Published on May 29, 2015

Was The Ireland Referendum The Best Way of Engaging the Public?

By Reema Patel

Reema is a Policy Analyst at Involve, working on the Citizens and Science programme - including Sciencewise, the expert national resource centre for public dialogue input into science and technology policy.


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.

  • Firstly, there’s a question to be posed about whether we should be asking the majority of a population (many of whom are unaffected by the negative consequences of a ‘no’ vote) to decide upon what is widely seen to be a question of minority rights. This is a divisive question in and of itself, it must be confessed, but a point well made by philosopher John Stuart Mill when he expressed concerns about the tyranny of the majority and the threats democratic systems could present to individual liberties.


  • Secondly, there’s the question of social risk that such a public form of engagement presents for both decision-makers and for interested groups and individuals. To understand this, we only need to what the public reaction could have been had Irish voters decided the other way; outrage and uproar from LGBT individuals, infuriated campaign and lobby groups, widespread attempts to discredit both the method deployed causing substantive damage to the participation agenda; a genuine political obstacle to same sex marriage. These are all potential consequences that threatened to engulf legislation which many increasingly see as a right.


  • And thirdly, questions about marriage and equality remain complex and tricky terrain for the public; activists, campaigners and feminists and thinkers have views from a range of different perspectives on how governments should engage with questions of equality, sexual orientation and marriage. This creates terrain that a Yes/No vote just does not have the space to cover; but that would create fertile ground for valid, interesting, helpful discussions and deliberations which may help to facilitate shared understanding across diverse groups in Ireland – if not necessarily shared consensus. Increased emphasis on forms of participation such as deliberative dialogue throughout could potentially have created more space for a recognition of these different perspectives, and perhaps also resulted in legislation that looked and felt very different.

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

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