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We're being short-changed by the 'other referendum'

The presidential age referendum is a watered-down version of attempts at real political reform.

WHEN IT COMES to reform of our political system, the President is the least of our worries. Yet, the upcoming referendum manages to short-change us even on that.

Like the referendum on same-sex marriage, the presidential age referendum also came from the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention. However, unlike the referendum on same-sex marriage, we are not being presented with the full story in relation to its recommendation on reform of the presidency.

In fact the Convention, two thirds of which was made up of ordinary citizens, recommended three changes in relation to the President:

  1. Give citizens a say in the nomination process (94% in favour)
  2. Give citizens resident outside the state, including in Northern Ireland, the right to vote in presidential elections (78% in favour)
  3. Reduce the age of candidacy for presidential elections (50% in favour)

These three recommendations answer three distinct but related questions for reform: who can nominate candidates, who can vote for candidates, and who can be a candidate.

So, why are we only voting on one?

Giving citizens a say

Currently in order to be nominated as a candidate for President, you need the support of 20 members of the Oireachtas or four county or city councils, which puts nominations securely within the gift of the political establishment.

Allowing citizens a say in the nomination of candidates was probably the most topical and immediately relevant recommendation for reform of the presidency. The difficulties demonstrated by even the very popular Senator David Norris in achieving a nomination during the last presidential contest illustrates how closed the circle is to outsiders – even to popular senators, like Norris.

However, the notion of allowing popular candidates like Norris to emerge as a regular force would cede a particular spoil of power from elected representatives to the people.

Predictably in hindsight, the recommendation was no sooner made than it was given short shrift by the Government. Responding to this recommendation in July 2013, Phil Hogan read from a well-worn playbook: “The Government is conscious,” he said, “that the present arrangement already provides for citizens to have a say in the presidential election nomination process through their elected representatives.”

He then bounced the question to an unnamed Oireachtas committee for “consideration”, from which you can imagine it will never again emerge.

Votes for the Irish abroad

The recommendation on giving citizens outside of the State the right to vote in presidential elections was not so easily dismissed. For starters, this was a question that the Government itself had asked the Convention to deliberate. It was also a recommendation that had an obvious presence of force in the Oireachtas by way of Sinn Féin, who would benefit from it through their powerbase in the North.

The Government first raised this idea in the Programme for Government in Spring 2011. However, that was before established Ireland fell off its seat in Autumn of that year at the thought of Martin McGuinness in the Áras. It’s hard to imagine McGuinness surpassing Michael D Higgins’ 1,007,104 votes during that election – but what if Irish citizens in Northern Ireland could vote?

Unable to unbind itself from its original proposition, and perhaps with the promise of the Good Friday Agreement hanging overhead, the immediate reaction from Government was an acute paralysis of the tongue. To make matters worse, lobbying from the diaspora and organisations representing the newly exiled and well-educated Irish youth meant the issue wouldn’t go away.

Strictly speaking, recommendations from the Constitutional Convention had to be responded to in the Dáil within four months. When the Government eventually emerged more than a year later, it was only to do what it could to flush the recommendation down the toilet by means of a glossy brochure on the diaspora. The matter, it seemed, was now recognised by official Ireland as being more “challenging to introduce and to manage” (note the word “manage”) than had been been previously imagined.

However, with Sinn Féin able to propose constitutional amendments in the Dáil, the question wouldn’t die so easily and in March this year Sinn Féin were able to force the Government’s hand to at least discuss the question in the Oireachtas.

A Sinn Fein private member’s bill on votes for the Irish abroad now sits with the Oireachtas Select Sub-Committee on the Environment, Community and Local Government, where it faces the same fate as the recommendation on citizen nominations. As Sinn Féin’s Seán Crowe put it: “the onus is on [the Government] to move it forward and not bury it on Committee Stage, as it has done with other Opposition Bills”.

In response to our pressing them on the matter, the Department of the Taoiseach tells us that, “It has been decided that it is necessary to analyse the full range of practical and policy issues that would arise in any significant extension of the franchise, before any decision could be made on the holding of a referendum.” That could take a very long time.

“Reform” without actually changing anything

And so, stuck between the rock of needing to demonstrate reform and the hard place of not actually wanting to change anything, the recommendation on lowering the age of candidacy must have then seemed like a gift.

Without the recommendation on citizen nominations, the same people will continue to nominate candidates. And without the recommendation on votes for the Irish abroad, the same people will continue to elect candidates. Thus, even allowing for hypothetically younger candidates is hardly going to change very much and, most importantly, not one scrap of power is conceded by the establishment.

For a political establishment allergic to relinquishing power or deviating from its own institutional norms, this is a beautiful equation: it displays the veneer of reform without actually changing anything. Bundle notions of “equality” into that equation and you can see how the public are being sold a pup.

When Second Republic was lobbying for the creation of the Constitutional Convention, we warned that unless all its recommendations were binding on the Government the most important ones would be ignored. We were told that we were naive to believe that any government would agree to that.

Perhaps so, but no less naive than believing that anything much would come of the Convention’s recommendations without such a commitment. Similar initiatives elsewhere in the world were treated as binding. Moreover, by holding public consultations and then ignoring the results, the Government eats into the trust demonstrated by the citizens who take part and those watching what happens.

Unfortunately, this prediction has proven true, as this referendum on just one small part of the Convention’s recommendations is demonstrating. A year after its conclusion, virtually all of the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention have been dismissed, ignored or sandbagged in the same was as these ones on the President.

And we are the suckers who are being short-changed as a result.

Oliver Moran is a member of Second Republic, a non-aligned group campaigning for political reform. Second Republic lobbied for the establishment of the Constitutional Convention as a means for citizen-driven reform.

The Government’s pretence about reform fell away at the first genuine challenge

Lots of TDs and Senators are voting No in that ‘other’ referendum

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