Referendum 1996: Refusal of Bail

The 1996 referendum on bail was an uncontroversial one. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition led by Taoiseach John Bruton sought to amend Article 40.4 of the constitution to allow for the refusal of bail to people charged with a serious offence when there is concern that the person may commit serious crimes while on bail, or where there is evidence that they have done so while on bail in the past. Until this point, bail could only be denied if the individual concerned was likely to flee or to interfere with witnesses or evidence.

The Government ran its campaign for the amendment as a crime fighting initiative. A month before the referendum, it had set up the Criminal Assets Bureau in response to the growth of organised crime in Ireland, and in particular the high-profile murders of journalist Veronica Guerin and Detective Garda Jerry McCabe. Fine Gael employed its image as the law and order party through its referendum literature, which promoted the other measures the Bruton Government had taken to tackle crime. The literature also included messages from the Taoiseach as well as the then-Minister for Justice, Nora Owen.

The amendment was also supported by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in Opposition, though those parties subsequently attacked the coalition's record on law and order in the general election campaign the following year.

The relatively uncontroversial and mundane nature of the issue resulted in a very low turnout (29.2%, the second lowest turnout in an Irish referendum to date, after the 1979 Adoption/Seanad Representation referenda), but the amendment was easily passed with 579,740 voters (74.8%) voting in favour and 194,698 (25.2%) against.

The highest Yes vote was declared in Roscommon-Leitrim (80.5%), and the lowest in Dublin South East (64.6%). No constituency voted against the amendment. It was subsequently signed into law by President Mary Robinson in December 1996.