Tag Archives: Referendum

Election Relief

Last night, I was worried. Yesterday we had another public vote here in Ireland, and with reports of low turnout, the result seemed to be more in doubt than it had been just a few days before. Things haven’t gone as badly as I feared, but there’s still worth to seeing how it came to this.

There’ve been quite a few public votes in recent years, between referenda and actual elections, and they’ve attracted attention beyond our own borders, for good reason. This time, we had both an election and a referendum—the former to choose a president for the next seven years and the latter to decide whether to remove a requirement to legislate for blasphemy from the Irish Constitution. At the moment, final results are being tabulated, but it seems that worries I had late last night about the outcome won’t bear fruit.

The less interesting vote was the referendum on removing the reference to blasphemy from the constitution. The reference was widely seen as an anachronism, but unlike earlier referenda on gay marriage and abortion, this one didn’t inspire much in the way of vitriol on either side, apart from some of the usual figures opposing the change. Right now it looks like the 37th Amendment to the constitution will be passed with support from all age groups. Instead, all the controversy in the final days of campaigning revolved around the presidential election.

At stake in the presidential election was whether or not current President Michael D. Higgins would be returned for a second seven-year term. Higgins had campaigned in his first election on serving only a single term, but he’s proven a popular and even well-loved incumbent, and despite his age he’s in tune with the progressive mood that’s seen Ireland tackle some of the darker elements of its past and return those referendum victories in recent years. As such, it was possible that he would stand unopposed, as has happened with the Irish presidency several times in the past.

That this didn’t happen was mostly down to Sinn Fein. By promising to put their own candidate in the race (something no other political party did), they ensured that there would be a race. In this, they were continuing Sinn Fein’s efforts to whitewash the party’s public image, to the point where it might be seen as a valid party of government in the future. That this gambit seems to have been less successful than they hoped was partly down to their own candidate, Liadh Ní Riada, who struck a condescendingly aristocratic figure in the debates, and partly down to the candidates who followed in their wake.

With the major parties unwilling to challenge a popular incumbent, there were no popular or experienced candidates in the field. Instead, Higgins’s challengers came from the political fringes or from reality TV, specifically the show Dragons’ Den. Rounding out the field in addition to Higgins and Ní Riada were Senator Joan Freeman and businessmen Gavin Duffy, Sean Gallagher, and Peter Casey. For most of the campaign, the challengers lagged far behind Higgins in the poll. Then the election took its reality-show businessmen trend a bit further down the Trump line.

Peter Casey, largely undistinguishable from his Dragons’ Den cohorts, decided to bolster his campaign with some anti-Traveller bigotry. The Travelling community in Ireland, both north and south, has long been an easy target for this kind of political grandstanding, and Casey threw in some welfare-dependency jibes for good measure. There’s always an audience for such rhetoric among those willing to blame the less fortunate for their troubles, and Casey enjoyed a predictable boost in his polling numbers amid the controversy, as he at first seemed to consider withdrawing, then doubled down on his rhetoric.

While I’ve been writing this, the final results have come through. Higgins has indeed won a second term with 55.8 percent of first preference votes, with Casey taking 23 percent and no other candidate reaching 7 percent. Plenty of people (again, the usual candidates) have been rushing to put Casey in a Trump-like position, arguing that he only said truths that the “establishment” would prefer to suppress and that the media conspired against him. Which is a little rich given that Casey’s surge relied purely on his willingness to play the media game, ginning up controversy to get support from the permanently dyspeptic.

That 23 percent figure, you see, is something that’s been visible in politics and culture for a long time. I first noticed it during the presidency of George W. Bush. No matter how incompetent or hateful a regime, if they pay at least lip service to the grievances and bigotries of their supporters they’ll rarely dip below 20 percent approval ratings. Stirring up hate and resentment works as a strategy.

Which is why I was worried last night when I heard that turnout for the election was low. After all, getting voters inspired to vote is how Ireland has seen referendum-driven change in the past few years. With Higgins seen as a certainty and few people inspired by the blasphemy referendum, only Casey voters were genuinely driven—even if only by their own personal hatreds and the promise of a candidate who seemed to reflect them.

That inspiration served to take Casey only to 23 percent, but he may well spend the next few years trying to spin it into a political role. Certainly others will be pushing him to do so now. For the rest of us, who heard his rhetoric and looked to recent events in the UK and the US with a shiver, it serves as a warning. There’s been a lot of positivity in recent years, as the Irish, especially the young, have been reminded that elections actually do matter. However, taking success for granted is only a positive form of apathy to replace the more cynical apathy that existed beforehand.

Ireland isn’t immune from the ravages of Trumpian or Brexit-like campaigns. We have advantages of size and culture (the lack of any pretensions of power) that make such campaigns harder to get started, but as Casey’s antics show, there’s always an audience for them. The only answer is engagement, staying active, and speaking out. Let’s hope this proves to be a blip rather than the beginning of a trend.

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A Referendum on Ireland

I hope you remembered to register to vote.
Kind of giving away the side of the fence I’m, but please read on…

“Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

Next Friday, the people of Ireland go to the polls in a referendum to add the above sentence to the constitutional definition of marriage.* Ireland seems to hold a referendum every few years, far more often than its neighbour, the U.K., mostly because a referendum is the only way in which amendments can be made to the nation’s constitution.

In this way, referenda have come to serve as an important marker of Ireland’s sense of itself and how that sense of itself has changed over the less-than-a-century in which the country has existed. That the marriage referendum is not only being put to the people but appears to have broad popular support is a marker in and of itself—it was only in 1993 that homosexual relationships were decriminalised, and only in 1996 that the constitution was altered to remove a prohibition on divorce.

The most recent polls suggest that voters in favour of expanding marriage rights are in the majority by two-to-one over voters opposing the change, with as many as a quarter of voters undecided. This might suggest a foregone conclusion, but as the recent U.K. elections showed, it’s unwise to trust polls too much. Voters have a tendency to be cautious of change, especially when that change brings uncertainty.

This referendum campaign has also been notable for its vitriol on both sides.** Posters have been defaced and torn down, and social media has become a battlezone between camps who have set out their positions and are prepared to think the absolute worst of anyone who disagrees with them. There are more sensible, rational voices to be heard on both sides, but they’ve been getting drowned out in the noise. The traditional media doesn’t help much either—entertainment sells, and a calm discussion of the points is never going to attract as many viewers as a shouting match.

For myself, I intend to vote yes in the referendum. Why? I’m not gay, but I believe that I deserve the same rights as everyone else. I shouldn’t be privileged with rights because of who I am any more than I should be denied them by the same.

By far the strongest voices on the No side come from a conservative Catholic background. To anyone familiar with Irish history, this won’t come as much of a surprise. What’s more notable is that the church itself has taken a back seat to these campaigning groups—the scandals of recent years have damaged the church’s moral standing, perhaps irreparably. Those who believe strongly that Catholic morality, as practiced in Ireland since its founding, ought to be the guiding light for the nation, have had to get out ahead of a church that advises a No vote but isn’t willing to shout about it.

Yet behind all of the shouting, there’s an interesting split developing in the church itself, between dogma and conscience. Whereas the hierarchy of the church in Ireland have hewn to the party line that marriage is a sacred institution***, many voices closer to the people that make up the church have dissented. The most famous is Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, founder of the Focus Ireland charity, who has described entitling gay people to marry as a “civil right and a human right.”

Next Friday’s vote, whether yes or no, would change Ireland overnight. That change has been happening for decades, and will continue to happen for decades yet. Hopefully, it will never stop changing. Change can be frightening, especially for those who have known only one truth all their lives and have been told that everything different is false, dangerous or the just the first step towards chaos and damnation. Yet human beings have been dealing with change, for better or worse, for as long as we’ve existed. We’re good at it. And I believe that a yes vote would show that in Ireland we’re getting better.

 

*There’s also a vote on whether to lower the age requirement for the Presidency of Ireland to 21, but that has been seriously overshadowed by the debate over the marriage referendum.

**Although perhaps not that notable. As Joseph Cummins points out in Anything For a Vote, the idea that the past was an era of genteel political debate is a fallacy. If anything, campaigners in centuries past were even more likely to be vitriolic to the point of slander and abuse.

***The history of marriage and the church and the co-opting of the former by the latter is too long to go into, but suffice it to say that marriage has been around for a lot longer than the church, and in far more forms than the church recognises.

Negotiating a Breakup

 

The Saltire really did bring out the best in those crusader crosses.
Somehow it all seems a lot less colourful now…

All of a sudden, with under two weeks to go, the referendum on Scottish independence is making a lot of people nervous. Whereas its failure was previously treated as a foregone conclusion, with the media enjoying the raised voices and ridiculousness of it all, it’s now looking too close to call. So has it really come to this? Is the United Kingdom going to be split along Hadrian’s Wall?*

Well yes, probably. And it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The United Kingdom has been in a state of slow dissolution for a century and more. The colonies of the Empire headed for the exit one by one over many decades. The Irish had to kick and punch their way into doing the same, the results of which can still be seen in Northern Ireland. The Welsh? Well, they were first in, and they’ll probably be last out too. Feel sorry for them.

The Scots only joined in the first place because they were bribed with the crown of England. Not that it was a particularly easy unification, and indeed it took most of a century to sort out the details. (Ireland didn’t get roped in fully for nearly another century, and that happened at least partly as a result of rebellious efforts to head in the other direction.) In Scotland, the English are still the Auld Enemy, and while it can hardly be argued that Scotland hasn’t benefited through its part in the British-led Industrial Revolution and all that followed, the fact is that it has always been an unbalanced partnership.

For all that, this should have been a fairly straightforward vote. Countries don’t tend to break up for no real reason, especially not First World countries with several centuries of successful history behind them. So how has it come to this?

Well, the United Kingdom has, at the moment, the misfortune to be led by one of the most insular cliques of public school-educated toffs in many a long year. Hardly the kind of thing to appeal to the provincials. Not that the minor parties are notably better. Together, they’ve driven a “No Campaign” of staggering ineptitude, ricocheting between platitudes, hypothetical doomsday scenarios and hectoring condescension. Hell, even calling it a No Campaign was probably a bad idea. They never managed to move the media needle on that piece of negative campaigning, no matter how much they promoted the insipid “Better Together” tagline.

Would Scotland be better off independent? I don’t know, but cutting themselves off from the rest of the U.K. is not a risk-free move. Economically and politically, Edinburgh’s heft is far short of London’s. Culturally too. Though the calculus of the situation looks tougher to work out further down the line. The cussedness of the Scots suggests that if anyone can deal with the problems of independence and build themselves back up, it’s them.

As a native of Northern Ireland now living in the non-British-aligned South, the eventual outcome doesn’t hold a huge amount of immediate impact for me. Not that the Northern Irish aren’t involved at all. In fact, there a lot of resonances at play for the North. The Unionist movement up there is largely the legacy of Scottish planters. The Nationalist movement has been working on getting out of the U.K. for decades now. A shame it took Sinn Fein three decades and thousands of deaths to figure out that politics and P.R. are a much better way of getting what they want.

A “Yes” vote on September 18th might cut Scotland free of the U.K., but the implications will rattle along for years, and the U.K. is a more complicated place than a quickie divorce can mend. The Scots will make their mind up one way or another, but both they and the English will have to work on being either neighbours or partners giving it one more shot.

*Okay, not exactly along Hadrian’s Wall, but close enough.