Frequently Asked Questions

Polling day: 25 May 2018

FAQs on this Referendum

You are not being asked to vote on any particular law on regulation of the termination of pregnancy in the Referendum.  In particular, you are not being asked to vote on whether termination of pregnancy ought to be lawful up to a certain point in the pregnancy. The Referendum Commission has no role in informing the public on any legislation that may be enacted after the Referendum, whether there is a Yes or No vote.

However, in the event that there is a Yes vote, the Oireachtas may decide to legislate to regulate the termination of pregnancy differently from the way in which it is currently regulated under the 2013 Act.

The Government has outlined policies which, in the event of a Yes vote, it has said it would seek to give effect to in a Bill. These are contained in a policy paper. However, you are not being asked in the Referendum whether or not you support the legislative proposal set out in this Policy Paper. If the referendum is passed, the Oireachtas may enact laws that differ from this legislative proposal. That will be a matter for the Oireachtas in the event that there is a Yes vote. The way in which laws are made by the Oireachtas has been set out elsewhere. 

Under the Constitution, legislation can be declared invalid if it is contrary to EU law, including the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. However, EU law does not apply in every situation, and the Charter applies only in situations governed by EU law.

Whether any provision of EU law applies to a termination of a pregnancy would therefore depend on the particular factual circumstances. It would also depend on the interpretation of two protocols into which Ireland has entered. 

The first is a protocol from 2012 to the Treaty of Lisbon, which says that nothing in the Treaty giving legal status to the Charter affects in any way the scope and applicability of the protection of the right to life in Article 40.3.3˚.  The second is a protocol, originating in 1992, which is now a protocol to the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (protocol 35).  This says that nothing in the EU Treaties shall affect the application in Ireland of Article 40.3.3˚.  

The intention of the protocols was to ensure that Ireland's constitutional position on the issue of termination of pregnancy was not affected by EU law.  Whether the referendum is passed or not, the proper interpretation of the protocols is ultimately a matter for the courts and the Court of Justice of the European Union.  

The European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention) is an international treaty to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe. It entered into force in 1953 and Ireland is a party to it.

The Convention established the European Court of Human Rights. Any person who feels that their rights have been violated under the ECHR by the State can make an application to the European Court of Human Rights.  If that Court finds that there has been a violation of the Convention, its judgement is binding on the State. The State is obliged under the Convention to implement or give effect to the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights.

The Convention is not a European Union Treaty, and the European Court of Human Rights is not a European Union Court. The Convention does not have the same status in Irish law as EU law.

The Convention was given effect in national law by the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003.  Where a complaint is made to an Irish court that a law, including an Act of the Oireachtas, is incompatible with the Convention, the court can issue a declaration of incompatibility relating to that law.  If the court issues a declaration of incompatibility, the law remains the same and continues in force unless and until the Oireachtas removes the incompatibility. 

The Constitution cannot be declared incompatible with the Convention.  However, a person who feels that the Constitution does not protect their rights under the Convention can bring a complaint against the State to the European Court of Human Rights. 

If the referendum is approved, a new article 40.3.3 will be inserted into the Constitution. The new article 40.3.3 would allow provision to be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy. 

The first step in making a law is the production of a Bill.  A Bill is proposed in the Oireachtas and is then debated. If it is passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, it is then presented to the President for signature. Once a Bill has been signed, it becomes law.

The Constitution sets out the basic law of the State. Legislation passed by the Oireachtas must comply with the Constitution. The Oireachtas is not allowed to enact any law that is contrary to the Constitution. If a piece of legislation is challenged, the Courts can declare that it is invalid if it is found to be in conflict with the Constitution. 

When a Bill is presented to the President to be signed, he or she may refer it to the Supreme Court for a decision on whether the Bill is in conflict with the Constitution.  The President must consult with a body called the Council of State before he or she does this.   The Council of State aids and counsels the President, but the decision on whether or not to refer the Bill is the President’s alone.  

If a Bill is referred to the Supreme Court, that Court must decide whether or not the Bill conflicts with the Constitution.  If the Supreme Court decides that the Bill is unconstitutional, the President cannot sign it and it does not become law.  

The Constitution can only be altered by the People in a referendum. Every proposal to amend the Constitution starts in Dáil Éireann as a Bill.  The Constitution says that if the Bill to amend the Constitution is passed by a majority of both the Dáil and Seanad, it shall be submitted to the People in a referendum.  If a majority of those voting in the referendum votes in favour of the proposal, the Bill is then signed by the President and the Constitution is amended. 

Article 15.1.2˚ of the Constitution says that the Oireachtas consists of the President and two Houses, Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. 

Dáil Éireann

The Dáil consists at present of 158 TDs who are elected from 40 different constituencies, apart from the Ceann Comhairle (or chairperson) of the Dáil who is re-elected automatically.

Seanad Éireann

The Seanad consists of 60 Senators.  Forty-three of them are elected to five panels representing different vocational interests. Six senators are elected by the graduates of two universities - 3 from National University of Ireland and 3 from the University of Dublin (Trinity College). Eleven are nominated by An Taoiseach.

The President

The President is the head of state.  He or she has a number of important constitutional functions including the signing of Bills into law, and deciding whether or not to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court for a decision as to whether or not it is constitutional. In addition, the President has a ceremonial role.

FAQs in general

A referendum is a vote by the people on a proposed amendment to the Constitution. If a simple majority vote 'Yes', the amendment is approved and the appropriate words in the Constitution are removed and/or inserted. If a simple majority vote 'No', the document remains unchanged. A referendum is governed by Articles 46 and 47 of the Constitution.

  • You must be an Irish citizen
  • You must be at least 18 years old
  • Your name must be on the Register of Electors

If you are an Irish citizen living abroad you cannot be entered on the Register of Electors. This means that you cannot vote in an election or referendum here in Ireland. The only exception to this is Irish diplomats and their spouses, who are on duty abroad and may cast their vote by post.

An approved body may have representatives present when postal ballot papers are being sent out and opened, at polling stations and at the counting of the vote. Applications to become an approved body must be sent to the Referendum Commission.

Applicants must have:

  • at least 300 members
  • an interest in the referendum
  • and a name that does not closely resemble the name of a political party registered in the Register of Political Parties

You can make an application to be an approved body online.

Since 2001, the Commission's primary role has been:

  • prepare one or more statements explaining the referendum proposal, the text in the relevant Bill and any other related information the Commission considers appropriate
  • publish and distribute those statements via television, radio and other media the Commission considers most likely to bring them to public attention. This includes ensuring as far as practicable that those with a sight or hearing disability can read or hear the statements concerned.
  • promote public awareness of the referendum and encourage voters to vote at the poll

Since 2001, the Commission no longer outlines the arguments for and against referendum proposals. The Commission may clarify and provide appropriate information about areas it considers to be of significant public concern and importance.

The Commission is Chaired by a former member of the High Court or the Supreme Court or by a serving member of the High Court. The Chairman is appointed by the Chief Justice at the request of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. There are four ex officio members:

  • the Chairperson (Ms. Isobel Kennedy),
  • the Comptroller and Auditor General (Mr Seamus McCarthy),
  • the Ombudsman (Mr Peter Tyndall),
  • the Clerk of the Dáil (Mr Peter Finnegan), and
  • the Clerk of the Seanad (Mr Martin Groves).

The Secretariat to the Commission is provided by the Office of the Ombudsman.

The Commission is funded by the sponsoring Department of the relevant referendum proposal.

Normally, you must vote in person at an official voting centre. However, you may be able to vote by post if you are:

  • a full-time member of the Defence Force
  • a member of An Garda Síochána
  • an Irish diplomat or his/her spouse posted abroad

Further details are available on the Citizens Information website.

You do not need your polling card. You must bring a valid form of personal identification, such as a passport or driving licence, with you when you go to vote.

Each time a Referendum Commission is put in place, a number of people complain to the Commission about its use of the word ‘referendums’ as the plural for referendum. They usually make the point that the plural of referendum is ‘referenda’. Either form of the plural is acceptable. The Commission prefers to use ‘referendums’ as per the Oxford English Dictionary entry, reproduced here:

referendum . Pl. referendums, -enda. [L., gerund or neut. gerundive of referre to refer.] The practice or principle (in early use chiefly associated with the Swiss constitution) of submitting a question at issue to the whole body of voters. In terms of its Latin origin, referendums is logically preferable as a modern plural form meaning ballots on one issue (as a Latin gerund referendum has no plural); the Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning 'things to be referred', necessarily connotes a plurality of issues. Those who prefer the form referenda are presumably using words like agenda and memoranda as models. Usage varies at the present time (1981), but The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (1981) recommends referendums, and this form seems likely to prevail.

The Referendum Commission has no role in designing the format or content of the ballot paper. The form and content of the referendum ballot paper is set by law in the Referendum Act 1994.

The Register of Electors is compiled every year by the local authorities (county councils and city councils). It is published on 1 February each year and is valid from 15 February of that year. Copies of the Register are normally available in post offices, public libraries and Garda stations. You can check at any of these places to see if your name is on the register. You can also check online.

To be included on the Register of Electors, you must complete an RFA application form. Click here to download form RFA.

If your name is not on the Register of Electors or if it is on the register but you are no longer living at the place where you are registered, you can get on the supplement to the Register of Electors. You should do this immediately.

Application forms to get on the supplement to the Register of Electors are available from your city or county council, Garda station, public library, post office and online.

  • Change of address: If you are on the Register of Electors but have moved address from one Dáil or local authority constituency to another, you may apply to be on the supplement to the Register of Electors at your new address by completing an RFA3 application form.
  • Not Registered: For inclusion on the supplement to the Register of Electors you must complete an RFA2 application

This information is available on your polling card. Alternatively, you can contact your local authority for the location of your polling station.

This information is available on your polling card. You can also contact your local authority for the opening and closing times of your polling station.

The Referendum Commission has no role in relation to complaints about the content of posters erected during a referendum.

The law on how referendums are held is set out in the Referendum Act 1994. Under this Act, when a Bill containing a proposed amendment to the Constitution has been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government makes an order setting the date for the referendum.

Once that order is made, the only circumstance in which it may be changed, according to the Referendum Act 1994, is if a general election is called. If this happens, the Minister may change the referendum date to the date of the proposed general election.

There are no other circumstances under the Referendum Act 1994 in which the Minister can postpone a referendum. The Minister can’t cancel the order to hold a referendum.

Check the Register

Registration to vote is closed. If you are not sure whether you are registered to vote in the referendum, or whether or not you are registered at the correct address, you can find out very simply by checking the electoral register.