Ireland has shown how a referendum can create a genuine national conversation

Posters from Ireland’s referendum on legalising abortion. Picture by National Party (CC BY 2.0)

Lila Haines

“Referendums are dangerous,” Mark Drakeford AM told a Cardiff audience recently. As his lecture topic was ‘Brexit and Devolution’ we can give the Welsh Finance Secretary the benefit of context – the Brexit referendum result is very dangerous for Wales.

But it is a profoundly anti-democratic view – and one that ignores the positive possibilities of voter engagement with major political decisions.

Last Friday’s referendum in Ireland was a classic showcase for the positives.

Referendums can inform, politicise and mobilise populations: the repeal the 8th campaign did precisely that and, as a bonus, energised a new young generation.

Referendums can give politicians the courage to enact difficult changes: the overwhelming support to remove the constitutional block on termination of pregnancy has changed the Irish legislative context profoundly – the abortion ban will be gone by year end, if not sooner.

The midwives of ‘yes’

The process that led 66.4% of voters to back change was a “quiet revolution”, in Taoiseach Leo Varadkar‘s words.

That revolution took place over several decades, as Ireland modernised, grew in confidence, and adopted more liberal social attitudes.

But the result had other midwives too. In particular, a thoughtful political process in which a Citizens’ Assembly played a seminal role, and a campaign that reached doorsteps in every corner of the land, urban and rural, villages and city streets.

A genuine national conversation took place.

Woman after woman opened up about why they needed to seek abortions, in the process killing ages-old social fears and habits of shame.

This wasn’t the first referendum campaign to take such an approach. Three years ago Ireland entered the history books as the first country to legalise gay marriage by popular vote.

‘I’m voting Yes – ask me why’

The Equal Marriage campaign slogan, ‘I’m voting Yes – ask me why’ – inspired by the words on a homemade placard held by a girl in the Scottish independence referendum – set the tone for a campaign that focused on conveying normality, inclusivity, positivity and equality, through personal stories and conversations. ‘Yes’ won with 62.07%.

The campaign to overturn the 8th amendment of the Constitution that banned abortion took that approach too, and won by an even bigger majority: 66.4%.

So how can Wales get a slice of such positive action, you may ask?

Maybe we just need more practice at referendums, though we’ve had more than England. These need not be about big national questions.

But we could use aspects of the process to crowdsource solutions for what matters to us. One example could be a Citizens Assembly on the Welsh NHS.

Local consultative polls, with the two options set out clearly in a way that respects voters’ intelligence and concerns, could help energise local democracy.

Debacle

But when it comes to referenda, politicians need to follow through on the result, and keep the public engaged with the process, if they are to prevent disillusionment.

Residents in my ward flocked to vote on a local issue a few years ago – Cardiff council totally ignored the very clear result.

Mark Drakeford is right to say that just asking the same question again on Brexit is not the right way forward.

But the process since the referendum has been badly handled. Where’s the engagement? Where’s my regular update on how it’s all going? I get that by email from the Irish government every month – zilch from Welsh Government.

In Wales we’re quite good at taking up laudable positions, even passing cutting-edge legislation. We have a potentially revolutionary Well-being of Future Generations Act that sometimes seems dispersed in space, achieving no discernible impact on vital environmental matters.

It’s often the execution that lets us down – and the follow through.

We hold dry consultations that barely reach beyond obvious vested interests. Tick box exercises on equality and the environment.

We need to rethink how we do engagement. Recent Irish referendum processes, including Citizens Assembly concept, offer approaches to consider.

For starters, let’s get our national act together on engaging the public with what Brexit means for them. Before it’s too late.

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