Friday 22 March 2019

The more things change, the more they stay the same - this time it's no different

Crowds gather for the results of the same-sex marriage referendum at Dublin
Castle last Saturday. Photo: Mark Condren
Crowds gather for the results of the same-sex marriage referendum at Dublin Castle last Saturday. Photo: Mark Condren
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

Social revolution should not be confused with a political putsch. Last September, 1.6 million Scottish voters voted Yes for independence. While being a minority of 44pc and suffering defeat, they still propelled Scottish politics towards fundamental change. It was a redefining moment of a people's identity, directly resulting in the Scottish National Party gaining 56 out of 59 MP seats.

The patriotic fervour swept away all the UK mainstream parties of Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems. Could last Friday's historic social revolution at the polls carry the same impulsion for a landslide result in next year's General Election? No way.

The great bubbles of euphoria around referendum results amongst establishment politicians/parties, media and civic groups need an urgent reality check as to what the results actually mean.

For the Roman Catholic Church it represents another benchmark in Ireland's secularisation. Throughout western states, organised religion is now an irrelevance to youth culture. The polite pretences of our older generation in observing respect for religious ways are also being dispensed with. Church crises will get much worse. Witness the shortage of clerics, leading to the systemic rationalisation of services and the growing popularity of humanist weddings and funerals. There is also the church closures, the spread of non-denominational patronage in schools and revised ethical protocols in hospitals.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is completely wrong in believing the Church's key failing is poor communications with young people. He reminds me of past political post-mortems on bad reverses - those in denial usually advise managing the message was to blame. As if by massaging language and tone can fix it all. But it's the content that doesn't connect. An office supply company selling fax machines can't succeed, technology has moved on. Advocacy of religious celibacy, no sex before marriage, no divorce and no contraception are human constraints which are simply anathema for today's voters. Church dogma shouldn't change to assuage popular lifestyles; but its stance is irreconcilable with modern living. Following on from the abuse scandals, Friday's vote was about establishing the latest layer of a whole new civic and legal morality to replace obedient acquiescence of Church teaching. Game over.

This social revolution is not a political putsch. In 1995, the rainbow government succeeded in winning a divorce referendum narrowly. Social impact was irreversible - the numbers of divorced people increased from 40,000 to 250,000. In the subsequent 1997 election, its impact was non-existent.

Neither Fine Gael nor Labour got any thanks for steering through reform. In fact, when you solve problems, you effectively extinguish the motivations of those campaigning for change. For 20 years, SDLP leaders John Hume and Seamus Mallon fought to elevate Northern politics onto an Anglo/Irish, North/South axis of constitutional reform. The Belfast agreement and constitutional amendments to Articles 2 and 3 represented the implementation of their goals. Their electoral reward? Wipe-out at the hands of Sinn Féin.

Politics is an unfair, cruel business. Eamon Gilmore, Alex White and Equality Minister Aodhán O Riordáin are set to struggle to hold their seats.

On the same day that 56pc voters in Carlow/Kilkenny voted Yes, they gave less than 7pc to Labour. This compares with 16pc at the last election. Applying this decline nationally, Labour would get 8pc next time. Both this count and present polls suggest they will lose 25 seats.

Sinn Féin and left-wing independents remain in waiting to eat their lunch. Fine Gael's result is even more disturbing, with a decline from 39pc to 21pc - suggesting that in a lot of five-seat constituencies they could be reduced from three seats to one.

While many may blame Phil Hogan's legacy of unpopular austerity, a litany of good news/big capital governmental and employment projects were delivered Noreside, relative to other areas, with no Cabinet representation. This result mirrors the local elections a year ago, when Fianna Fáil (24pc) got the most votes and seats of any party.

Fianna Fáil is outperforming opinion poll ratings, suggesting "shy" pollster respondents, while Lucinda's Renua result should cause Mr Kenny's advisers to lose sleep.

The Fine Gael feelgood factor arising from the Tories' re-election amounts to indulgent, wishful thinking. Emigrants who jumped on planes and boats to return to exercise their vote along with 66,000 newly registered electors were motivated to ease the painful plight of the legalised/institutionalised non-recognition of their relationship realities.

Such unprecedented commitment is unlikely to be repeated to re-elect TDs. Expect apathy and ambivalence towards politicos at next year's poll.

Alex White's expressed aim to empower and politicise a new generation is overly optimistic, even naïve. That isn't to say there isn't a significant take-out from the Yes campaign itself. Social media has arrived in mobilising a youth vote; innovative videos with compelling personal stories gained real traction.

This was because of the tangible depth of their honesty; don't expect actors hired by party apparatchiks to gain similar traction. Innovation in merchandising T-shirts, Tá badges and tote bags (including charging for them) was unique; plus the old-fashioned, localised doorknocking by neighbours is back in vogue. Civic campaigners, not representing any political party, like Noel Whelan, Brian Sheehan, Grainne Healy and other unsung heroes would add to any party's army. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil can lay claim to most of the 734,000 No voters, with minimal fears of being gazumped by a new, right-wing conservativism force - Iona Institute or Fathers and Mothers Matter are less likely to morph into a political party after this result. So while hope and history rhymed last Saturday evening in Dublin Castle, "Plus ca change" has been the net party political impact of previous social changes.

Don't expect this to be any different. Despite the emphatic acceptance of marital genderless redefinition, most likely the next government will remain as a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition.

Irish Independent

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