'The great struggle was between fear and anger - and fear has won'
The mood of the campaign remained relentlessly dark, nervy and niggling, rather than illuminating, volatile or entertaining
THE PEOPLE have grunted. Like Little Britain’s delinquent teenager, Vicky Pollard, they had their “yeah but no but . . .” moment, tussled briefly with their inner rebel, stamped their feet, sighed, shrugged and settled for yeah. A sulky, passive-aggressive yeah. Did anyone notice? A shopkeeper said she felt like putting a banner in the window: “ANGELA, LOOK! SEE WHAT WE JUST DID? ENOUGH. NOW.”
One voter even used the ballot paper to give Angela an ironic Number 1 – “because this is what this is about after all”. Sure it was a spoilt vote, but given the national mood, perhaps he or she had more self-respect afterwards than many of the straight Nos and Yeses.
“There are an awful lot of unhappy Yeses and even more unhappy Nos out there . . .”, said Joan Burton frankly. Never mind the vast number who just stayed away. One No campaigner tried to suggest that the no-shows were giving a “big kicking” to the Government. The reality is probably different.
A 27-year-old beauty therapist who had intended to vote No couldn’t find her polling card and so went to the pub. “I’m just as pleased to be honest with you. My heart wasn’t in it.” Living in a working-class area, she knew a lot of people who were voting No. Her own concern was about handing further control to Europe – “sure they have it anyway”, she sighed – but among her friends and neighbours she sees a pervasive sense “that the low paid are being squeezed and squeezed and it’s all for the big boys”.
The big boys ? “The banks, the developers . . . A lot of people I know are very angry. But I’ll be honest. A lot hadn’t a clue and didn’t want one.”
In the Yes camp, there were anecdotes of voters getting the bus then deciding not to get off at the polling station and of others emerging in tears, enraged at being “forced” to vote Yes. “Another humiliation”, said one man grimly, “I was too frightened to do anything else . . .” Too frightened to kick over the troika table. Too weary to discern the lesser of two evils. Wondering at dead of night if other countries would surrender so meekly given the chance; then, come the dawn, persuading ourselves that our sophisticated thinking, our ability to see things in a nuanced fashion is the secret weapon that will see us through.
“The great struggle was between fear and anger – and fear won,” said Gerard O’Neill of Amárach Research. “Anger is about the past and the present, about what has happened to people’s lives, about cuts and unemployment and emigration . . . Fear is about the future – about what might happen to the euro, to the world, to Ireland, to the economy. So you had that tension between anger and the past and the present, and the referendum, which is about the future and whether Ireland will have access to funds and that’s a vision of the future that motivates fear.”
The mood of the campaign remained dark, nervy and niggling, rather than explosive or entertaining. The problem, almost unique in the history of Irish referendums or elections, was that the subject was profoundly boring, a relatively simple, book-keeping treaty, offering no potential for conscription of only sons or slashed car tyres.
With Phil Hogan effectively locked away, the only memorable television spat was to come from Pat Kenny himself, roaring at a garrulous farmer to get a life. Vincent Browne and TV3 did their best, trying to lure the Taoiseach into Ballymount. Enda wouldn’t bite.
And all the while, there was a sense that people were waiting for the big one, the debate that would be the game-changer, the one that would make up their minds. Without it, there was none of the drama that had subverted previous campaigns into soap operas, no climactic moment.
In the end, the only meagre entertainment was to be derived from watching the No side – author of the scary “austerity treaty” tag among others — accuse the Yes side of blackmail and threats.
Even the count was boring. At 9.08am, Aodhán Ó Riordáin called the result when the Dublin North Central boxes began to show 2:1 for the Yes side.
“The reward for pain today is more pain,” said a No voter. Too small to do anything but obey – and pray that France and Spain will save us in their slipstream.
And yet the anger is strangely elusive. “I don’t believe there is very much anger”, said Gerard O’Neill. Amárach has been running monthly surveys of the national mood since 2009; oddly, anger is the least common emotion mentioned by respondents. “Only about 12-14 per cent might experience it from one day to the next.” In fact, the top two emotions in Ireland since 2009 right up to the end of May were happiness and enjoyment. Stress and worry have also featured strongly but the only month they trumped enjoyment and happiness was in November 2010 when the IMF came calling.
The simple answer, says O’Neill, is that there are two spheres of life. One is the public sphere, where people’s mood is down to the media, what they hear and read in the news. The other is the private sphere, involving family, friends and work. It’s the ability to compartmentalise and not to let one sphere poison the other that may be the answer to Ireland’s apparent resilience up to now.
How stout is that resilience? After four long years of good behaviour, sacrifice, uncertainty and humiliation, how much more can the country endure? O’Neill, usually a strong believer in positivity, believes we need to see a turning point and soon, “something that says this far and no further . . . I have no doubt that we have hit that point”.
This treaty may have been the humiliation too far. The national mood could well be summed up in O’Neill’s phrase: This far and no further.