The Irish Referendum: Why Did Anyone Even Notice?

30.05.2018 Author: Seth Ferris

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When countries change their constitutions the process does not usually attract much interest outside the country concerned. If it does, it is usually because the process fits an existing agenda which is being pursued about that country – a “third world dictator” wants to amend term limits to keep himself in power for ever, or a country is going either backwards or forwards by adopting a more liberal or more proscriptive constitution, as the media and politicians predicted

Every country has had to deal with a number of different ethical issues, such as the relationship between the state and the established religion and the expansion of suffrage, as they have arisen. Often they have done so without fuss. But the recent referendum in Ireland, which sought to overturn a constitutional ban on abortion, has captured the wider public imagination. The media are awash with stories about it, and everyone feels obliged to take a position on the result, where it leaves Ireland and what it means for all the other countries which thought they had already dealt with this issue.

The same referendum in most countries wouldn’t have aroused much comment. Everyone knows who will be on which side, and which arguments they will make. The modern, secularist liberals are up against the religious crowd and the far rightists, the pro-choicers are up against the right to lifers, the regulators against the freedom of conscience advocates, all rehashing positions which have not changed since the seminal Roe versus Wade judgement in 1973, in which the US Supreme Court decided under Roe vs. Wade that the constitutional right to privacy also extends to having an abortion, when balanced against some other moral and political considerations.

The reason the Irish referendum was so important, and the result came as such such a shock to many, including those who voted to repeal the ban, was not to do with the rights and wrongs of abortion itself. That debate will continue to take place, on the same terms and between the same sides. It was about the identity of Ireland, or rather, what identity the world is able to give it.

Voting to repeal the constitutional abortion ban undercuts the romantic picture of Ireland, the standing of the Catholic Church. The Irish culture propagated by Hollywood and those countries which do not really want it to catch up with the rest of the world. It remains to be seen how many will come to terms with that, or feel it is they, and not Ireland, which must do change with the times.

Your problem, my cash

One man who might understand the position Ireland is now in is American golfer Andy North. There is a wide range of opinions about this man’s career, Some go out of their way to express it because they don’t understand it. The poor guy has been called everything under the sun, good and bad, while commentators go through an entirely unnecessary process which is all about themselves, not North.

North won the US Open in 1978, in his sixth year on the tour, having won only one tournament prior to that. Most casual golf watchers had never heard of him. The question was asked: does the fact he has won such a prestigious title mean he is a great new star, who giants like Nicklaus and Palmer can pass their mantle to? Or does the fact that he had won only once before mean he is an average player who got lucky one week of his life, thus demeaning the tournament?

For the next seven years, North didn’t win another tournament. He was injured a lot, and usually in the upper reaches of the money list when fit, but he had never become what a lot of people wanted him to be: the exceptional talent they had to believe was the only sort of player who could win the US Open. Then, in the last year of his automatic exemption for the tournament, he won the US Open again. He didn’t do it with dazzling brilliance, but kept his nerve while all around were losing theirs, as you might expect from someone who’d been derided as a freak no-hoper but was somehow still standing.

For a brief period North was the most hated man in America. How dare he win the national golf tournament again when everyone had decided he was rubbish? He could have proved his critics wrong by kicking on, but he was still injured and still disappointed. He never won another tournament in his whole career, did nothing much on the seniors tour, and left everyone scratching their heads about how good he really was, and what they should think about him.

North has worked as a TV golf analyst for many years. He has a lot of valuable insights into the game. But still everyone he meets wants to talk about him, and ask him why his career was what it was

He answers, politely, that he believes his record demonstrates he had some abilities, but this doesn’t satisfy his questioners. He could equally tell them that he won two US Opens and many other supposedly superior players never achieved that, so they should stick their questions in a very dark and intimate place, but like the Irish he is too polite for that.

When Irish PM Leo Varadkar suggested a referendum on repealing the constitutional ban on abortion he was told by even his own Fine Gael party that it was a step too far. Ireland is a conservative Catholic country, and that is as inevitable as the rising of the sun. In colonial times Ireland had stayed Catholic while the rest of the UK had gone Protestant, so the Roman Catholic Church, dogmatically opposed to abortion, is fundamental to an Irish identity still shaped by not being English, rather than what it is relative to other countries.

Now Varadkar’s proposition has been overwhelmingly supported, as he said it would be. So the Irish don’t see any contradiction between legalising abortion and supporting the Republic of Ireland. But this is a sort of Ireland stripped of its brogue and its mannerisms, and it will prove very difficult, and perhaps dangerous for Ireland, for the rest of the world to come to terms with it.

Give us a clue

The arguments for and against abortion are rehearsed by fringe groups in most countries. In the US they are more part of the general discourse, as many politicians wish to claim religious credentials to court the segment of voters which still loudly supports Donald Trump.

But adopting the same position as the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t define the US, or even most majority Catholic countries. In Belgium, the former Christian Social Party has changed its name to the Humanist Centre in a bid to appeal to a broader spectrum of Catholic Walloons and most believe that being part of the increasingly secular modern world is a greater guarantee of freedom and prosperity than enshrining specifically Catholic or Christian principles in their constitutions.

The largest political party in Ireland in terms of membership is Fianna Fail, the political wing of the losing side in the civil war. This was fought between those who accepted the terms of the independence treaty agreed with the British, who eventually became Fine Gael, and those who felt it offered only nominal independence, not the full sovereignty outside the British Empire its people had supposedly fought for.

Though Fianna Fail finds itself still at a low ebb electorally, it remains the biggest party in terms of active members because the newly-independent Irish wanted a distinct identity, and Fianna Fail has traditionally given it to them. Fine Gael has long been seen as the party of the middle class, or rather a liberal elite which includes the old Protestant Ascendancy from colonial days, and is interested in issues and details rather than principles and Irishness.

Although there is little nowadays to distinguish it from Fianna Fail, Fine Gael thus has to reinforce its Irish credentials to win. The constitutional amendment which has now been rejected was mandated in a referendum forced on Fine Gael Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald by pro-life groups who felt he might want to change the already existing ban on abortion because he was too liberal. At this time Fitzgerald’s Fianna Fail counterpart, Charlie Haughey, was talking about building an international airport in the village of Knock because the Pope had landed there on this 1979 visit, neatly displaying the difference between the two parties.

The Hollywood Ireland of funny accents, swathes of greenery, poverty, pluck and Gaelic games wasn’t invented by the Irish themselves, but they have eagerly embraced it to make themselves recognisable in a world which has more than enough small post-colonial countries. Tourists come by the million hoping to see leprechauns round every corner and crocks of gold at the end of rainbows. In many countries such presentations would be seen as racist. The Irish continue to embrace them, no matter how much the reality has moved on, because they are all the world will allow them to be, and some identity is still better than none.

The referendum result means Ireland can’t be dismissed as this attractive peculiarity any longer. Whether you are for or against the outcome, it represents a step into what is considered the cutting edge, politically correct world. Individual Irish may be part of that in their daily lives, but now that is more important than the bars, the shamrocks and the horses.

Countries like France and Germany have equally proud histories and distinguishing traits, but these are considered secondary to their contemporary relevance, so they lead Europe. Are they really ready to let Ireland, an equally sophisticated Western state, be on the same level as themselves?

Nowhere to go but another’s road

Many commentators have hailed the referendum result as a personal victory for Leo Varadkar, whose government has not had an easy time. He had already made waves by having risen so high whilst being the openly gay son of an immigrant. Having pulled this off it is assumed he has also made his re-election certain, whatever other issues factor into the electorate’s thinking.

However the change he has caused in international perception leaves Varadkar with a delicate balancing act to perform. At home, he will have to continue to maintain that he is as Irish as anyone, his policies just as much part of the Irish identity as those of his rivals. Abroad, he will have exactly the opposite task. If he is going to suggest to people who don’t want to hear that there is a new sort of Ireland, he will be asked to prove it, again and again.

Many countries have been put in the same position as Ireland has now put itself. The former Communist states who are now in the EU are theoretically equal partners with the older democracies, with the same decision making powers. But every time they do as those other countries do, by adopting the same economic ideas and holding regular elections and abiding by the results, they are expected to prove themselves like they did the first time they did these things.

If France or Germany have problems forming a government, this shows how democratic they are. If a country like Slovakia has the same problem, or keeps electing the same people each time, it is seen as slipping back into the dark ages, and loses credibility as a partner.

If Ireland is no longer what the rest of the world thinks it is, it will not be enough to just do as the trendy countries do. It mostly does that anyway, sight unseen, as it is closer to liberal Europe than the “Europe of Nations” represented by Austria and Hungary, despite its image. But now it must demonstrate its credentials by leading, going that step further by offering new ways forward which make it unimpeachable.

Ireland will be expected to consistently improve living standards by either following today’s favoured policies more effectively or inventing new ones which can be seen as more progressive. Does it have the resources to do that? This should not be Ireland’s problem, as it should not be put in this position to begin with. But it will have to find those resources quickly, or see its referendum result labelled as a flash in the pan, the product of a moment of madness when the wacky generation held sway.

At the same time Varadkar will have to choose his next reforms carefully. This time he understood the public mood better than most. Now he will have to tread between radicals who feel vindicated and emboldened by his choice and conservatives who may support this measure, but not necessarily others. He can’t afford to be defined by this referendum, but whether he can create a broader picture which turns it into a smaller issue is an open question, particularly for a Fine Gaeler.

Irish voters have given their country opportunities they don’t necessarily want, and dangers they definitely wouldn’t want, as a result of their honest decision on a domestic matter. They may not like this, but they have also lived on the same assumptions which have created this situation for long enough.

Before it began, this process would have taken Ireland’s destiny out of its hands, and this will become ever clearer in the months to come. If it were not so, few would be paying any attention to yet another country, yet another referendum and yet another dry constitutional change which only specialists would even know had taken place.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.