How to Run Referendums – Lessons from Ireland


Ireland has a written constitution which can only be amended via a referendum. Referendums are common, with each EU treaty change for example requiring a referendum (sometimes two which will be discussed in detail later). There are frequently more than one referendum per year and there have been 11 on the EU. This year for example there was the abortion referendum in May and one scheduled for the 26th of October on the repeal the offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter. The Irish therefore have lots of practice and the UK may be able to learn some lessons. Indeed the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny offered to advise David Cameron but was politely refused. Here are some lessons that might be learnt from the Irish experience.

Never Underestimate the Protest Vote

Even in Ireland with a best in class voting system (as judged by the Electoral Reform Society), Proportional Representation (PR) with a single transferable vote, some people feel disenfranchised and view a referendum as a opportunity to give the government a bloody nose. This seems to occur totally independently of the topic of the referendum and is estimated to run to 5-10% of the electorate.
It was always likely that this effect would  occur in the UK, and indeed be amplified for two reasons. Firstly the antiquated UK First Past the Post (FPTP)  voting system disenfranchises voters in all but a handful of marginal constituencies. Secondly the Brexit Referendum was a once in a lifetime opportunity for many people to have a meaningful vote.

Referendums can be Hijacked by Protest Movements

In addition to personal protest votes, a referendum gives an opening for protest movements to organise and create an anti referendum movement again totally independent of the actual referendum  topic.

Allow Enough Time to air all the arguments and Educate the Public

The Irish Abortion Referendum took about two years to run its course, starting with a new experiment in Irish democracy,  a Citizens Assembly. Every effort was made to air all the arguments. This was in total contrast to the Brexit referendum which was run over four months and the remain campaign was confined almost exclusively to economic arguments – simply due to lack of time.

Matthew O’Toole who was chief Downing St. Press Officer on Europe and Economic Affairs during the Brexit campaign speaks of his frustration at the narrow focus of the referendum (Irish Passport podcast at c 50m in). Matthew is from the Nationalist Community in Northern Ireland and had an excellent understanding of the risks to the GFA, the subtle intermingling and overlapping of multiple identities and the difficulties Brexit would cause for the Irish border. Almost everyone in Ireland both North and South (with the exception perhaps of the DUP and their voters) understood the risks to NI posed by Brexit. To be fair both John Major and Tony Blair also understood this, but almost no airtime or bandwidth was devoted to this problem through the entire referendum campaign.

It is no surprise at all to the Irish that the Border issue is one of the major roadblocks to Brexit, and yet it seems to have taken many in Britain by surprise.

Referendums should be binary choices between known outcomes

This should not need to be stated as it is core to the  Referendum 101 handbook and yet, bizarrely, the Leave campaign in the Brexit Referendum was allowed to take a Mirror of Erised approach, where dozens or even 17.4 million possible outcomes were sold to the public. This was of course of incalculable strategic advantage to the Leave campaign – possibly worth in the region of 20-30 percentage points. Even more so than the  Scottish referendum it was imperative that a detailed white paper,  running to several volumes and thousand of pages, as to how Brexit Britain would look, was produced. This was almost certainly the single greatest strategic error of the entire campaign and has led to the uncertainty even now as to the “landing zone”.

Set up an Independent Referendum Commission

In Ireland there is an independent referendum commission which performs a number of tasks but very importantly acts as a referee an can clarify any issues. Downright lies like the infamous £350M for the NHS would not even get past first base in Ireland. Whereas one can have ones own opinions, one can not ones own facts. The Newt Gingrich view “what people feel about an issue is more important than what the actual facts behind the issue are”, would not fly in Ireland. Sadly this seems to be a view that is becoming more prevalent in the UK.

Know your electorate, what their real concerns are and tackle them head-on

One of the advantages of being a small country like Ireland is that there are fewer places to hide and that politicians tend to be much more tuned in to public opinion. The UK has the disadvantage in this regard of being a large country and have a greater disconnect between politicians and the public. The Westminster bubble is aptly named. An equivalent  Leinster House bubble does not really exist. In the first referendum on the Lisbon treaty it was clear that the loss of an EU commissioner was considered a demotion to being a second class country within the EU. Armed with this knowledge Ireland was successful in changing the Lisbon Treaty.

For a substantial number of the Brexit voting public the elephant in the room was immigration. The distinction also between immigration and Freedom of Movement (FoM)  is, almost uniquely of any EU country, not widely understood. It was imperative in the UK for the Government to explain the case for FoM, which is extraordinary strong. The case was however never made; indeed Anna Soubry, who speaks passionately and eloquently on the subject, specifically asked Cameron to be allowed to do so but was prevented. It was not that the fear of immigration was unknown, it was the lack of leadership, verging on cowardice, that was and is the real issue. To be fair it is not only the Tories but also Labour who are unwilling to show honest leadership.

Be Wary of External Interference

Ireland is a small country with a population of c 4.75m and the possibility of external interference is high, particularly with the Irish diaspora estimates at c 70m. In the recent Abortion Referendum all Facebook and Google ads were banned as the was considerable evidence of substantial external funding – particularly from right wing American groups.  Had a similar ban been introduced in the UK, the referendum outcome may have been different.

Only hold referendums when strictly necessary

The Irish hold a lot of referendums because it is a constitutional requirement. Holding a referendum because of internal party difference is neither a good idea nor likely to be looked upon favourably by outsiders including the EU. For some Brexiteers one prime hope of a positive (Leave) referendum result was its use it as leverage to gain further concessions from the EU. The Irish did this very successfully with the Lisbon treaty and kept its commissioner and various other opt outs.  The current agriculture commissioner is Phil Hogan of Fine Gael.

People and Electorates Make Mistakes and Always Leave an Opening for a Second Referendum

As John Maynard Keynes famously said “When the facts change I change my mind – what do you do sir?” If the facts change referendums can be rerun. For example after the  Lisbon treaty was modified to take account of Irish concerns it was perfectly legitimate, one might say almost morally imperative, to rerun the referendum.  The ludicrous accusations that the Irish gave the wrong answer and were forced to rerun the Lisbon Referendum by the EU is nonsense, even parroted by otherwise sensible individuals such as Yanis Varoufakis.
Even though EU treaty change is not possible in the case of the UK, the facts have certainly changed and the UK should be allowed to change its mind.

People Respond Best to Passion and Real Human Stories

In the Irish Abortion Referendum it generally agreed that it was the response to the harrowing case studies that swung the day rather than statistical or philosophical arguments. Real passion was also on display. The focus of the Remain campaign in the Brexit referendum with its narrow focus on the economic downsides of Brexit and the negative “project fear” approach was a weak strategy. The often quoted lines from Yeats – The Second Coming “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” have seldom been more apt.


The Brexit referendum was a text book example in how not to do things and it is surprising that given the ineptness of the Remain campaign the result was so close.


  1. Samuel Johnson -

    Not 100% sure Varoufakis qualifies as sensible. He did terrible damage to Greece by peddling a damaging “They need us more than we need them” grade fantasy, and lost, badly. Even if one agreed with his premises his conduct of strategy was disastrous. So, it’s not really a surprise he was so completely wrong about Ireland and the Lisbon Treaty. He is cogent and has an interesting narrative, but the same could said of Rees Mogg or anyone else with an agenda that affects their apparent ability to perceive reality. (Apparent, because in JRM’s case there’s evidence of at least some cognitive dissonance and, or, hypocrisy).

    The only things I can add to this excellent review are:

    Ireland has currently no supermajority protection for ensuring referendums do not result in 52:48 outcomes, nor any discussion on criteria for requiring it. While it is, I hope, unlikely, there’s a theoretical possibility of votes for Irish unity passing by 50%+1 on both sides of the border, which would hardly be a recipe for stability.

    British readers are possibly unaware that we had a referendum on imposing a pay cut on judges since the 2008 recession. They had constitutional protection against this as part of ensuring an independent judiciary, but after the bank crash and austerity measures involving pay cuts across the public sector, the judges opted not to cut their own pay in solidarity, even when faced with the prospect it would be put to a public vote they’d surely lose.

    They duly lost, but without any denunciation as “enemies of the people”. I voted to cut their pay (already generous) but with misgivings. The referendum process needs protection from misuse by populists. Happily, the Irish have shown themselves resistant to such instincts on at least 3 occasions. Twice govts with large majorities attempted to switch to FPTP voting instead of PR+STV. On both occasions they were rebuffed soundly. More recently, the govt attempted to abolish the Senate to “save money” and “cut the number of politicians”. It was rightly seen as a power grab and was soundly defeated. What would the outcome have been if the UK held a referendum on simply abolishing the House of Lords? I suspect it would pass.

    We haven’t had a contested referendum result (in terms of legitimacy) and, despite having a Referendum Commission that provides the public with impartial advance guidance on the implications of votes, Ireland, historically has been very weak in dealing with “white collar” criminality of every kind, including that of crooked politicians. The UK isn’t a paragon of virtue either and is currently apparently ignoring the criminality associated with the EU referendum & the Vienna convention regarding the legitimacy of the result of compromised ballots.

    Ireland undoubtedly has a better process and more experience running referendums, but the political sophistication and education of the electorate are surely the most important assets any democracy can have. Ireland beats the UK, and all UK nations, on human development metrics — income, equality, social mobility, education etc. There is no disconnect between the electorate and their representatives, with areas of the country simply left behind, and it’s not only a function of size, but of PR ensuring no disproportionate or persistent unfairness.

    While Google & Facebook did the right thing to ensure they were not misused by externally interested parties, it shouldn’t and needn’t have been something left to their discretion. Enough had already been learned from events in the US & UK for Ireland to have legislated. Indeed, a Fianna Fáil TD (MP), James Corless, put forward a bill to regulate online political advertising, it didn’t receive govt support — shamefully. We have to be more agile in defending democracy from subversion. Ireland did at least make the decision that electronic voting was insecure and should not be used. Unfortunately, it was after the purchase of €50m worth of eVoting machines, but better that than any rigged outcome, or perceptions of a rigged or even possibly rigged outcome.

    Democracy in Ireland is in good health but we have no grounds for complacency.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Interesting re Varoufakis. I’m not sure he can be compared to Mogg. I understand that he is academically very highly regarded and his PhD involved very sophisticated Monte Carlo analysis as to the resilience of financial models. The feedback I get regarding Mogg was that he was academically very mediocre. Whether being a good academic translates to being a good politician is a different matter. I see Varoufakis as being sincere if sometimes mistaken (he is against a peoples vote on Brexit for example) and Mogg as a complete charlatan.

      I agree Ireland is not the promised land by any means and remember the 1968 FPTP vs. PR+STV referendum well. My mother was completely horrified by the prospect and it was soundly defeated by about 60%-40% She never trusted Fianna Fail since.

      I’m just back from Ireland. I vist often, but normally only Dublin – This time I spent sat least one night in Tyrone, Fermanagh, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Clare Kerry, Limerick and Galloway (Scotland) on the way back. The comparison between NI and IE reminded me very much of E and W Germany in the 1970’s. The comparison between Dungannon (Tyrone) – dead, grey, lifeless and Balinna (Mayo) -vibrant, colourful, buzzing – was extraordinary.

      I hadn’t realised Google and Facebook pulled advertising voluntarily, I am firmly of the belief that it should be banned for now at least. The revelations about industrial scale targeting in the UK with often totally misleading and even downright dishonesty is scary.

      I am firmly of the belief that the Governance structures in the UK are antiquated and no longer fit for purpose. It is all the more ironic that many English Nationalists see Westminster as the gold standard, where it is anything but. The regional inequality in the UK is also a disgrace.

  2. Samuel Johnson -

    Have you been to Enniskillen lately? Lord, what a dump. And just about everything shuts, tight as a drum, at 5 o’clock.

    If the £ tanks I would be on for going shopping for property in NI, and I wonder if others are thinking about this. My family are from there and I would be happy to consider it. Wife may have other ideas. Make that MAY.

    I can’t comment on the merits of Varoufakis’s dissertation but an awful lot of clever people got burned when their simulations failed because they weren’t good enough representations of reality. Messrs Black and Scholes included and all who relied on them rather blindly. Nassim Taleb has written some pretty entertaining stuff about them (Fooled by Randomness is pretty good, despite his monstrous Trump-like ego). Mogg is an idiot, without a doubt, but a lucky one. Heaven help us if we ever had to endure a world with news reports of a summit between President Trump and Prime Minister Mogg. I’m beginning to be hopeful about the former.

    Agree on Westminster, of course. I must say, without meaning any disrespect to the church (I am not an adherent), I find the UK media’s current bemusement that Ireland isn’t “Father Ted land”, so to speak, a little tiresome. Oh! There’s a modern secular democracy next door. Who knew?

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I drove through Eniskillen about two weeks ago, but stayed in Belcoo a border village not far away – I have a Motorhome and there is a good Campsite there. Belcoo was OK – there is an excellent restaurant in Blacklion, just over the border but it was booked out (normally for weeks in advance). I had to some extent forgiven Tyrone, though I will discuss my experiences in Omagh and Cookstown later in a blog post.

      I am deeply disappointed to hear what you say about Eniskillen, beautifully situated between two lakes like Interlaken and could be the Killarney of NI. NI certainly has a lot of potential, but I feel that about Scotland also; punching far below its weight. I didn’t make Killarney this time but Dingle was buzzing.

      The perception of Ireland in the UK sometimes seems to resemble psycho-ops. Like a jilted husband who can’t believe an abused wife left him and is making a tremendous success of her life. The fact that on pretty much every useful measure, Ireland has not only overtaken the UK as a whole, but England and also more recently probably greater London and the SE simply does not compute.

      I haven’t looked at Varoufakis’s dissertation, but as is said “in theory practice is the same as theory, but in practice it isn’t” and I am very dubious about simulation in general – though I have used it a lot it needs to be grounded in realty.

  3. Samuel Johnson -

    In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is — is the formulation I learned.

    Simulation is v useful in software testing. I have limited experience of using it for anything more genuinely useful (discounting some econometric modeling). Not a reader of dissertations generally but one I enjoyed which you might like is Andrew Tridgell’s on the Rsync protocol. One of those short and sweet “Why did nobody think of that before?” stories. Also, for a bear of little brain like me: I understand this. And it’s beautiful.

    Great metaphor 🙂

  4. Peter May -

    For me a very imformative piece.
    It speaks volumes on the arrogance of Cameron that he refused advice from a country with everyday referendum experience. I didn’t know that and I’ll bet few others did.
    Interesting too that democracy tends to work better in a small country though I suppose it can also more easily fall prey to something like the grip of the RC church.
    The ultimate cowardice was not just the lack of proper leadership but the decision to call the referendum blind in the first place with, specifically, no preparation at all for one of the two outcomes.
    The triggering of Article 50 with no plan has to be the icing on this cake of cavalier incompetence!
    I, too, thought internet advertising had been banned by the Irish government.
    Also think that it should be banned in future – and for elections. (I’d also ban advertising hoardings.)

    1. Sean Danaher -


      thanks. Cameron had a confidence far above his ability and never thought for a second he would loose the Referendum. Though to be fair both Gove and Johnson seemed very surprised they had won.

      Being a small country helps but I also think the democratic structures are better in Ireland, the current Democracy Index places Ireland ahead of the UK

      The history regarding Ireland and the Catholic Church is interesting, but of course rapidly changing.

      I agree I think about advertising, but what annoys me more is that the Brexiteers seem to be able to lie with absolute impunity. There seems to be a near complete lack of fact checking with the BBC in particular.

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