Tuesday 20 March 2018

Frank Coughlan: Not voting in Seanad referendum won't make you a bad democrat

Voters will decide on the future of the Seanad this week
Voters will decide on the future of the Seanad this week

The nation is on the edge of its seat, agog as the tension builds to this Friday's dual referendum.

Except it isn't, of course. In fact, if the prospect of this poll was the reason for getting up this morning, most of us would have stayed in bed.

Those politicians knocking on doors and hand-clamping in shopping centres are muttering and tweeting about the apathy about the place. People haven't engaged, they say, and expect a low turnout.

This, we're assured, is a bad thing.  But is it really?

Opinion polls, loved and reviled in equal measure by politicians depending on what they're telling them, carve up the voting pie into easily digestible slices for us.

At election time they give us snapshots of party support at a particular moment. They also tell us how many Don't Knows there are out there. That percentage decreases as  the campaign progresses because these 'undecided' are worn down by endless media prodding, analysis and noise.

But people who are surveyed are never asked if they Don't Care.

And these Don't Cares have made a political choice of sorts; the Don't Knows are simply clueless.

This referendum is particularly interesting in this respect. If I got a fiver for every time anyone said to me ''isn't the Seanad doing a grand job all the same'' I still wouldn't be able to buy a cup of coffee today.

The Don't Cares feel as they do for a reason and if by voting one way or another on Friday is a taken as a legitimate political statement, then so if not giving a rat's pyjamas,

Many people feel that's exactly the sort of commitment the Seanad deserves and whether is stays or vaporises is of little or no interest to this significant demographic.

Of course, reading the opinion pages of our national newspaper, dipping into Vincent Browne or The Politics Programme and the rest, might well give the impression that the nation is in throes of a tense debate.

Journalists, academics and lawyers are selflessly throwing themselves in front of microphones to join in, incandescent with contrived rage, indignation and whatever you're having yourself.

But don't be fooled. That's just showbiz.  Political journalists emerging from a silly season (with only the summertime martyrdom of Lucinda Creighton to distract them) are just doing their job, while our learned friends and the furrowed brows of academia never like to pass up the opportunity to talk down to us.

So, we're having this debate whether we're interested or not.

This is the 33rd referendum to amend to De Valera's Constitution since 1937. In that time we've approved 23 of the amendments and rejected nine. Unrecorded perhaps, but it would be fair to guess that the number of Don't Cares fluctuated greatly from poll to poll.

A quick scan brings back memories of debates that divided the country acrimoniously, like abortion and divorce, and others that rubber stamped great leaps forward, like accession to the then EEC and ratification of the Good Friday Agreement.

One in particular stands out for me: the attempt by Fianna Fail in 1968 (their second try-on) to abolish PR and bring in a first-past-the-post voting system. The electorate, in their infinite wisdom, gave an emphatic no.

I was a fifth class national schoolboy at the time and I remember clearly the leaflet that came through the letterbox and my father explaining the issues.

Imagine, Fianna Fail in perpetuity. Not too many Don't Cares that day, I'd wager.

The highest turn-out, at marginally under 71pc, was for accession to Europe. The lowest? Unsurprisingly, it was to the Seanad referendum of 1979, to do with university presentation in the Upper House, when 28.6pc of the electorate bothered or cared.

I would have been one of that small percentage who turned out. Not that I can remember, but because I have always cast my ballot. That's to do with the noble notion that people died so that I'd have the right (we had the vote before independence, of course, but still).

Democracy is precious.  As an impressionable, perpetually indignant student, I remember my rage at the over-throw of Allende in Chile, forty years ago last month and the manner in which Egyptians won, and then lost, their right to ballot only this year shows what a fragile gift it is.

But if you Don't Care whether or not the Seanad is retained or abolished and you choose to stay away on Friday, it doesn't mean you are a bad democrat.

It just means you're honest.

And, unless there is a last minute miracle,  you will be one of a large majority on the day.

Online Editors

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