Today Ireland is going to the polls. By the weekend we’ll have a new President, a new West Dublin TD and, possibly, two changes to the constitution. Since I don’t live in West Dublin, I got to vote in three ballots. Five years ago I wouldn’t have got to vote in any.
I became an Irish citizen in 2006. One of the reasons I decided to finally take the plunge was because I was sick of feeling like an observer in the country I am happy and proud to call my home. We have a lot of referendums in Ireland. It’s something of a national sport. Since I hit voting age there have been 18 ballots, on both national and European matters that can have a direct bearing on life in this country. Today’s vote makes it 20. I remember the feeling of frustration not being able to have a say in votes on divorce, abortion (twice), the death penalty or the right to citizenship. Subjects that were hotly debated every time friends met for a pint or colleagues stopped for a cuppa. To have thrashed through the issues, teased out the pros and cons, argued the toss, then watched as all my friends headed for the ballot boxes.
Not every referendum is on a “sexy” subject of course. Not every one will get pulses raised and beer slopped on tables in excited pub conversations. Some of them are overdue housekeeping, others are labyrinthine pieces of European legislation, but here in Ireland you can usually find someone willing to argue the toss. Failing any other argument, there will usually be some vociferous contingent who fear that X or Y change will sneak abortion in by the back door. Not all of them will have a direct bearing on the way you or I personally lead our lives but all of them are important. It’s not much of a democracy if people are denied a voice but it’s even worse if those that have a voice refuse to use it.
Take today’s votes. For most of the month long lead in to this vote the focus has been on the circus that was the campaign for our next president. It’s only been in the last couple of weeks that attention has shifted to the two referendums we also have a say in. On the face of it these are two of the not-so-sexy subjects, it’ll be interesting to see the voter turn out. But these are important votes. One of them is concerned with whether or not judges can have pay cuts. In these straightened times it sounds like a no brainer. The Yes Campaign would argue that anyway. Under the current constitution a judge’s pay cannot be cut while he or she is in office. The amendment will allow for cuts to be made in line with other public servants. The problem I have with it personally is that the new wording is as vague as hell. The third section of the amendment should be punished for crimes against language. But it’s late in the day for arguments – I’ll leave that to Dearbhail McDonald of the Irish Independent.
The problem with both the ballots today is that people are likely to vote with a jerk of the knee towards crooked bankers and ivory tower fat cats. Fair targets perhaps but there’s a real risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. I’m pretty sure the government were just as eager to see wrongs righted when they drew up these amendments but slinging a load of legalese into the mix, giving it a quick stir by way of debate and tossing it towards the populous for deliberation is all a bit slapdash. The problem with slapdash is that it can have unforeseen consequences. I’ve seen the effects of the unforeseen consequence in the day job. I doubt very much whether those who drew up the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act in 2009 to deal with the threat of criminal gangs foresee that the Act would get one of it’s first airings in court at the collapse of a trial of four men accused of killing a young mother and burning her body. The trial of those accused of killing Rebecca French collapsed because of confusion over wording. This might be an extreme consequence but it’s a stark reminder why clear wording matters. Legal language might look vague but that’s frequently because it’s over precise. Too much space for interpretation means years getting clarification through case law and is too open to abuse.
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt strongly about the result of a referendum but it’s the first time I’ve been able to act on that conviction. I incorrectly said on Twitter earlier that these were my first referendums. I’ve voted twice before, both for the same thing (Irish governments have had a tendency to keep asking questions until they got the answer they were looking for) but the Lisbon Treaty, important as Europe is, felt like a far more academic exercise. Today is about having a say in Ireland, not Europe. This is about having a say in the constitution that grew out of de Valera’s 1937 Bunreacht na hEireann, the document that crystallised the idea of a new sovereign state into a set of rules and guidelines.
The Divorce Referendum in 1995 was the last time the vote went over 60%. That means that more than 40% of the voting public couldn’t be bothered to have a say in their country. That makes me angry. It’s always a yes/no answer, do you or don’t you? This is why there should be debate, why there should be full and detailed explanations on ALL the arguments. It’s no longer up to the Referendum Commission to provide the arguments but it should be a civic responsibility to find out as well. It doesn’t matter how disenchanted you feel with the way things are or who’s running the show, things will never change unless people use their voice. I waited long enough to get mine. I will always use it.