Sean Moncrieff: Referendum result proves I don’t know anything.

Scale of the victory for the Yes side shows winds of change sweeping Ireland

Supporters gather at Dublin Castle to celebrate victory for the Yes side and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Supporters gather at Dublin Castle to celebrate victory for the Yes side and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

 

Because I’m terrible at planning, I was in Paris for the result of the abortion referendum. (Don’t worry: I voted on the way to the airport).

Because I’m terrible at planning, I didn’t know there was going to be a train strike and an anti-Macron protest down the road from the hotel. But that’s Paris, where street politics seem to be part of the elegant weave of French life.

In Ireland, we’ve always been a little more wary of such conflict. Or we used to be.

In part, our brains work on pattern recognition. We see a familiar set of factors and react without having to do too much analysis. We know that if we encounter a tiger, it’s probably not a great idea to hang around. Of course it’s possible that the tiger is completely tame. Or a coward. Or sick of all the bad PR tigers get every time there’s a human/tiger interaction. But that’s unlikely. So you run.

We all do this.

For instance: politicians. The ones who get re-elected tend to amass a lot of such tiger-awareness. For continued job security they need to know about every microscopic attitude shift among constituents and how to react to it.

They knew about the 1983 referendum campaign and how nasty it was. They knew that even a huge lead in the polls can shrink down to nothing once all the foetus posters start appearing on telephone polls. Best to be cautious, even silent.

For instance: the media. Read the previous paragraph. Throw in a genuine desire to be balanced, but the lack of a template (especially in the broadcast media) of how to ‘debate’ two positions that fundamentally contradict each other. Abortion is Murder. Or it isn’t.

It wasn’t just the lack of a template. It was a lack of imagination. It was disbelief at what was happening, right before their eyes. Politicians and journalists knew from experience that stoking fear works in elections. Being positive may have clicked in the touchy-feely marriage referendum, but it couldn’t possibly resonate here. This was abortion.  

Yet it did. The polls consistently showed a large chunk of undecided voters – which experience indicated would mean they were uncertain with the proposition and would probably vote No. But they didn’t. 

Swirling change

I thought the Eighth Amendment would be repealed, but that night in Paris I was astounded by the size of the margin. I had feared it would be like the divorce referendum, squeaking in by the smallest of majorities – a result that wouldn’t settle the matter, that might tempt court challenges and more torment for Irish women. I was spectacularly wrong. I’m glad to say I don’t know anything. 

Cliché time: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump demonstrated that everything the media and political class know – or thought they knew – is wrong. And the abortion referendum did that again. Supposedly arch-conservative Roscommon voted Yes by a healthy majority, despite not having any pro-repeal TDs.

What’s emerging from all this swirling change is what the commentariat don’t know, and in fairness, most people don’t know what’s going to happen next either. 

Taken with general election results, it seems that the old tribalism of our politics has mostly evaporated. It also seems that, at least on single issues, civil society groups can get things done in a way that political parties cannot.

The last two referendums politicised a new generation, and blooded them in what was often a grisly campaign. Let’s not waste that. 

Perhaps this is when we become more like France, with a highly engaged electorate: unafraid to express an opinion and uncynical about the possibility of change. While looking really good.

Will this happen? I don’t know. Do you? I don’t know anything. And that’s great.

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