The Risks of Referendums: 'Referendum Culture' in Ireland as a Solution?
Maria Cahill, Seán Ó Conaill, Colm O'Cinneide, Conor O'Mahony (eds) Constitutional Change and Popular Sovereignty: Populism, Politics and the Law in Ireland, Routledge, Forthcoming
30 Pages Posted: 15 Dec 2020
Date Written: March 1, 2020
Referendums, in the aftermath of Brexit and with the rise of populist movements worldwide, are viewed with great skepticism, seen as a means for populist leaders and elites to manipulate or mislead voters rather than any positive exercise in democracy. Ireland tells a somewhat different story. In Ireland, referendums to change the constitution are, increasingly, regularly held and, surveys suggests, extremely popular. They also do not display many of the worst traits that critics fear. Experts are generally respected and their views are embraced. There have not been widespread problems of fake news and manipulation of the referendum process. Prominent roles have been given to civil society groups and, more recently, citizens’ assemblies in initiation of referendums and, in the former case, in campaigning. There is evidence of voters adopting very nuanced views of the issues they are voting on. There is evidence of people being wary of uncertain and unclear proposals, even if they favor the change in principle. These are remarkably positive features, by and large avoiding the major problems suggested by critics of referendums
This is probably in spite of, not because of, Ireland’s formal referendum regulation, which is skeletal at best. It is, I suggest, primarily a function of a “referendum culture” which has developed over time and from experience, and exists and a set of unspoken cultural assumptions that guide people, politicians and campaigners and seemingly produce positive results. In this paper, I seek to illustrate certain aspects of this culture that are apparent from recent referendum campaigns, and also to point out its limitations and drawbacks. The Irish experience may suggest that some of the core critique of referendums are contingent, not fundamental: that you can have a functional referendum process with the development of a culture of referendums. But it also suggests that it might be difficult to achieve, probably requires long experience and development of culture, and is always a precarious achievement. The efficacy of this culture in Ireland may be threatened by the rise of social media, where there is, as yet, no formal rules and no effective culture around it. In this, Ireland affirms one of the core critiques of referendums: that they are poor mechanisms for occasional or ad hoc use, and should only be deployed where there is time and opportunity for distinctive political cultures around referendums to develop. Even then, there is no guaranteed recipe for success.
Keywords: Referendums, Brexit, Ireland, Culture, Referendum Culture, Referendum Regulation, Social Media, Irish Politics, Irish Constitutional Law
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