ORANGES AND APPLES
Two referenda; in two neighbouring islands; two years apart. One produced an emphatic result taken by a well informed electorate on an emotionally charged issue. The other saw a slim majority on another emotionally charged issue. But in the latter case the campaign was marked by muddle, misinformation and downright public ignorance combined with a display by politicians that might charitably be described as shameful. What’s more the result has presaged an uncertain future on a whole society, threatening fundamental change on the basis of that slim majority of under 4%. The referenda were Ireland’s poll in May on Abortion and Britain’s vote in 2016 to leave the European Union. At a time when the values of the last seventy odd years are under increasing attack can we afford to put any vote to the people without careful preparation and education on the issues and the implications of any decision taken?
On the Eighth in the end it was a landslide. The polls got it wrong – not the expected victory for the Yes side, but the sheer scale of it. The Eighth Amendment is gone – by a margin of two to one in a poll of 64%, leaving no room for equivocation. Everywhere apart from Donegal voted Yes, with over 60% in favour recorded in three quarters of the country’s forty constituencies. (In Donegal, curiously, the percentages mirrored almost exactly the percentages in Britain’s Brexit referendum, with the No vote 51.9%). There were sizeable majorities for repeal among both women and men of all ages up to 65. 1,429,981 voted Yes, surpassing even the vote in the 2004 Citizenship Referendum and second only, by less than 15,000, to that in the Referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.
I had forecast a Yes vote, but not like this. An opinion poll a week earlier had given 42 % Yes, 32% No and 17% undecided. It would appear that the undecided and those who expressed no preference plumped overwhelmingly for Yes. While the number supporting retention of the Eighth was down by over 100,000 on the vote for the Ban in 1983, the number voting for liberalisation was up by more than a million, including many not born or franchised in 1983. Fears that there would be a sizeable shift to retain among voters in the final days proved unfounded; there was a shift alright but in one direction only.
Post-mortems on the outcome continue, amid demands that the Government prioritise legislation to give effect to the result, including providing for abortion on demand for the first twelve weeks. It was a watershed moment in that the hoary well-rehearsed tactics of scare-mongering and playing on the ignorance and doubts of the electorate failed. The result was clearly a significant step forward in the advancement of women’s’ rights with a majority of both sexes affirming a woman’s right to control over her own body.
Whether it is quite the seismic shift in societal attitudes as some claim remains to be seen. One thoughtful commentator has suggested that the major shift to Yes in the final days was a reluctant one for many, taken despite serious misgivings about the small print, but motivated by a desire to be rid of the issue once and for all. Drilling down into voters’ intentions showed only a narrow majority favouring the twelve week option. This comment seems to me eminently reasonable. The process of secularisation in Irish society has been ongoing for several decades (indeed the introduction of the Eighth in 1983 was with the aim of heading off or delaying this process). The legislative landmarks in this process have had as their counterpoint the erosion of the traditional moral and spiritual hegemony which prevailed unchallenged here for over half a century.
For a number of years the Eighth has been an anachronism, but given the strong emotions abortion generates and the highly vocal power of the No lobby, nothing was or could be done about it without a legal or political kick-start. The “Irish Solution” – taking the boat or plane to England -became the practical option. When the Referendum was finally put, after Savita Halapanavar’s death and several court cases rendered continued inaction unacceptable, it was to an electorate educated and sensitised to an unprecedented level on the issues and tempered by the manifest unjustness of the status quo. The question as put to the people was simple enough to offer a once-and-for-all solution and it was taken, despite any misgivings some might have. It was a vote of confidence and trust in what happens next rather than a negative “devil you know” approach. The campaign also exposed the poverty of the arguments from the No side.
The model of an educated and sensitised electorate, such as we Irish experienced, is something devoutly to be wished whenever the people are to be consulted, and stands in stark contrast to what is rapidly becoming a present as well as a clear danger to Ireland as well as to the British themselves– the Brexit referendum.
The rot started at the top. While Irish Ministers (and most of the rest of the political leadership) showed courage and were proactive regarding the Eighth , during the 2016 Brexit campaign the British government and political establishment were luke warm at best, handing the initiative to UKIP and the Tory mavericks . This was all the more remarkable given the high stakes involved. Perhaps Cameron and Co. thought it was just a little local difficulty between factions within the Tory party but if so they – and the rest of Britain, including many of those who voted to leave- got and continue to receive a rude awakening.
A complex and complicated relationship of over four decades ,affecting not just immigration policy, trade, investment and social matters , but spanning the gamut of the living standards, quality of life and future for all Britons, was reduced to a simple Yea or Nay in a campaign clouded by ignorance and misinformation. There was little serious debate, nothing like Ireland’s Referendum Commission and little or no attempt made to inform the British electorate of the awesome stakes involved in leaving the EU. Nor indeed of the complexities of disengagement, which, two years on, and with only nine months to go before Britain departs, have still to be worked out.
The little matter of how to maintain a “soft” border between the two parts of Ireland has yet to be solved, with the utterances of the hard line Brexiteers on the matter disingenuous to the point of absurdity. With Teresa May seemingly not in control of her Cabinet there is no telling what direction any final outcome on this and the other contentious issues will take. For Ireland it may be a case of damage limitation for in no possible scenario of Britain leaving will we not lose out. The mess is compounded by the lack of enthusiasm at the political level for any notion of re-running the Referendum. But how to proceed? As the old joke response to a lost tourist asking for directions put it “If I were you I wouldn’t be starting out from here in the first place.” Indeed.