The Irish Times view on postponing the next referendum: avoiding a potential banana skin

The calculation has clearly changed following the results of the votes on care and the family

Bruised by the most resounding rejection of a referendum in the history of the State, the Government is now reconsidering whether the time is right to proceed with its next proposal to amend the Constitution.

The ratification of the Unified Patent Court (UPC) was scheduled to take place alongside the European and local elections on June 7th. A referendum is required because some judicial sovereignty would be transferred from Irish courts to the UPC. The issue has yet to impress itself on the public consciousness. Until recently it seemed the main challenge for the Government, as well as for the Electoral Commission, which is tasked with informing the electorate, would simply be to alert voters to the referendum’s existence.

There was less concern that the proposition itself might be contentious or that it would not pass. However, that calculation has clearly changed following the results of the referendums on care and the family in March. There are a range of reasons why these were so decisively defeated, not all of which would be relevant to the patent vote. The strong opposition from different political perspectives which the last referendums inspired are unlikely to be repeated in this case. But there is no doubt that some of the same factors – a lack of preparation, confused messaging, a lacklustre campaign – could well be repeated in June. And with the political parties focused on getting their candidates elected, there is every chance that their commitment to a referendum campaign would be half-hearted. If voters sense that lack of enthusiasm, history suggests they are likely to respond in kind.

It is unfortunate that Ireland’s entry into the UPC may be delayed as a result. The consolidation of European patent law has merit and offers opportunities for local enterprise. But a defeat could take the issue off the political agenda for a generation and discretion may be the better part of valour. In fact, deferring the referendum could be the first of several decisions a risk-averse Government takes to remove potential banana skins on its path towards a general election.