SIX DAYS LATER, and the nation has just about recovered from the marriage equality referendum. The posters are slowly disappearing. The national media have turned their gaze back in a thousand other directions. #MarRef, #HomeToVote and even #HungoverForEquality are rapidly dissolving down the trends. Thankfully for most, the decision dubbed “the choice of the generation” has been overwhelmingly passed. Ireland embraces its future as a new beacon for equality around the world, the defeated “no” campaigners continue to espouse a return to a less permissive society, and for the vast majority of citizens it’s a return to Irish life as normal.
That is of course unless you’re a career politician, for whom all referenda serve also as wind vanes for the national mood. Indeed, Ireland has an unfortunate history of using referenda as an outlet for voicing frustration with a sitting government. This last vote, however, seems to have defied more tired cliches about the voting public than any in previous years. Many of the constituencies and electoral areas have utterly confounded established political thought, forcing the tallymen, analysts and party strategists to rethink what they’ve always known.
Perhaps the most fundamental has been the huge surge in turnout, particularly in inner-city areas that for the most part didn’t engage with the process before. Most strikingly in numerical terms is Darndale, which traditionally provided roughly 20% turnout for a referendum. This time around it was closer to a staggering 90%. Admittedly Dublin as a whole showed up to vote with more volume than rural areas, but to see a community that has spent so long virtually ignored by the political status quo arrive in such force is indicative of the deeply rooted passion that voters – both for and against – held for their opinion on this decision. Dispelled, too, is the myth that the working class are somehow more conservative than the middle class. Consider two voting areas in Limerick : Monaleen and Moyross. These two areas have a socioeconomic gap as wide as a city Limerick’s size could permit, and yet both voted roughly 4:1 in favour. The urban/rural divide has also been far less pronounced. Yes, Dublin was overwhelmingly in favour and yes, the only counties against (or close to it) are a long way from motorways, but the margins were far tighter than in the past. Some of the most remote parts of Donegal voted hugely in favour, while some inner city ballot boxes proved tighter than could be expected for what was essentially a poll on liberalism vs. tradition.
While not numerically decisive, one of the most fascinating and arguably inspiring voter segments was the influx of UK-based emigrants. The night before the count, Dublin airport was apparently nightmarish to try and arrive
through due to the large number of mostly young ex-pats. The #HomeToVote tag trended globally on Twitter that night, thanks in no small part to scenes of jubilation on the voyage home (be they by train or boat). The question must however be asked – how do we manage the political engagement of the diaspora? Should they be allowed to retain their vote if they’re not resident? Can we truly stand over the right for our emigrant countrymen to make a decision that affects only other people? Sure, they were far from enough to tip the polls one way or another, but how long can a person outside a society be expected to participate remotely? And for those that were unable to travel home, both abroad and domestically, isn’t it now time to introduce postal or absentee ballots like almost every other Western democracy? The #HomeToVote contingent weren’t the deciding factor this time. Far from it. However in a highly emotive, hugely personal, almost fairytale campaign the minor movement captured the hearts and minds.
So what are the long-term political ramifications of this upheaval in voting patterns? Frankly, it’s too soon to say. It’s highly unlikely that the same peaks of turnout displayed by the public will be reached in the next general election, whenever it lands. No party regularly polls above 25% approval, and disenchantment with the choices available remains extremely high amongst the Irish public. That being said, the best way to draw political attention – and community funding – to an area is to display political muscle. Perhaps an enterprising candidate might pay a bit more attention to the Darndales and Moyrosses from now on. Even if it’s just machiavellian vote-chasing, as many cynics have claimed the entire cross-party support for the referendum was, higher turnout draws the eye of the powerful.
As for future referenda, this last campaign represents a huge change in the landscape. Ireland has successfully passed legislation to liberalise time and time again in the last 25 years, but there’s a veritable shopping list left of referenda to come. Repeal of anti-blasphemy laws, decriminalisation of marijuana, establishing the right to die with dignity, separation of church and state, any of these could be presented to the public over the next five years. And indeed, any of them could be considered possible to pass. The confetti was barely cleared from the courtyard of Dublin Castle last weekend when a government minister dared to speak about the third rail of Irish politics, repealing the eighth amendment. Interesting times ahead, to be sure. And none of the old certainty in the results.