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These are the referendums coming up in 2019 - and a few after that

Which way will you vote?

Jubilant scenes from Dublin Castle earlier this year when the referendum on the Eighth Amendment was passed.
Jubilant scenes from Dublin Castle earlier this year when the referendum on the Eighth Amendment was passed.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

vote 935_90545999 Jubilant scenes from Dublin Castle earlier this year when the referendum on the Eighth Amendment was passed. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

2018 WILL BE remembered as the year one of the most significant referendums in Irish history was held: The repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

We also held the often overlooked referendum on removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution.

While the latter had some of the same cultural overtones as the former, and resolutely passed, it wasn’t quite as much of a watershed moment in Irish society.

Looking ahead to 2019, we already have a couple of referendums pinned down.

Here’s what could be in store…

Divorce

Will a referendum on it be held in 2019? Yes (but maybe later than expected).

This vote could result in the current waiting time for a divorce being reduced. 

Up until the 1990s, Article 41.3.2 of the Constitution banned divorce. A proposal to alter this was first put to the public in 1986 under the 10th Amendment, but it was firmly defeated.

It wasn’t until 1995 and the 15th Amendment that the law changed when a similar but more nuanced amendment was passed by a hair’s breadth – just 0.28%.

The conditions of when a divorce could take place was set as follows:

  • At the date of the institution of the proceedings, the spouses have lived apart from one another for a period of, or periods amounting to, at least four years during the previous five years,
  • There is no reasonable prospect of a reconciliation between the spouses,
  • Such provision as the Court considers proper having regard to the circumstances exists or will be made for the spouses, any children of either or both of them and any other person prescribed by law, and
  • Any further conditions prescribed by law are complied with.

The currently proposed change is to the first to reduce the period of time to two out of the three previous three years.

Once the relevant Constitutional Amendment Bill, this referendum will get the go-ahead.

The government has indicated this could take place later in the year, rather than May as originally planned, depending on the advice received from the Attorney General on the women in the home referendum (more on that in a minute).

Presidential

Will a referendum on it be held in 2019? Yes

This referendum was first announced by former taoiseach Enda Kenny in March 2017, and, like other proposals, it was first put forward by the Constitutional Convention.  Right now, eligibility to vote in presidential elections is tied to that of Dáil elections in as set out in Article 16.

It was planned for May 2019 and the government seems willing to stick to that. It was discussed at Cabinet earlier this month.

In practice, Irish citizens living abroad, including Northern Ireland, would likely form an extra constituency and cast their ballot using a postal vote.

Currently, only a select few Irish citizens living abroad are able to vote in an election  Irish diplomats and their spouses, Defence Forces staff, members of Garda Síochána. It is also possible to be living abroad but still vote in a Seanad university constituency election.

If you want to come home to vote, you must not be resident outside of the country for more than 18 months.

Again, whether or not this vote will take place is subject to the passing of the Constitutional Amendment Bill.

Women

Will a referendum on it be held in 2019? Yes

Let’s lay out this section of the Constitution:

41.1: The state recognises the family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.
41.2: In particular, the state recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

A referendum on removing this article from the Constitution was originally due to take place on the same date as the presidential election and blasphemy referendum, but the government slammed the brakes in early September to allow pre-legislative scrutiny to take place in order to iron out any potential problems.

Concerns had been raised over a complete removal of Article 41.2.1. The Constitutional Convention had recommended altering it to include gender-neutral language and a reference to carers from outside of the home.

The government had previously taken the stance that a complete removal was necessary, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying in July that he and the government “do not believe we should tie up a decision on deleting this sexist anachronistic language from our Constitution with a debate on caring and families”.

This pre-legislative scrutiny was published in December. The two recommendations are:

  • Amend it: Insert a gender neutral cause which acknowledges ‘the support that home and family life gives to society’: “The State recognises that home and family life gives to society a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall endeavour to support persons caring for others within the home as may be determined by law.”
  • Stall it: The committee said that it raised a number of complex issues on care work and rights of carers worthy of discussion. Before proceeding with the referendum, the committee suggested launching a public consultation process.

The government is set to the choose the first option, and put it to the public in May, once approved by the attorney general.

Voting Age

Will a referendum on it be held in 2019? No – although it was meant to.

Back in 2017 it was announced that the proposal to reduce the age of voting in Dáil elections and referendums to 16 would take place this coming summer, again a proposal from the Constitutional Convention.

A statement from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government confirmed that while it’s still on the table, this vote will not take place in 2019.

The referendum would amend Article 16.1.2, which currently reads:

All citizens, and such other persons in the state as may be determined by law, without distinction of sex who have reached the age of eighteen years who are not disqualified by law and comply with the provisions of the law relating to the election of members of Dáil Éireann, shall have the right to vote at an election for members of Dáil Éireann.

Although this refers to only Dáil elections, the age you must be to vote in a referendum to tied by Article 47.3 to the age of eligibility to vote in Dáil elections.

A poll carried out by Amárach Research for TheJournal.ie and Claire Byrne Live in December 2017 found that just 16% of people would support such an amendment.

If passed, it wouldn’t result in a blanket reduction of the voting age in all elections, unless accompanied by government legislation.

Currently, the voting age for presidential and local elections is not decided by the Constitution, and a single-word change of Article 16.1.2 – “eighteen” to “sixteen” – would leave the voting age for these at 16.

Sinn Féin senator Fintan Warfield – himself one of the youngest members of the Oireachtas, who was just 24 when elected in 2016 – tabled legislation that would have reduced both of these to 16, but it was defeated after failing to win the support of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

The Seanad is different again.

mayors

Will a referendum on it be held in 2019? There will be votes, yes, but it won’t be a referendum, just a plebiscite in certain areas.

The proposal for cities in Ireland to have directly elected mayors with executive functions has been on the table since the early ’00s, and was briefly in legislation before being removed.

Once the Local Government Bill 2018 is passed, it will allow for plebiscites – in this case  smaller-scale and localised referendum – in Cork, Limerick, and Galway, but not Waterford – to see if citizens there want to directly elect their mayor.

It also hinges on the relevant minister bringing detailed proposals to government on how exactly these votes would work and what functions the mayor would serve.

Notable absent from the list of cities is Dublin. There, instead of a plebiscite, first a mini Citizens Assembly of Dubs will convene to bash out the proposal. 

Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan has said there’s a ‘strong case’ for directly-elected mayors.

In the works for the future…

water 2

Will a referendum on it be held in 2019? No, it was only recently considered by Cabinet at all.

This is an issue which has been bubbling away since the height of the water charges protests, but that the government resisted taking action on.

In fact, the Taoiseach went as far as to say it was “impossible”.

However, a Bill by Independents4Change TD Joan Collins was passed by the Dáil, and the Cabinet gave approval for the responsible minister, Eoghan Murphy, to contact the Attorney General.

It’s still a long way off, but the wheels are now moving for a referendum on water ownership.

ESC

This is another referendum recommended by the Constitutional Convention four years ago, and was put forward in the Dáil in September by Independent TD Thomas Pringle.

It has yet to be debated.

Economic, Social, and Cultural (ESC) Rights include labour and property rights, the right adequate shelter, and the right for ethnic minorities to practice their own culture, faith, and language.

Ireland already adopted the United Nation’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights decades ago, but these are not enshrined in the Constitution.

And finally, one not outside the realm of possibility…

Border Poll

As Northern Ireland’s border and the backstop agreement continues to be the biggest sticking point preventing the United Kingdom and the European Union agreeing a Brexit deal, a border poll has been mooted.

The Good Friday Agreement lay the groundwork for this: The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can order for a poll to be held, with the question being put to the people of whether or not to cease being part of the United Kingdom and instead join with an united Ireland.

This is mirrored in the Irish Constitution, which says that a united Ireland can only be achieved “by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island”.

Although this is being talked about, it is highly unlikely a vote will be held – the Taoiseach has called even the mere talk of a border poll from Sinn Féin ‘disruptive and destructive’.

Just one border poll has been held in Northern Ireland, back in 1973 when an overwhelming majority of 98.9% voted in favour of staying in the United Kingdom. An opinion poll from September this year would suggest there would be a very different result this time around.

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About the author:

Nicky Ryan

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