Seán Mon­crieff

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE -

Be­cause I’m ter­ri­ble at plan­ning, I was in Paris for the re­sult of the abor­tion ref­er­en­dum. ( Don’t worry: I voted on the way to the air­port). Be­cause I’m ter­ri­ble at plan­ning, I didn’t know there was go­ing to be a train strike and an anti- Macron protest down the road from the ho­tel. But that’s Paris, where street pol­i­tics seem to be part of the el­e­gant weave of French life.

In Ire­land, we’ve al­ways been a lit­tle more wary of such con­flict. Or we used to be.

In part, our brains work on pat­tern recognition. We see a fa­mil­iar set of fac­tors and re­act with­out hav­ing to do too much anal­y­sis. We know that if we en­counter a tiger, it’s prob­a­bly not a great idea to hang around. Of course it’s pos­si­ble that the tiger is com­pletely tame. Or a cow­ard.

Or sick of all the bad PR tigers get ev­ery time there’s a hu­man\/ tiger in­ter­ac­tion. But that’s un­likely. So you run. We all do this. For in­stance: politi­cians. The ones who get re- elected tend to amass a lot of such tiger- aware­ness. For con­tin­ued job se­cu­rity they need to know about ev­ery mi­cro­scopic at­ti­tude shift among con­stituents and how to re­act to it.

They knew about the 1983 ref­er­en­dum cam­paign and how nasty it was. They knew that even a huge lead in the polls can shrink down to noth­ing once all the foetus posters start ap­pear­ing on tele­phone polls. Best to be cau­tious, even silent.

For in­stance: the me­dia. Read the pre­vi­ous para­graph. Throw in a gen­uine de­sire to be bal­anced, but the lack of a tem­plate ( es­pe­cially in the broad­cast me­dia) of how to ‘ de­bate’ two po­si­tions that fun­da­men­tally con­tra­dict each other. Abor­tion is Mur­der. Or it isn’t.

It wasn’t just the lack of a tem­plate. It was a lack of imag­i­na­tion. It was dis­be­lief at what was hap­pen­ing, right be­fore their eyes. Politi­cians and journalists knew from ex­pe­ri­ence that stok­ing fear works in elec­tions. Be­ing pos­i­tive may have clicked in the touchy- feely mar­riage ref­er­en­dum, but it couldn’t pos­si­bly res­onate here. This was

Yet it did. The polls con­sis­tently showed a large chunk of un­de­cided vot­ers – which ex­pe­ri­ence in­di­cated would mean they were un­cer­tain with the propo­si­tion and would prob­a­bly vote No. But they didn’t.

I thought the Eighth Amend­ment would be re­pealed, but that night in Paris I was as­tounded by the size of the mar­gin.

I had feared it would be like the di­vorce ref­er­en­dum, squeak­ing in by the small­est of ma­jori­ties – a re­sult that wouldn’t set­tle the mat­ter, that might tempt court chal­lenges and more tor­ment for Ir­ish women. I was spec­tac­u­larly wrong. I’m glad to say I don’t know any­thing.

Cliché time: Brexit and the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump demon­strated that ev­ery­thing the me­dia and po­lit­i­cal class know – or thought they knew – is wrong.

And the abor­tion ref­er­en­dum did that again. Sup­pos­edly arch- con­ser­va­tive Roscom­mon voted Yes by a healthy ma­jor­ity, de­spite not hav­ing any pro- re­peal TDs.

What’s emerg­ing from all this swirling change is what the com­men­tariat don’t know, and in fair­ness, most peo­ple don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen next ei­ther.

Taken with gen­eral elec­tion re­sults, it seems that the old trib­al­ism of our pol­i­tics has mostly evap­o­rated. It also seems that, at least on sin­gle is­sues, civil so­ci­ety groups can get things done in a way that po­lit­i­cal par­ties can­not.

The last two ref­er­en­dums politi­cised a new gen­er­a­tion, and blooded them in what was of­ten a grisly cam­paign. Let’s not waste that.

Per­haps this is when we be­come more like France, with a highly en­gaged elec­torate: un­afraid to ex­press an opin­ion and un­cyn­i­cal about the pos­si­bil­ity of change. While look­ing re­ally good.

Will this hap­pen? I don’t know. Do you? I don’t know any­thing. And that’s great.

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