Of referendums and nasty surprises

Referendums – tricky little divils, aren’t they? On the one hand, there’s no denying that they clearly give the people a chance to express their will. On the other hand, the people’s  will may prove to be embarrassing to the point of government destruction.  Leo Varadkar, the Fine Gael TD and Minister,  was expressing himself on that the other day. He said that sometimes referendums  are undemocratic. EH?  Well, he explained, they can give a particular result but for the wrong reasons. He was talking about the possibility that the people of the south, if they got a referendum on Europe, would give a thumbs-down, not so much to express their views on Europe but to express their views on the parties presently governing their state.

He has a point. At by-elections, for example, it’s common both in Britain and in the south of Ireland for the electorate to pound the government candidate into very fine dust and scatter it to the winds, not because s/he is a poor candidate, but because they want to give vent to their feelings about the government. A protest vote, as they say.

But isn’t that exactly the point? People’s reasons for voting for a candidate or a party or a referendum issue are complex, unpredictable and frequently mixed. There was a time when Catholic clergy would, directly or indirectly, urge their flock not to vote Sinn Féin, because that party had not denounced/renounced violence. Lots of people ignored the advice. Some would have done so because they supported the armed struggle; others would have done so because they liked Sinn Féin’s emphasis on equality; others would have voted for a mixture of both. Or for other reasons completely. Complex, you see.

There’s also the anti-democratic tendency of past governments in the south to repeat a referendum if they didn’t like the results the first time round. And then there’s the awkward fact  that if a referendum on capital punishment were held in Ireland tomorrow, there’s a good chance most people would be in favour. An item allowing the householder to shoot dead burglars might well get the thumbs-up as well.  How would you feel about that?

So as I say, they are tricky little demons, referendums. But then so is democracy itself: it’s a maddeningly  imperfect way of governing. But in the present context,  with the south of Ireland’s semi-sovereignty  being sold down the Swanee,  it makes sense to let the people who are on the receiving end of such decisions have their say. Either that or we say “Aw, the hell with democracy – let’s slip on our blueshirts again”.

One Response to Of referendums and nasty surprises

  1. Catrina February 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Varadkar says he's not “a fan” of referendums since he doesn't think they're “very democratic”. He continue's, “by and large, referendum campaigns are never about what they are supposed to be about.”

    To quote from the Fine Gael General Election manifesto: ‘A Fine Gael Government will seek a mandate from the Irish people to renegotiate a more credible, fairer package that is better for Ireland and Europe.'

    Varadkar, himself famous for his “not another red cent” quote, “recently on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics programme, was asked why the State was paying unguaranteed Anglo bondholders and in particular the €.1.2 billion it is paying today. He said the Government had to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of doing this and the advantages were almost non-existent, for the €1.2 billion was not money we could retrieve in the short term, whereas the disadvantages were considerable. Futhermore: “We can look at Denmark. Denmark put one of the banks into resolution [ie default] last year and as a result of this the cost of borrowing for the Danish state and for Danish semi-states increased.”

    Vincent Browne contacted the central bank of Denmark asking: “Whether interest rates for borrowing by state companies in Denmark has been affected by the decision to discount some bank debt in the recent past and if the sovereign borrowing rates have been affected.”

    Within two hours he received the following reply: “The short answer to your question is ‘no’. There has been healthy demand for Danish bonds and we have not detected any negative spillover effects. Yours sincerely, Karsten Biltoft, Director, Administration, Danmarks Nationalbank, Havnegade 5. DK-1093, Copenhagen K, Denmark.”

    I wondered at the time how he was chosen for the cabinet but considering his leaders state-of-the-nation address on Sunday, 4 December 2011 and the u-turn by blaming the Irish people at the World Economic Forum,………I can see why.