For each new referendum that takes place, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government may set up a new Referendum Commission.
A Referendum Commission is an independent body whose primary role is to explain the subject matter of the referendum proposal, to promote public awareness of the referendum and to encourage the electorate to vote.
Referendums in 2018
Regulation of termination of pregnancy: On 9 March 2018, a Referendum Commission was established in connection with the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2018, which contained a proposal to change the Constitution as regards the regulation of termination of pregnancy. A referendum on this proposal took place on 25 May 2018. A majority of voters approved this proposal and the Bill to amend the Constitution has been signed into law.
Blasphemy: On 20 July 2018, a new Referendum Commission was established in connection with the Thirty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution (Repeal of offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter) Bill 2018. This Bill contains a proposal to change the Constitution by removing the offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter. Polling in this referendum took place on 26 October 2018.
A Referendum Commission consists of a chairperson and 4 ordinary members.
The chairperson, who is nominated by the Chief Justice, must be a former Supreme Court judge or a serving or former High Court judge. The 4 ordinary members are the Comptroller and Auditor General; the Ombudsman; the Clerk of the Dáil; and the Clerk of the Seanad.
Setting up the Referendum Commission
The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government establishes a Referendum Commission by making an Order under Section 2 of the Referendum Act 1998.
The timescale for setting up a Referendum Commission depends on the type of referendum that is involved – a constitutional referendum or an ordinary referendum.
A constitutional referendum is called when a Bill that sets out a proposed amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Constitution) has been passed by both the Dáil and the Seanad. In the case of a constitutional referendum, the Minister may establish a Referendum Commission on or after (but not before) the date on which a Bill to amend the Constitution is initiated in Dáil Éireann.
An ordinary referendum does not relate to amending the Constitution. An ordinary referendum could be held if a proposed Bill was of such national importance that the will of the people of Ireland should be found out before it became law. In the case of an ordinary referendum, the Minister may establish a Referendum Commission on or before (but not after) the date of the Order appointing polling day. (To date, no ordinary referendum has ever been held.)
Work of the Referendum Commission
Each Referendum Commission prepares independent and unbiased information about the referendum proposal and makes that information available to the public. It publishes and distributes leaflets and brochures giving general information about the referendum. It prepares one or more statements on the main issues and it may include any other information that it considers appropriate. It promotes debate and discussion about the referendum and may also advertise the referendum in the media.
The Referendum Commission may use television, radio, press, outdoor and cinema advertising and any other media (including social media) over the weeks before the referendum to give general information about the issues involved. The television broadcasts are subtitled and a special video of the information booklet is produced in Irish Sign Language and is distributed to members of the Deaf community. The Commission's information booklets are also produced in Braille and audiotape for distribution to people with visual impairments.
The Referendum Commission must carry out its functions in a way that is fair to everyone concerned. No member of the Commission may advocate or promote a particular result in the referendum.
After the referendum
The Referendum Commission must prepare a report for the Minister when it has completed its functions under the legislation. It must submit this report to the Minister within 6 months. It is then dissolved a month later.
Information on past referendums is available on refcom.ie.