On Friday, we go to the polling centres where each of us will be presented with three ballot papers – one for the county council election, one for the European elections, and one for the referendum. And in all likelihood, voter interest in the elections will follow the same order of priority, with the referendum the least important in most minds.
But yet, hold on for a minute. There is something peculiar about this referendum ballot. In normal times, a referendum is held to decide on one issue; the ballot paper asks us to accept or reject one specific proposed change to our constitution. The strange thing is that, on Friday, we will be asked two disparate questions, but can only answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to both proposals together.
In other words, voters cannot accept one change to the constitution, and reject the other.
So, if you agree that all foreign divorces should be recognised in Ireland, but you don’t agree with the abolition of the four-year waiting period before an Irish couple can seek a divorce (or, indeed, vice versa), you don’t get to express that view. It’s all or nothing; you either accept the double package in full, or you reject it in full.
The Referendum Commission is the independent body set up to provide accurate and neutral information to the public in advance of a referendum. It consists of five members, chaired by a High Court judge, and comprising the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Ombudsman, the clerk of Dáil Eireann, and the clerk of Seanad Éireann, all people well versed in legislative and constitutional matters.
When contacted during the week to comment on this apparent anomaly in Friday’s referendum, the commission told this column that the Commission has no role in deciding on the referendum proposals to be put to the people. That decision was made by the Oireachtas, and the commission’s remit is to explain to the public what the proposal means, to make sure people know a referendum is being held, and to encourage people to vote. The Oireachtas frames the proposal, and the Commission merely takes it from there.
So why the Dáil decided on this particular format – two distinct questions, but only one answer – we will never know; and why, of all the legislators in the Oireachtas, nobody flagged a concern, must remain a mystery too.
Apropos of all that, and despite the best efforts of the Referendum Commission, misperceptions can gain wide currency. One such is the belief that Friday’s referendum is to reduce waiting time for a divorce from four years to two. It is no such thing. What it does say is that the waiting time restriction should be removed from the constitution, and that the Oireachtas would be given the power to regulate the waiting period, so that future governments, should they be so minded, could reduce the period to two years, or one year, or even six months.
Conversely, the government could, if it was pressured enough, increase the waiting period to five, or eight, or ten years, bringing us back to where we were in the dark 1990s.
Think it couldn’t happen? Picture a scenario where a tiny group of elected zealots held the balance of power in the Dáil. Their only demand for supporting a government – an extension of the divorce waiting period to ten years. Would the dominant party, thirsting for office, agree to the condition in return for a guarantee of the reins of power?
Does the cat like cream? Does night follow day? Is the Pope a Catholic?