We should welcome a chance to decide

Why did so few vote in the Seanad Referendum, asks Sarah Carey

I have to admit: most of the time I don’t understand what’s going on in most people’s heads. And I don’t understand the enormous gap between what people say and what they do. Take last week’s referenda. Since the economy collapsed the general consensus has been that our political system was the fundamental cause of the problem. Personally I hold the regulators most responsible, but since they were appointed by the government, then I’m willing to accept the ‘flawed political system’ narrative.

The calls for reform have been near universal and the only way many of those reforms can be made is by referendum. Whether you voted yes or no to Seanad abolition or the Court of Appeal is beside the point. The question is: why did so few vote at all? A final poll of around 39% was presented as being pretty good, especially when compared to the turnout of just 33.5% for the children’s rights referendum. The electoral register isn’t entirely accurate and contains duplicates, emigrants, migrants and the deceased. Therefore I wouldn’t expect a 100% turnout. But the 2011 General Election had a turnout of 70%, so let’s set that as our benchmark.

Too complex

If 70% of the people are interested in and capable of voting for a Dáil why aren’t they interested in voting in referenda? It’s common to say that “the people have spoken” after a referendum, although figuring out what they’ve actually said is another matter. What does it mean when nearly half of voters don’t say anything? Some complain the issues are too complex. But I don’t buy that.

Information is available through more methods than ever before. Between newspapers, radio, television, leaflets in the post and the Internet, it’s easy to find arguments for and against amendments. Sure, information and opinion is practically a plague these days. If anything, we suffer from information overload. Anyway, we need to be really careful about pleading inability to comprehend as an excuse for not voting. If it’s true, then why not abandon democracy and let some plutocrats run the country?


Even on a topic like the Court of Appeal, which was largely ignored by the media, it’s still possible to make a decision if you care enough. Not that I’m unsympathetic to voter confusion. The members of my household only concentrated their minds on that issue on polling day. I wanted to vote ‘yes’ but a more anarchic relation insisted that the creation of a new court was clearly a conspiracy by the Law Library against the people. We ended up phoning around and asking the opinion of various friends and contacts whose opinion we respected. In the end I stuck with my ‘yes’ and my anarchist relation stuck with ‘no’. But the point is – we focused, debated it and sought out expert opinion. What else would you do?

But if people don’t make the effort – even to say ‘no’ because they don’t know – then it can only be because they don’t care. They are more willing to vote in general elections because the formation of a government is less abstract and more pertinent than the wording in the constitution. Governments are about money in our pocket. Referenda are about the ‘Big Issues with Small Stakes’. They have no effect on people’s everyday life. 

On the issue of the Seanad, I heard some wag observe “there’s nothing like a bunch of politicians going around the country to stir up apathy”. That made me smile, but politics requires politicians. What other system is there?

Another complaint was that the referendum was an impulsive idea by Enda Kenny. But abolition of the Senate was in the manifestos of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, Sinn Féin and the Socialists in the 2011 election. In fact, 80% of the people voted for parties that promised to abolish the Seanad. That’s not one man’s whim – that’s a political consensus.


However because that meme took hold, the defeat of the referendum is now being used a stick to beat the Taoiseach. It seems to me that if defeat of a political idea, especially one that seemed to be popular, is turned into a political weapon against the Government, then that government will not be inclined to hold further referenda.

Given that our constitution needs so much reform I think it would be a shame if that fear took hold of the Government. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with proposing ideas and hearing what the people have to say about them. If they don’t like them, that shouldn’t be a disaster, but simply an answer to a question.

We shouldn’t give in to superficial complaints about the nuisance of having referenda. We shouldn’t worry about being asked too many questions. We should worry about the day they stop asking.