News Analysis

Wednesday 24 September 2014

David Quinn: No campaigners will be better organised for the battles ahead

Published 12/11/2012 | 17:00

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THE Irish people have voted in favour of the Children referendum, but with no real enthusiasm. Only one in three voters bothered to vote and of those 58pc backed the new amendment. This means only a fifth or so of all possible voters were enthusiastic enough about the amendment to vote in favour of it.

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It might be argued that many potential Yes voters were complacent. They knew it would be passed and so they stayed at home.

However, given that the issue of child abuse has been such a dominant one over the last 20 years this is very curious. You would imagine that that fact alone would have made many more people interested in the debate.

You would imagine many more people would have turned out simply in protest against child abuse and to show their solidarity with vulnerable children.

During the campaign itself, we learnt of two more child protection failings. One involved St Patrick's Institution for Young Offenders where abuse of minors was taking place as recently as one year ago.

The second involved an Irish language school in Donegal where a part-time handyman was abusing children even though the gardai had notified the HSE about him.

Both of these cases should have heightened interest in the campaign, but did not.

In fact, neither case received much coverage, and interestingly in neither case was anyone held accountable for such bad child protection failings.

Perhaps if the referendum had taken place a few weeks after the publication of the Cloyne report there might have been a bigger turn-out?

Certainly it appears that it is clerical child abuse, as distinct from child abuse per se, which ignites most public interest. This is telling in itself.

Not that the amendment would have made any real difference to either the Donegal case or the St Patrick's case.

The State already had the power to help those children and failed to use it, which is why the fact that no one has been held accountable for those failings is so disappointing. How can the system improve if there is never accountability?

What is also contrary to the expectation of most pundits is that the No vote did so well. It had no money whereas the Yes side had hundreds of thousands of euro at its disposal.

Aside from Kathy Sinnott and John Waters, the No side had no high-profile figures on its side.

The Yes side could boast the entire political establishment, dozens of NGOs, the media, the legal establishment etc. And yet the result was still closer than anyone expected.

Yes campaigners can argue all they like that the No side was scaremongering and some of its claims did indeed amount to that.

But the Yes side indulged in much exaggeration of its own. For example, the amendment, contrary to its claim, will make very little difference to the 2,000 children in long-term foster care.

In addition, this amendment would have made no difference to the children abused in the Kilkenny or Roscommon incest cases because the State has always had the power to rescue children who are being physically or sexually abused or neglected.

No doubt the Government's illegal expenditure of public money printing literature biased in favour of the Yes side helped the No campaign. But not by that much.

What does all this mean for future referendums being considered by the Government?

If a feeble, drastically underpowered and undermanned No campaign was still able to attract 42pc of the vote, what will happen in a referendum aimed at changing the definition of marriage?

In such a campaign the Yes side will have the same plethora of NGOs, plenty of money, the backing of the political establishment, every celebrity in the country, plus the media.

BUT the No side will be much stronger than this time around, better funded, better manned, and with more of the big guns taking part.

Let's remember that polls initially showed support for the Children referendum running at 70pc for and only 4pc against -- and look what happened.

And what about the other issues being looked at by the Constitutional Convention?

If a referendum on the rights of the child can only attract a 30pc turnout what will a referendum on lowering the voting age to 17 attract, even if run together with other issues?

Yesterday's result, on top of the defeat of the Oireachtas inquiries amendment, should give the Government reason to have a hard think before rushing into the next referendum.

Irish Independent

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