There are 2 types of referendum in Ireland – a constitutional referendum and an ordinary referendum.
Bunreacht na hÉíreann (the Constitution of Ireland) can only be amended if the proposed amendment has been approved by the people of Ireland in a constitutional referendum. Up to 2018, 35 constitutional referendums had been held. 25 May 2018 was designated as polling day for a referendum on the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2018.
An ordinary referendum does not relate to amending the Constitution. An ordinary referendum would only be held if the President decided that a Bill contained a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people should be established. This would only happen following a a joint petition from both houses of the Oireachtas and consultation with the Council of State. To date, no ordinary referendum has been held. Read more in our document on ordinary referendums.
Article 46 of the Constitution sets out the rules for how the Constitution can be amended. Article 47 sets out the basic rules for referendums. A body of legislation, including a series of Referendum Acts, governs how they operate.
For a constitutional referendum, a Bill is first introduced in the Dáil, setting out the wording of the proposed amendment. The Bill’s title must include the text “An Act to amend the Constitution” and the Bill cannot contain any other proposal. If both the Dáil and the Seanad pass the Bill, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government makes an order specifying the polling day for the referendum.
The Minister can then appoint a referendum commission, whose role is to explain what the proposed amendment means, promote awareness of the referendum and encourage people to vote. It does not put the arguments for and against the proposal.
For the referendum in May 2018, a Referendum Commission was set up on 9 March 2018. The Commission's website refcom2018.ie provides information about the referendum proposal. On this website, the Commission explains the current law, describes the proposed change and explains the legal effect of a "Yes" vote and the legal effect of a "No" vote.
All Irish citizens who are on the Register of Electors, the Postal Voters List or the Special Voters List can vote in a referendum. You can use checktheregister.ie to see if you are registered. If not, you can apply to be registered on the relevant supplement. When the polling date has been set, strict closing dates apply. For the referendum in May 2018, completed applications for inclusion on the supplement to the Register of Electors must have reached the local authority by Tuesday 8 May 2018.
The referendum proposal is printed on the ballot paper and voters are asked to indicate “Yes” or “No”. There are various arrangements to facilitate voters with disabilities. In May 2018, for the first time, a tactile ballot paper template was available in each polling station for people who are visually impaired.
If more than 50% of the valid votes are cast for “Yes”, the proposed amendment is approved and the text of the Constitution is amended accordingly. Otherwise, the Constitution remains unchanged. Read more in our document on referendum results.