussion as to whether the president’s term should be reduced from seven years to five years. In the end, this proposal was rejected by 57 votes to 43. However, a number of other presidential issues emerged during the course of the main debate and some were also put to a vote. A one-term presidency was overwhelmingly rejected. The proposal that citizens should be able to nominate presidential candidates was almost unanimously adopted. In addition, a proposal to reduce the minimum age for presidential candidates from the current figure of 35 was narrowly adopted by 50 votes to 47.

Following the Convention’s proceedings, the official report of the meeting was sent to the government. Now, it has been decided that the one presidential issue that will go forward to the people is the reduction in the minimum age of the president. The proposal is that the minimum age should be reduced to 21.

So, where do things stand at the moment? These tables compare the minimum age of presidential candidates in European countries for which I have been able to find information. If you have information about other countries, or if I have made any errors, then please let me know.

Among the set of countries with directly elected presidents, here is the situation:

Country – Direct election Constitution or Law Age
Austria Constitution 35
Bulgaria Constitution 40
Croatia Law 18
Czech Republic Constitution 40
France Law 18
Georgia Constitution 35
Iceland Constitution 35
Ireland Constitution 35
Lithuania Constitution 40
Macedonia Constitution 40
Montenegro Law 18
Poland Constitution 35
Portugal Constitution 35
Romania Constitution 35
Serbia Law 18
Slovakia Constitution 40
Slovenia Constitution 18
Turkey Constitution 40
Ukraine Constitution 35

This is the situation for the set of countries with indirectly elected presidents:

Country – Indirect election Constitution or Law Age
Albania Constitution 40
Estonia Constitution 40
Germany Constitution 40
Greece Constitution 40
Hungary Constitution 35
Italy Constitution 50
Latvia Constitution 40
Moldova Constitution 40

So, by reducing the age to 21 Ireland would move out of line with most countries, though it wouldn’t be the country with the lowest minimum age. That said, whether or not a country is out of line in this sort of issue is probably irrelevant anyway.

Last night, the Taoiseach announced that the referendum would be held on 22 May. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the referendum has yet to stir passions. There have been opinion pieces for and against in The Irish Times, but little more.

In these pieces, the main arguments for were that any minimum threshold above the voting age is arbitrary. There is no evidence that people are more mature at 35 than 40 or any other age, if maturity is the reason for having a higher threshold. There is also an argument that lower age thresholds generally increase participation in political life.

The main arguments against were that a younger president would lack experience to handle political crises and that a younger president might be more party-dependent than an older, more confident politician.

From my experience of the Constitutional Convention on the presidential issue, I came away with the feeling that people really respected the presidency, that they did want to open up the nomination procedures and weaken the grip of political parties in that regard, but that, most importantly, they didn’t want to do anything that would either make the presidency more party political in office or that would change the president’s current figurehead role. Certainly, there was no desire to increase the president’s powers.

If I am right, then this might lead to a feeling that 21 is just too young to be president. People might agree that there is little difference in maturity, even political maturity, between someone who is 35 and someone who is 40. However, presumably there is some sort of maturity threshold, otherwise babies would be allowed to vote! If there is a maturity threshold, then it is arbitrary in one sense, but my guess is that many people will consider 21 to be just a little too young for a president and think that a 21 year-old president might bring disrespect to the office in some way. Of course, one person’s bringing disrespect to the office might be another person’s shaking up the political system a little. For some, this might be a good thing in general, but I didn’t pick up any sense that this was a particular desire in relation to the presidency.

For what it’s worth, I am sceptical that a 21 year-old would ever be elected president. No party can be guaranteed of having its candidate elected. So, no party could select a young candidate safe in the knowledge that they would win. Any candidate would have to go through a very public grilling both on talk shows and in debates. This might prove difficult for a less seasoned political figure as previous candidates have discovered to their cost. So, if the fear of the election of an immature president is the main worry, then I suspect that the cost of reducing the voting age is small. If that’s right, then you might want to vote yes in the hope that it still increases participation somehow. Whether this reform really would increase participation is open to debate. I am not convinced that it would in any meaningful way. For sure, there are better ways of doing so if that is your main aim.

With no overwhelming argument in favour and with what I would think of as a pretty conservative set of attitudes in relation to the presidency, then I would be surprised if this issue passes. I haven’t seen any opinion polls yet, though.

To the extent that there is a consensus, then it is based a certain puzzlement as to why the government has chosen to focus on this issue rather than many of the others that came out of the Constitutional Convention. There is no doubt that the marriage equality referendum is likely to generate a good voter turnout, which at least means that people might also decide to cast a vote on the presidential age issue as well. However, it is unlikely to be an issue that ever fires up the political passions.