There are 2 types of referendum in Ireland – a constitutional referendum and an ordinary referendum.
The Constitution can only be amended if the proposed amendment has been approved by the people of Ireland in a referendum. This gives the people the opportunity to decide whether or not the law will change.
As of 2021, 38 constitutional referendums had been held and 32 have been approved. They are listed on taoiseach.gov.ie. You can read reports and recommendations relating to several previous referendums.
An ordinary referendum does not relate to amending the Constitution. An ordinary referendum would be held if the President decided that a Bill contained a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people should decide its outcome
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. If both the Dáil and the Seanad pass the Bill, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage makes an order specifying the polling day for the referendum.
An ordinary referendum is one that does not relate to amending Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution). To date no ordinary referendum has ever been held.
An ordinary referendum would take place if the President received a joint petition from both houses of the Oireachtas. The petition would say that a proposed Bill was of such national importance that the people of Ireland should decide whether it became law.
The joint petition must be passed by the majority of the members of the Seanad and one-third of the members of the Dáil. When the President receives the petition, they must consult the Council of State. If the President agrees that the proposal is of such national importance they will refuse to sign the Bill until a referendum has been held.
The referendum must be held within 18 months of the President's decision not to sign the Bill.
The Referendum Commission is an independent body whose role is to explain the subject matter of the referendum proposal, to promote public awareness of the referendum and to encourage people to vote.
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, Local Government and Heritage establishes a Referendum Commission by making an Order under Section 2 of the Referendum Act 1998.
For a constitutional referendum the Minister may establish a Referendum Commission on or after the date on which a Bill to amend the Constitution is initiated in Dáil Éireann.
For an ordinary referendum, the Minister may establish a Referendum Commission no later than the date of the order appointing a polling day.
Work of the Referendum Commission
The Referendum Commission’s role is to prepare impartial and unbiased information about the referendum proposal and makes that information available to the public. It prepares statements on the main issues and distributes those statements through television, radio and other forms of media to bring them to the attention of the public. The role of the Commission includes ensuring that the statements should be accessible for those with a sight or hearing disability.
After the referendum
After the Referendum Commission’s role is completed it must submit a report on its work to the Minister within 6 months. It is then dissolved a month later.
All Irish citizens who are on the Register of Electors, the Postal Voters List or the Special Voters List can vote in a referendum.
Voting is by secret ballot. The title of the proposed bill will be printed on the ballot and the voter will mark “Yes” or “No”. There are various arrangements to facilitate voters with disabilities. A tactile ballot paper template is available in each polling station for people who are visually impaired.
The day after the poll the votes for and against the referendum proposal are counted and the Local Returning Officer reports the result to the Referendum Returning Officer. The counting may be watched by members of the Oireachtas and approved bodies.
When the results from all constituencies have been counted, the Referendum Returning Officer draws up a provisional referendum certificate. This states the overall result of the voting and if the proposed amendment has been approved, which requires more than 50% of the votes to be “Yes.” The provisional certificate is published in Iris Oifigiúil (the State Gazette).
The voting procedure at the ordinary referendum is the same as in a constitutional referendum except that bill is rejected by the people if:
- The majority of the votes cast are against the Bill and
- Those votes make up at least one-third of the presidential electors on the register of electors.
If a voter wants to challenge the provisional certificate, they must present a petition to the High Court within 7 days of the publication of the provisional certificate. If no petition is presented to the High Court, the certificate becomes final.
Amending the Constitution
If the final certificate shows that the majority of the votes cast were in favour of the proposal to amend the Constitution, the President signs the Bill and the Constitution is amended.