As everyone knows, Ireland will be voting in a referendum this Friday on the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty Establishing the European Community. That will be the only issue to be placed before the Irish people in a referendum this year. And notwithstanding the excitements that such a referendum can entail it’s a relatively rare occurrence in Ireland.

It would be very different if we were living in Switzerland. Since 1848 Swiss citizens (until recently, men only) have been asked to vote on all sorts of propositions. So far this year they have had five referendums, and seven more are planned. So for example this past weekend they voted in favour of raising value added tax in order to deal with an underfunding of disability insurance. In November, controversially, they will be asked to vote on a proposed prohibition of the construction of minarets on mosques. Last year, to pick another example, a majority voted against a proposal to liberalise laws on the possession or use of cannabis. All in all, the Swiss vote on matters of general policy and principles (there have been several on neutrality and military policy), as well as matters that are less exalted (my favourite being the referendum on a proposal to use less concrete in Switzerland, appropriately held on April 1st, 1990). I’ve seen a list of all referendums that have been held in Switzerland since 1848, and to be honest I couldn’t be bothered to count them, but I’d say there were well over 500, and 30 since 2006 alone.

In constitutional terms, Switzerland behaves like a kind of super-large village: 50,000 people, or eight cantons, can force a referendum on any issue. And as we have seen, it happens a lot. Most other countries either do not use referendums at all, or else only for very limited purposes, often to do with constitutional amendments as is the case in Ireland. However, even for constitutional amendments most countries do not have referendums, allowing such amendments to be adopted by parliament, sometimes with special majorities.

The use (or otherwise) of the device of a popular vote to determine specific policy or operational issues is the key characteristic of what is described as ‘direct democracy’, where voters are given the opportunity to choose or to reject the policies that will be applied by government. ‘Indirect’ democracy, on the other hand, is a system in which voters elect a government, or a parliamentary majority from which the government will be chosen, which will then implement policies. It is sometimes argued that the distinction between these has been blurred, as even in an indirect democracy the electorate votes for (or against) the policy package which parties place before the people.

The main arguments against direct democracy in a modern state (as distinct from the ancient Greek city-state from which it emerged) are that countries have to thrive in complex economic, social and political environments in which they must demonstrate rational predictability and an overall sense of purpose, which is undermined if the people can cherry pick things they like and reject things they don’t – for example perhaps voting for high public expenditure and low taxes; and that issues may be brought to a referendum which are simply too technical and incomprehensible to allow an intelligent vote to be taken on them. On the other hand the main argument for direct democracy is that it has the capacity to engage the people and make them take more direct responsibility for national affairs.

It may be argued that direct democracy has worked in Switzerland; though any such conclusion may have to be tempered with reference to various illiberal measures that have over the decades been adopted in votes. But it must also be said that the nature of Swiss society is fundamentally different from that of almost any other country.

Here in Ireland the device of the referendum, which is the only way in which the Constitution can be amended, does not necessarily have a proud history. In the 1980s the device was used in a divisive manner to enforce what might now be regarded by some as sectarian social values. And more recently, we have voted on European treaties that were far too technical for such votes, resulting in referendums that had a more general plebiscite nature unrelated to the specific issues to be determined. Right now the overwhelming majority of posters on Irish streets arguing the case for or against the Lisbon treaty actually have nothing whatsoever to do with the treaty, but rather try to chill the blood of the voters by setting out horrible scenarios that are in fact completely irrelevant.

When the current Lisbon vote is over, it may be time to think again, in the context of Irish constitutional law, whether this use of the referendum is necessarily a good idea. Though of course, if we decide to change it, we’ll need to vote on it.

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10 Comments on “Referendumitis”

  1. Ralf Grahn Says:

    In Switzerland, women had to wait until 1971 for suffrage at federal level.

    Within the framework of European integration, I find sufficient reasons for referendums on three different issues:

    1 EU accession (individual country)

    2 Secession from the EU (individual country)

    3 The “qualitative jump” to a federation, with Europe-wide referendum(s) and establihment by the states, where the population has approved

  2. Vincent Says:

    After this referendum is over it will not matter a damn one way or the other. And I for one will be glad. I’m sick of seeing the arms of the State being used for blatant political reasons. And where anything to do that requires an with an encounter with the Civil Service can be twisted and tweaked by the Minister of that department.
    Onward, the day when something is either allowed of forbidden. Then we might have a notion of Planning that has some relation to anything beyond crass stupidity.
    And as to the 80’s, if I remember correctly, those Votes were nothing more that an attempt to close a potential gap which Roe V Wade exposed. Why on earth they just did not let the thing be, until a time came when the S-Court made a Ruling. And then Vote.

  3. Ralf Grahn Says:


    Neither do I.

    The obligation to hold referndums on constitutional changes, including EU treaty amendments in Ireland is a reality as well as an exception in Europe.

    If the choice was mine, I would not arrange referendums on treaty amendments meant to bring about incremental change, but the fundamental questions I mentioned are different.

    The US Constitution wisely stipulated that nine states were enough for entry into force.

  4. One Man Says:

    Whether we like it or not, the true sovereign of a democracy is the people. The choice is not whether people know how to choose or not. The choice is whether we wish to live in democracy or not.
    Please, consider also the opinions expressed here:

  5. cormac Says:

    It seems to me that referenda on complex issues such as the lisbon treaty would only work in an ideal world.The reality is that an orgy of misinformation springs up from the usual sources (some of whom are geuinely mistaken), making it very difficult for the public to make an informed choice.

  6. iainmacl Says:

    Ach but at least some of the posters are amusing…well variants of them are:

  7. Peter Says:

    Ralf Grahn wrote:
    “If the choice was mine, I would not arrange referendums on treaty amendments…”

    If the choice was yours…? Aren’t you missing the point?

    Democracy itself would only work in an ideal world.

  8. Elias Says:

    So your argument is that although the people can be trusted to vote for a goverment whose “complex” policies they cannot udnerstand every four years they do not have the right to vote on individual issues (which concern a great number of them) because they are not qualified enough.
    So is it more democratic to vote for faces and PR promoted individuals without understanding (or caring) about what policies they stand for but not on the policies themselves?
    If the electorate is considered mature enough the Swiss model should be enforced in all democratic countries, if the electorate is considered not be to be then we are admitting that democracy is based on decisions of uneducated, uninformed people and thus is a system where the one-eyed lead the blind. Personally I would go for option no.1

    • Elias, you are putting words and thoughts in my mouth that I did not express. It’s got nothing to do with being mature – in fact, if that were the yardstick Swiss democracy has more often than not failed, as they have adopted some pretty bizarre propositions in referendums. My point was that a country needs to have an overall strategy, and if you let people cherry pick they can quite easily adopt incompatible policies. We are not a village.

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