Cleavages, parties and referendums: Relationships between representative and direct democracy in the Republic of Ireland



Abstract. In the Irish case, a combination of quite restrictive constitutional provisions for consulting the people and extensive social and political change has produced a variety of forms of initiation of referendums and a surprisingly large number of them (25 since the late 1960s). Referendums in Ireland have frequently been related to underlying political cleavages while only very infrequently evoking major inter–party conflict. This suggests that referendums may have insulated the party system against the impact of potentially contentious issues. However, analysis of voting behaviour in the 1992 general election and abortion referendums indicates some linkage between referendum voting and party choice at the aggregate level. Additionally, evidence from the Nice Treaty referendum of 1901 suggests that the lack of major party involvement in the campaign contributed to a demonstrable gap in people's understanding of the issues. The low level of understanding in turn certainly contributed to the massive level of abstention and to a NO vote that was contrary to the preferences of almost all the parties. Thus, there are limits to the extent to which the organs of representative democracy can, or can afford to, distance themselves from the process of direct democracy.