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Voters sketchy on arguments made for or against Oireachtas inquiries referendum

Panel of experts present the findings of their study into why people voted no to the Oireachtas inquiries referendum.

Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

THE OIREACHTAS committee which would have had its investigative powers expanded had the Oireachtas inquiries referendum passed in October has heard that the information period before the vote was too short.

Addressing the Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions, an expert panel comprised of Dr Jane Suiter (UCC), Prof Michael Marsh (TCD), Dr Teresa Reidy (UCC) and Richard Colwell (Red C) today presented the results of their study into the reasons behind voter behaviour in rejecting the motion.

The proposal to extend the power of Oireachtas committees to hold inquiries was defeated (53.3 per cent voted ‘no’). A second referendum held that day – on amending the constitution to allow for the reduction of judges’ salaries – passed with 79.7 per cent voting ‘yes’.

For the group’s research, 1,005 people adults around Ireland were interviewed using random digit dialling, of which half were contacted via mobile and the other half on a landline. It also used four focus groups comprised of ten people.

Speaking on behalf of the panel, Marsh said that almost half of the ‘yes’ voters questioned (42 per cent) said they couldn’t recall the arguments made for the motion, while the same percentage of ‘no’ voters couldn’t remember the arguments against.

At the same time, large numbers of voters were apparently uncertain about who was making any arguments for (50 per cent of the voters questions) or against (57 per cent) the motion.

The panel’s report, which was prepared for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, said that “overall, the numbers of people unable to explain why they voted ‘no’ beyond saying they did not know what the referendum was about is remarkable, and would seem to reflect poorly on the effectiveness of the campaign itself.”

Marsh said that while there is a tendency in many countries to use a referendum to vote against the government, the fact that the second referendum being put to the electorate that day had passed made it difficult to ascertain if this was a significant factor in the ‘no’ vote. The issue of judges pay may simply have been a more straightforward one for the public, he said.

He said that the group’s research had concluded that this was a very rushed referendum in terms of allowing the Referendum Commission adequate time to do its work in informing the public. This was also true for other bodies who felt they wanted to inform the public.

However, another factor was the lack of both direct and indirect information from political parties to the public.

“Parties running elections are aware of all the sorts of ways in which you can make your appeal to voters, both direct and indirect. But some of this, it seems to me, we forget in referendums,” Marsh said.

He said that a referendum needs a “diversity campaign” to appeal to more voters, rather than relying on “one solid lump of literature” delivered into your letterbox.

Although the research showed that people were in favour of the Oireachtas inquiries move in principle, there was very little awareness among the public of the debate “and in that context, it’s not surprising that they voted no”.

Marsh said that there was a possibility that the excitement of the #Áras11 election detracted attention from the referendums and that the panel had heard anecdotally of voters who were totally unaware of the Oireachtas inquiries referendum before they turned up at their polling station.

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