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Artillery Row

Irish politicians have lost touch with the people

The failed “modernisation” of the Constitution may not be a one-off failure for Irish liberals

Ireland went to the polls last Friday to vote on a slate of Constitutional amendments that sought to modernise the document, including revising the meaning of family and removing references to women’s importance in domestic life. The polls had been predicting a comfortable victory, but the stench of death began to surround the campaign during the last few weeks. 

The end result was a historic rejection by around 70 per cent nationally, with only one constituency in the whole country voting Yes on any individual measure. The Irish cultural establishment, spooked by recent upheavals on immigration, will be wondering if this result is as bad as it gets, or if it’s a tremor of something worse to come?

The signs are ominous. Government-aligned activist groups have been an essential tool in steering this type of social change in the recent past, yet the reputation of these organisations is perhaps the biggest casualties from this referendum cycle. The National Women’s Council of Ireland was one of the leading organisations pushing for Yes votes but were badly exposed by a damning report in the run-up to the vote, which highlighted their almost total reliance on government funding.

The outcome of the referendum — with women voting overwhelmingly against the positions advocated by the NWCI — compounded the sense that the Council could not be taken as a fully independent voice, speaking to government on behalf of most women. Its representatives seemed to recognise this by cancelling and declining a number of media appearances post-vote. The new, negative focus on the role of government-sponsored partisan political activism in the formation of public policy may prove to be a subtle but epochal change in Irish life.  

The disconnect with public sentiment isn’t limited to activists. Sinn Fein was probably the biggest non-governmental political loser out of the failed poll. SF publicly backed a Yes/ Yes vote on the referendum but distanced themselves from it as the campaign wore on. As defeat became a greater possibility the party’s position became increasingly opaque, leading to a slightly comical tweet urging its voters to head to the polls but without indicating a desired outcome.

Once the scale of the defeat was known, SF blamed the government’s choice of proposed wording but maintained that they would support bringing a different wording before the public in another referendum. This seems extraordinary given that the referendum was rejected most strongly in working class areas, and that exit poll indicated that Sinn Fein’s voters voted against some of the proposals in the >80 per cent range. 

The stubborn disconnect between public sentiment on one hand and political parties and government-funded activists on the other, have been characteristics of Ireland’s recently ubiquitous immigration debate. It raises the question: to what extent was the referendum and its outcome a proxy vote on immigration? And if it was, what does that mean?

Politicians certainly seem to think so. In a referendum post-mortem in Ireland’s biggest newspaper, a “senior figure in government” was noted as saying “I think you’ll find in the coming days that anti-immigration is a factor … that definitely formed part of this campaign”, while in television coverage different journalist highlighted that a Fine Gael politician had observed that “people in inner-city dublin were looking to give politicians a kicking on immigration”. The heckling of Mary Lou McDonald as a “traitor” outside Dublin Castle on the day of the result is certainly reminiscent of how Sinn Fein are greeted at anti-immigration protests.

Their deepest, most desperate hope had been that it would simply die down of its own accord

The link to sentiment on immigration matters, because of a feeling amongst mainstream politicians that that issue has passed beyond their control. Their deepest, most desperate hope had been that it would simply die down of its own accord; what is coming to pass instead is the nightmare scenario, that public dissatisfaction on the handling of immigration is spreading, disabling the apparatus of decision-making on cultural matters politicians rely on so heavily. That is a seismic change.

Between the reactionary book-ends of the 2004 Citizenship referendum and last week’s vote, Ireland has been on a turbocharged journey of cultural change. It’s legacy is complex; Ireland is still the same country that enthusiastically voted for Gay Marriage and Abortion and there is no evidence the public views passage of those votes anything but proudly.

Politicians spent 20 years unconsciously in search of the limit of the Irish electorate’s tolerance for change

But the run of uninterrupted success between those poles had led our executive class to take for granted that the pursuit of cultural change and social liberalisation were innate, core values and purposes of the political system, and always would be. The message of the referendum, and the last 18 months in general, is this: the party’s over. Politicians spent 20 years unconsciously in search of the limit of the Irish electorate’s tolerance for change. They’ve found it. The period when they could assume that they could run any scrap of paper through the parliamentary system and be certain it would be rubber-stamped without blowblack, provided it was headed “modernisation”, is gone.   

Sinn Fein are emblematic of mainstream parties’ difficulty in adjusting to this new reality, though there’s plenty of evidence post-referendum that some are trying. The most nervous representatives understand that nature abhors a vacuum. If Ireland’s largest parties can’t course-correct, it’s only a matter of time before some political entrepreneur realises that behaving as though the median voter has the cultural sensibilities of a green party activist from Dalkey is now a dead end, and there’s power to be won by taking a different approach. If the system that facilitated Ireland’s golden age of cultural liberalisation has been broken by the disconnect on immigration, hanging on to the wreckage of it might drag you under.

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