Tuesday 12 November 2019

Joan urges young voters to make voices heard - but be careful with the selfies

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Joan Burton and Jobs Minister Richard Bruton sharing a joke yesterday. Photo: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Joan Burton and Jobs Minister Richard Bruton sharing a joke yesterday. Photo: Frank McGrath

Lise Hand

Joan Burton bounced over to the group of young Labour party members posing with Yes placards for the photographer on Merrion Street. "You've been brilliant, you need just one more 24 hours of energy," she encouraged them. "You've done everyone proud, whatever happens tomorrow".

She and a badge-festooned Aodhan O Riordain (the Pingate Minister goes nowhere these days without a pocket full of Yes to Equality badges) posed with the half-dozen or so campaigners, holding aloft a poster with a checklist for first-time voters, such as know the location of their polling-station and bring along photo ID.

And the Tánaiste was also eager to stress that her advice from the previous day to first-timers to "take a selfie" after they cast their ballot, applied to outside the polling-stations only. For anyone attempting that stunt inside a polling-booth could swiftly find that democracy isn't actually free when they get slapped with a large fine, or worse.

"Outside the polling-station only," she warned.

And while such guidance may seem like stating the bloody obvious to more seasoned voters, there is a sense that this could be a polling-day with a difference and that the large numbers of young citizens who have hitherto regarded exercising their franchise as a far too strenuous activity, may be on the march today.

There is undeniably an unusual level of mobilisation among younger voters. Throughout yesterday, stories rolled in of the younger members of the Irish Diaspora taking planes, trains and ferries to make it home to vote - by the start of the week, there wasn't a seat to be had on any Ryanair flight from Britain to Ireland. Joan herself had encountered just such a person while en route to the photo-shoot on Merrion Street.

"I just met an old lady and her grand-daughter on Stephen's Green, and the grand-daughter had flown in from Berlin to vote, and they told me that both of them were voting Yes," she said. "This referendum is an inter-generational event."

Nor is the groundswell of first-time voters simply a slick piece of political spin (for a start, there's no indication as to which way all of them intend to vote). The figures are clear - since last November, 100,000 people have been added to the electoral register, including 60,000 last-minute merchants on the supplementary register.

Labour is the party which flew the rainbow flag for a referendum on same-sex marriage (how many denizens of Leinster House executed eye-rolls back in 2012 when then-party leader Eamon Gilmore proclaimed it to be "the civil rights issue of this generation").

Yet if the referendum on marriage equality is carried, it's entirely possible that Labour's role in the process will be overshadowed by politicians of every stripe who love nothing more than basking in electoral success. By the time that the dust settles in the aftermath of a win for the Yes side, there'll be more folk claiming to have been in Panti Bar with the Taoiseach last December than were in the GPO during the 1916 Rising.

However, the Tánaiste was sunnily dismissing the notion that the party minded if the Blueshirts were perceived to be eating their referendum lunch. "No, I feel very proud of the Labour party and generations of Labour party people who have worked to end discrimination," she dodged. "I like to think that we've really made a difference."

And Joan acknowledged that this long campaign has had a different feel to it, mainly because of the numbers of new faces knocking on doors. "Huge numbers of people who have got involved in the campaign for the first time in their lives, they have been adept at social media, so the reach of the campaign has probably been wider and deeper than in a lot of other campaigns," she reckoned.

She also pointed to other times when votes or legislation have been brought to bear on morality issues. "In each case, some people forecasted that the roof was going to fall in. When civil divorce was debated, the men of Ireland were apparently going to run off and leave their wives and never be heard of again. I'm not aware that happened," she added.

So today the polling-booths await and the story will be told as the day unfolds.

Will it be the too-familiar story of a lacklustre turn-out by a complacent or disengaged electorate?

Or will a flood of young voters arm themselves with a pencil and go forth and do battle for the civil rights issue of this generation?

And they should take a selfie (outside the polling-station) after, so they have proof in years to come when asked, "Where were you during the Equality War?"

Irish Independent

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