Ireland voted in late May on two proposed constitutional amendments.

One was decisively carried, one even more decisively rejected. The turnout for both referenda was 60.5%.The successful referendum was on same sex marriage, where 62% of those voting approved adding to the constitution the words “ marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” The rejected proposal (73% voting against) was to lower the minimum age at which a citizen could become President from 35 to 21.

Much has been made of the “youth vote” in pushing through the same sex proposal, with reports of many thousands of young people forced to emigrate by the recession returning to vote. Whether this was critical is doubtful given the margin of victory; moreover this “youth vote” wasn’t prompted to back similarly the other proposal – one which appeared pitched at the young!

A more prosaic interpretation is that the results show on the one hand how Ireland has changed in a generation, on the other that the electorate remains hard headed and realistic enough to identify an attempt to con it. Central to the success of the same sex issue were the twin factors that, for most people, what was involved was the logical extension of equal treatment to a minority group and that voting for this did not affect negatively the rights of the majority.
Central to the defeat of the presidential age proposal was the perception that it was unnecessary, illogical (why not 18, the voting age, rather than 21?) irrelevant and was being presented as significant and fulfilling a commitment to Constitutional reform in the Government’s 2011 programme.

The 1937 Constitution is very much a child of Ireland of the 1930s, reflecting predominantly Catholic ideology, values and social thinking of the time, with a revanchist territorial claim thrown in for good measure. Amending it has in the main aimed at modernising or eliminating some of the provisions ( including that territorial claim!) to reflect social and political change since the 1930’s. Two thirds of the thirty five amendments have been passed (or rejected) in the last twenty five years, covering social issues such as divorce, abortion and now same sex marriage as well as the evolving nature of our relationship with the European Union.

Before 1972 there were only three attempts at change, all proposed by Fianna Fail and all rejected by an electorate which saw them as politically motivated and designed to shore up Fianna Fail’s political fortunes. Two, in 1959 and 1968, were attempts to change the voting system by abolishing proportional representation, something which, in the short term at least, was perceived as favouring the largest party, Fianna Fail. The third, also in 1968, was an attempt to give greater representation to rural constituencies where traditionally Fianna Fail was strongest.

The 1970’s saw five amendments, all carried decisively, including crucially, the decision, very much in Ireland’s national interest, to join Europe in 1972. 83% voted Yes in what was a massive turnout of 70.9%, the highest ever percentage vote since the Constitution was adopted. Another huge majority in 1973 saw the voting age reduced to 18.

The four referenda in the 1980’s were all significant and marked a changing Ireland. In 1982, the “Eighth Amendment” entrenched the statutory prohibition on abortion into the Constitution by acknowledging “ the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.” As the Irish Supreme Court had been following some decisions of the US Supreme Court on human rights issues, the referendum was an attempt by the right to head off any possible future Irish Supreme Court decision along the lines of Roe v. Wade in the US, which had opened the door to abortion . The issue has remained contentious here, inter alia over what constitutes the equal right to life of the mother, and a further four referenda have been held since. The most recent, in 2002, was a second attempt to prevent the risk of suicide by the mother being invoked as grounds for an abortion, and was defeated by only 10,000 votes. Given the proximity of Britain, where thousands of Irish women travel annually for legal abortions, there is a certain unreality about the debate.

1986 saw a heavy defeat of a proposal to permit divorce. Those opposed proved adept at whipping up fears of destitute first wives and pointed to the lack of support legislation, including financial provision, in the event of marital breakdown. It was 1995 before a divorce proposal – the Fifteenth Amendment – squeaked through by a mere 9,000 votes. Significantly the safeguard support mechanisms had been enacted in the meantime.

Amendments since have involved tidying up, improving governance and dealing with unintended consequences of legislation. Other amendments have included extending the vote to UK citizens (1984), restricting the right to bail (1996) and cementing abolition of the Death Penalty (2002). There was even one in 2011 providing for the reduction in the salaries of judges . An amendment in 2001 permitted Ireland to ratify the Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Abortion and divorce aside, the landmark referenda of recent decades have been regarding Northern Ireland and a succession of plebiscites on the changing nature of Ireland’s relationship with the European Union . The Nineteenth Amendment in May 1998 ratified overwhelmingly (94% Yes) the Peace Treaty on Northern Ireland, known as the Good Friday Agreement. With it Ireland dropped the territorial claim to Northern Ireland.

More problematic have been the eight referenda on Europe held since 1987. As the original European Community has grown and evolved, inter alia making incremental inroads on Irish sovereignty, hard core opposition here has grown. While a solid majority remains supportive of EU membership, recognising there is no realistic alternative, “getting out the vote” has become a factor, particularly with little largesse coming from Brussels compared to a generation ago.

The numbers voting No have risen steadily, from 325,000 in 1987 to some 630,000 in 2012, a percentage increase among those voting from 30% to almost 40% . Mismanagement and complacency by the government during the Nice and Lisbon campaigns actually led to referenda defeats in 2002 and 2008, causing considerable embarrassment and necessitating re-runs, loudly and hotly criticised as undemocratic. The alternatives were unthinkable.

An attempt to abolish the Senate, an initiative of the Taoiseach, which would really have rocked the political system, was narrowly defeated in 2013. This followed an earlier rejection of a proposal to increase the powers of Parliamentary Committees of Enquiry. The lessons here, and over the Europe results, is that the Irish electorate are sceptical of the motives of politicians and should never be taken for granted . Reasonable proposals properly presented will always get a fair hearing.

An additional interesting and perhaps significant pointer to how the Irish see themselves in the world and how they see others was the 2004 vote on Irish Nationality where, in a 60% poll, 79% voted to remove the automatic right to Irish citizenship to anyone born in Ireland. Henceforth one parent must be, or be entitled to be, an Irish citizen.




  1. What happens with children born in other countries? I think the US and UK grant automatic citizenship to anyone born within their respective territories. Children born in Australia are not considered Australian citizens, but they can opt for Australian citizenship if they remain in the country for the first 10 years of their lives.

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