Referendum the nadir of Ireland's democracy

I PUT in a fascinating few days last weekend at the Battle of Ideas event at the Barbican in London, where I had been invited…

I PUT in a fascinating few days last weekend at the Battle of Ideas event at the Barbican in London, where I had been invited to speak on two platforms.

The event is run by the Institute of Ideas, a London-based group of former Trotskyist revolutionaries nowadays accused by the self-styled liberal left of snuggling up to the corporates and so-called libertarian right. They, for their part, declare the redundancy of such labels, to which I say Amen.

Debate topics ranged from the politics of multiculturalism to the limits of equality, via press freedom, global poverty, social media, last year’s UK rioting and the usefulness or otherwise of atheism. There were innumerable discussions about the current state of Europe, one featuring Declan Ganley that unfortunately coincided with one of my own slots.

One of my topics was the future of musical creativity in the internet/digital age; the other related to “culture wars”, currently the locus of collisions between the immovable object of tradition and the irresistible force of supposed progressiveness under headings such as abortion and gay marriage.

The speakers – an eclectic bunch of philosophers, sociologists, scientists and commentators – encountered theatres packed with people who seemed to genuinely think it okay to utter heresies and ask unapproved questions. Of the 2,000-odd people who passed through the Barbican over the course of last Saturday and Sunday, perhaps three-quarters were under 30.

It struck me many times over the weekend that the gathering indicated an unmistakable moment of ideological shift – from the threadbare fixations of the 1960s to something as yet inchoate, a new dispensation that may soon catapult us beyond the left-liberal banalities of postwar British political culture.

One of the points I made in Saturday’s debate on culture wars was that opinions about public matters in our “liberal” cultures have somehow become unmoored from conviction or analysis, becoming badges of identity, like T-shirts or hairstyles.

People affect philosophies or positions in order to look good, to complement their clothes and cars. (“Look at me! I’m a Guardian-reading pro-Palestinian vegetarian!”)

The complacency bestowed by six decades of relative peace and comparative prosperity has rendered most of our populations incapable of imagining anything terrible happening in the world they inhabit; therefore, there is no need to be aware of the content of issues, which simply provide the threadbare fabric of ideological raiment. Welcome to dinner-party democracy, the constant low drone of correctness that penetrates nothing and cares less.

In my talk, I used the example of our current constitutional referendum, explaining that, whereas almost nobody had the faintest idea what the downstream implications of the “children’s rights” amendment might be, most people were determined to vote for it because “children’s rights” seem like something all “right-thinking” people should be in favour of.

Not having seen that day’s Irish Times, I was unaware of the extent to which I was understating the position. Only later in the day did I discover that an Ipsos/MRBI poll had indicated minimal opposition to the amendment, and even more minimal knowledge of its implications.

Among those who said they were likely to vote, 72 per cent said they would vote Yes, with just 4 per cent opposed. However, only one in nine of those polled said they had “a good understanding” of the issues; two-thirds said they had “some” or only a “vague” understanding; and one-quarter did not know what the referendum was about.

The peculiar vacancy of this campaign arises mainly, I think, from the decision by the Catholic Church and its “conservative” foot soldiers to sit this one out. In the recent headline discussions – from abortion to civil union – liberal zeal and its associated piety tended to be mobilised by the idea that, in promoting the instant cause, left-liberals were kicking and screaming the “new Ireland” into being, against the wishes and best efforts of a despotic, dictatorial church.

But this time, with the church saying “whatever!”, our heroic liberal class has had nothing, and nobody, to get its teeth into. Absent the opportunity of exercising a liberating spite against Catholicism, liberals have seemed to lack both motivation and enthusiasm. The “debate” has thus been denied the normal “progress dynamic” that motivated all recent “progress episodes”.

Thus, we have had an augury of the world without the conjured-up blackthorn-wielding totalitarians whose spectre has propelled so many of our culture wars in the headlong rush to imagined “enlightenment” and putative “liberation”. This emerging Ireland promises to be an eerie, silent place full of disoriented ideological orphans with no reason to believe or not to believe in anything.

And November 10th promises to be the nadir of Irish freedom and democracy, an apocalypse of ignorance and indifference dressed up as posturing and humbug – confirming the onset of dinner-party democracy in its final phase. If we would more deeply understand the roots of the ignominy that has recently descended upon us, we need look no further than the fact that we are in the process of throwing away – out of an affected concern for children – principles that the blood of our grandparents flowed in the streets to defend and bequeath us.