independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Martina Devlin: The side with the best arguments won the Seanad referendum

I’m sitting in a restaurant opposite Dublin Castle. As the results filter through from each constituency, one of our One House volunteers is reading them aloud from his iPhone.Ouch.

All of us know this referendum is going down. We realised it as we straggled in for the lunch, organised to mark the end of our grassroots campaign. The atmosphere grows progressively more downbeat.

As a small, civil society group, we became involved because we decided political change couldn’t be left to politicians. We hoped we could make a difference but it looks as if we were wrong. Dublin Central – No. Kildare South – No. Wicklow – No.

One of our gathering admits to placing a late bet on the other camp winning. €160 is nestling in his wallet, thanks to odds of eight to one. I’ll spare his blushes and shield his identity, although he’s actually rather proud of himself – as he points out, at least he has reason to celebrate, unlike the rest of us. It generates a laugh. Perhaps even a frisson of envy. 

I leave the lunch temporarily and dodge the traffic, en route to RTE’s makeshift studio in Dublin Castle for some post-match analysis with Miriam O’Callaghan. Patricia McKenna and David Norris are also on the panel. Senator Norris is all but doing cartwheels, and who can blame him? He’s feeling the love.

Afterwards, back at the restaurant, the ambience hasn’t improved. Quite the reverse. Outside, the city is sun-drenched, but our own personal raincloud is hovering above the One House table.

A member, trade unionist Blair Horan, makes a valiant effort to buck us up. The bar was set very high, he reminds us. There must be a compelling reason for people to change the Constitution – it’s surprising we came so close to making the case.

Suddenly, that raincloud is a little less grey.

While conversations eddy round me, I reflect on our four weeks of lobbying. It was fascinating to have a worm’s eye view of a non-political campaign – surely a positive development for democracy – as it developed its message and tried to spread it.

One House was a light bulb moment for DCU lecturer Kevin Rafter, who decided to form a pop-up group and roped in his colleague Eoin O’Malley. Then it was a case of approaching others for support. Names who agreed ranged from writer and former politician Liz McManus, to barrister and councillor Richard Humphreys, to LRC chief Kieran Mulvey.

When invited to join, I hesitated initially. As a newspaper columnist, my comfort zone is observing rather than participating. But I was swayed because I had an inkling politicians weren’t committed to Seanad reform: a suspicion confirmed several weeks later when a government minister confided that few in Leinster House truly wanted it removed.

During the campaign, much discussion centred on posters. Would we, wouldn’t we throw some money at them? With only €1,800 in the kitty, raised by a whipround among members, our group of volunteers had to make any spending count. Towards the end, we plumped for posters. Ours wasn’t a bad poster, but the Socialist Party’s wins the prize in my book: ‘Make your first Seanad vote your last’.

Standout moments include the ‘Prime Time’ debate three days before polling day. I was in the audience, trying to concentrate on what debaters Richard Bruton and Micheal Martin were saying just yards away from me.

Seated directly behind me was Independent TD Mattie McGrath, making free with his views on every point they discussed. “Pig in a poke, pig in a poke” featured prominently among his distractingly loud observations.

Later, I watched it on the RealPlayer. There I was, speaking a few words on camera, and there he was, mouth moving, obviously complaining about what I said. Trying to lip-read, I replayed it. Was it pig in a poke? Couldn’t tell. Maybe I don’t speak Mattish.

Professor John Crown was crammed uncomfortably into the seat beside me, with an excess of limb and a shortage of space to accommodate it. A Daddy Long Legs sprang to mind.

He spoke passionately from the floor, but when the debate ended he turned to Patricia McKenna and said the Seanad was sunk. Clearly, his powers of prediction are no better than mine. But I expect he’s happier about it than me.

Another memorable juncture was Audrey Carville’s ‘The Late Debate’ on Radio One, when I was on a panel with junior minister Alex White and TD Dara Calleary. The late sitting hours in both Dail and Seanad were mentioned – hours which are anything but family friendly – and both politicians starting nodding at once.

Looking at them, it struck me how those hours are a barrier to women’s participation in politics, but men suffer by them. They must miss their children.

So, politics is no business for the faint-hearted. Still, Phil Hogan put the best possible spin on it. How he kept a straight face can only be down to the art of politics. Asked to comment on the result, he said something like: “What can I say? The people just love their politicians.”

Lunch over, I wend my way home, but one final interview remains: a ‘where did it all go wrong?’ dissection chaired by David McCullagh on a late night ‘Prime Time’ special on Saturday.

Afterwards, columnist and barrister Noel Whelan – prominent in the retentionist camp – invites me to the victory party under way at his house. He even shows me a picture of it on his iPhone. It’s a gracious offer. And, in fairness, the side with the best arguments won.

Momentarily, I toy with a mental image of entering the lion’s den. It has a certain mischievous appeal. Then I put away the fantasy and go home to bed.

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