Monday, November 12, 2012

A Great Day to be Middling as the Referendum Scrapes Home

The Children’s Referendum has been passed by a majority of the minority who turned out to vote. Good luck to it, but it’s hard not be deeply cynical about what all this amounts to in real terms, if anything at all.

The sovereign people are being castigated – again – by the commentariat for a low-turn out in the referendum. But it’s not hard to understand the low turnout at all. Vincent Browne castigated the referendum as "mainly a stunt" in the Irish Times but, reluctantly, decided to go with a Yes vote. Did most people find the thing equally watery, and therefore decided to pass on it? It seems the most likely scenario.

The Government should be grateful – voting No in cases of doubt is a more civic-minded strategy than abstaining. Your correspondent went one step further than Browne and voted No, and is sorry more didn’t. The Irish political establishment badly needs a slap into reality, and this was a chance to deliver that slap.

An idea developed in Irish public life that Ireland must have a Children’s Referendum. Over twenty years, this gained the status of Received Wisdom. A parallel understanding of what that Children’s Referendum would specifically be about did not evolve with this Received Wisdom, so people filled in the blanks as suited their own agendas at a particular time. It was all very high on ideals and light on specifics.

This is problematic because Ireland’s is a protective, rather than an aspirational, constitution (a distinction you can read more about here). This means that a lot of blather about protecting children and children’s rights is never going to be more than blather. Proposals must be specific and able to withstand legal challenge. Vague generalities just don’t cut it.

At first, it looked like Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald had steered an expert path through extremely choppy seas. For years, the commentariat looked forward to the Children’s Referendum as another Ypres or Passchendale in the culture war as DeValera’s Ireland crumbles and Fintan O’Toole’s Ireland is being built. But when the wording was finally announced there was: silence. Absolute and deafening.

There was no credible opposition to the Children’s Referendum. None. The Catholic Church gave the wording its blessing and all the parties in the Dáil called and campaigned for a Yes vote. Fitzgerald had a potential political triumph on her hands. How could a landslide not be inevitable?

And yet it wasn’t. The more people looked at the referendum campaign the more they struggled to find what it was the thing actually did. The referendum would “protect children’s rights,” we were told. But protect how? Which children? Which rights? In what way would the abuses of the past forty years not have happened if this amendment were in the constitution originally? It was all maddeningly unspecific.

There was the “small step” argument, that the passing of this referendum would unlock a door that would lead to a torrent of legislation that would safeguard children in danger and build a brighter future for all. But everybody knows that the country has no money. The country can’t provide current services, without signing up for a raft of new ones.

The one specific in the referendum campaign had to do with adoption. If the referendum had been called the Adoption Referendum would it have attracted a bigger turnout and a stronger majority? Even though the No side, such as it was, concentrated their arguments on the notion of the family, the reality is that the family has undergone profound redefinition since the sovereign people passed the Irish constitution seventy-five years ago.

All a citizen need do is pass an unhappy hour at Abbey or Jervis Luas stops in heart of the nation’s capital city and he or she will need no further convincing that there are children in this state whose parents are no more capable of raising them than they are of raising the dead.

But no. A small victory on adoption was beneath the government’s aspiration. They wanted to promote full duck Children’s Rights Referendum and were then astonished when people saw past the red-haired little girls and weeping little boys to a whole heap of nothing.

So whether the referendum was passed or shot down really didn’t matter. Nothing will change. The whole thing was an exercise in the tokenism that Irish public life specializes in.

The reward for the political parties now is that Labour can return to their core voters and say look, we have delivered on a bedrock principle, while the rest of the parties sigh a sigh of relief that this damnable thing is finally done with and nobody will wreck their heads about it for a generation at least.

Next up on the reform agenda is the Constitutional Convention, where the pressing issue on which Ireland holds her breath is whether the Presidential term of office should be reduced to five years or remain at the current seven. One feels the foundations of the state tremble at the thought of change, real change, change we can believe in.

We are where we are. At the airport, leaping on planes to get the hell away from this madness.