Monday 26 September 2016

It was the son and daughter that won it, as youth revolution sweeps the day

If the newly politicised youth make their presence felt in the general election, it will have profound consequences for change, says Shane Coleman

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

It was the son and daughter that won it, as youth revolution sweeps the day - Thousands of people celebrate in Dublin Castle Square as the result of the referendum is relayed on May 23, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
It was the son and daughter that won it, as youth revolution sweeps the day - Thousands of people celebrate in Dublin Castle Square as the result of the referendum is relayed on May 23, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

It's the son (and the daughter) wot won it.

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Make no mistake, it was young people that made the decisive difference in Friday's genuinely huge and historic Yes vote for gay marriage.

Not so much through the extra 66,000 of them who registered to vote in the past month - though that could have been hugely significant in a tight vote.

But through their enthusiasm and absolute conviction that gay marriage was simply about equality; a "no-brainer" - the term used by so many young voters on TV and radio in recent weeks - that simply had to be endorsed by any modern Republic.

A generation that many of us over-40s had dismissed as being apolitical and more preoccupied with social media and celebrity gossip just weren't going to take No for an answer. And that sentiment ultimately swept away all doubts and reservations.

Unlike past referendums dominated by a small number of key figures on both sides - think Garrett FitzGerald and William Binchy in the 1986 Divorce Referendum - this was a campaign without individual stars.

There was no single turning point. No seminal moment. No decisive debate, as happened in the second Divorce Referendum in 1995 when the then Taoiseach John Bruton's performance was critical.

The No side actually more than held their own in the television debates. But those debates proved largely a sideshow. The stories that filled the airwaves and newspapers of ordinary, previously unknown, young gay men and women - and of their parents championing the cause of their sons and daughters - were of far greater importance.

Because for many voters over 40, gay marriage wasn't a 'no-brainer'. These voters weren't remotely homophobic. But they did have concerns about issues such as adoption and surrogacy. They also grew up in a very different Ireland. An Ireland where homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993. An Ireland where acceptance of gay rights was only in its infancy.

Naturally, their outlook would be different. The instinctive, unquestioned acceptance of gay marriage - clearly present in the majority of young voters - wouldn't have been so widespread for those older voters.

But there's no question the personal stories of gay men and women living with discrimination, a feeling of not being accepted, of not being able to live openly and freely, and the huge difficulties and pain that caused, had a powerful impact on people.

That is obvious from the huge Yes vote in working-class areas - which once would have been seen as conservative on social issues - and in parts of the country expected to be solidly No.

The forecasted sharp divide between younger and older voters didn't occur. But that was directly down to the passion with which younger campaigners put their case.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say that the campaign was pretty much won before it began. But those personal stories ensured that those soft Yes voters - those who might have wavered as they did in previous referendums - stayed in the Yes camp.

It's clear from the turnout and the large numbers who gathered in Dublin Castle to watch (who ever heard of a crowd gathering to celebrate a referendum result and will it ever happen again?) that young people were engaged in the democratic process like never before.

Politics in Ireland is traditionally largely the domain of the middle-aged and beyond. But the average age on the canvass this time around was down markedly. Young people voted in greater numbers. They put Yes signs in their windows in numbers never seen before. They took to social media to put their case. They debated the referendum in classrooms and bars.

The question is though, will this last far beyond last night's victory parties across the country?

The scenes of joy and celebration witnessed yesterday haven't been seen since the early days of the State, when understandably politics invoked far more passion. Even the excitement that greeted Mary Robinson's election as president a quarter of century ago pales into insignificance.

But will it now lead onto a widespread engagement with politics of previously disinterested and, literally, disenfranchised young voters? Having sampled the positives and the power of democracy in action, will they want more.

Or is it just a once-off flurry of activity for an issue that young people were uniquely passionate about?

The hope is that it's the former. The worry is that it's the latter. Change tends to come slowly in Ireland, or at least it used to. Nearly 50 years after students took to the streets of Paris, in the process politicising a generation, could this be the spark for a youth revolution?

If it is, the impact on politics, which is already going through a period of unprecedented flux, will be profound. The relatively strong performance of Sinn Fein in Carlow-Kilkenny was just a small taster of the impact that might have on politics. Would Kathleen Funchion have polled as well if the by-election hadn't coincided with the same-sex marriage referendum and young people hadn't been out to vote in such large numbers?

Traditionally Sinn Fein does better in opinion polls than in actual elections, largely because many of its younger supporters don't actually go out and vote. That changed to a degree yesterday.

The old loyalties to the traditional parties have fallen away, but a genuine youth revolution would only accelerate that trend.

It could also have a profound impact on any future referendum on abortion. With public opinion hardening around the view that the 1983 constitutional amendment is overly restrictive, it seems certain that it is only a matter of time before the issue is revisited in another referendum. At least two of the major political parties will commit to doing so in the upcoming general election.

As with gay marriage, young people have very different views on abortion than older voters. It would be simplistic to suggest they're exclusively pro-choice, but they are far more likely to be than voters were even at the time of the last abortion referendum in 2002. Abortion could prove the next big social issue which mobilises younger voters, although the No side can be expected to be far more resilient on this issue.

We won't have to wait so long, though, to see if Friday's mobilisation of the young vote impacts on more mainstream politics. If the same number of young people vote in the next general election then we'll see an increased turnout of four percentage points, enough to potentially dictate the final seat in every constituency. That will be a genuine game changer - if it happens.

Shane Coleman presents the 'Sunday Show' on Newstalk.com

Sunday Independent

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