Last weekend citizens of Ireland overwhelmingly voted ‘yes’ to the legalisation of same sex marriage through a historic referendum – historic, because Ireland is the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by way of a referendum. Understandably, the endorsement by popular vote of same-sex marriage by a country is seen as a milestone in the steps towards social progress on this issue. And beyond the implications of the referendum for LGBT campaigners and activists, there was also a significant body of best practice with deliberation prompting the referendum through a process of informed and considered discussion – it was a deliberative citizens’ assembly through the Irish Citizens’ Convention (2013) which conceived the referendum in the first place.
So far, so good. Deliberation leading to a referendum, leading to a very positive result for a minority group, endorsed by the majority of voters. What’s not to like? Well, the widespread participation of many in determining the rights of a minority through a simple ‘Yes/No’ vote does present some challenges. And the existence of that method of participation; even its success – does not in and of itself mean that the method is the only one, or the most appropriate one given the issue or the circumstances. Even in light of the overwhelmingly positive result, might we feel that the Ireland referendum was not the best way of engaging citizens and members of the public? There are three reasons for why we might feel that way.
I’m of course delighted with the outcome of last weekend’s referendum. But while it’s one thing to welcome the outcome of a participatory referendum – it seems to be quite another thing to endorse the approach wholesale – even if the referendum and its outcome is presented as a victory for deliberative democrats and enthusiasts about participation. Perhaps, then, the Ireland moment is a good example of a moment whereby – as colleague Amy Pollard has formerly written, we need to understand that referenda are not the only fruit – and politicians need to broaden the agenda on engaging the public.
photo credit: munice