When I decided I was going to write something about the last few days of the Children’s Rights Referendum, the vote itself and what it all I meant, I could have had no inkling on the storm that would overtake Irish political circles and the government in the last two days. The death of Savita Halappanavar has completely removed any mention of the referendum from the news, banishing it out of thought and mind (and arguably, this is right and proper).
So, this might all seem a little pointless. But, write it I will.
The government has emerged from the Children’s Rights referendum campaign with a black eye, bloody nosed, limping, however you want to put it. Nothing went right in the last few days of campaigning, and the “No” side went from no-hopers to coming alarmingly close to causing a shock of proportions unrecognisable.
The Supreme Court judgement, that the Referendum Commission documentation for the public was biased in a way that is unacceptable, is a horror show for the government. The Attorney General, the Minister for Children, the heads of the Commission, all are culpable for what is a total mess.
That the government creates literature that leans one way or another is something that has always been obvious, but never so much that the Supreme Court was compelled to make a ruling on it. As such, the legitimacy of the referendum has been called into the question. Legal challenges will probably be brought, another roadblock to be dealt with. While the Supreme Court was open and clear on its decision having no effect on the wording of the amendment itself, it is undeniable that the government has not played fair, and released a booklet and information to the public, created with public money and distributed to a huge proportion of the public, that was not neutral, unbiased or within the remits of the law. That kind of stuff influences opinions, rightly or wrongly.
So, the government on the ropes, the “No” side bolstered. But it should still have been a doddle right?
Well, on paper. A 58% “Yes” vote seems fairly decisive, but the initial polls had the margin between the two answers at a much higher rate. The “No” side not only whittled that advantage down, they caused a scare. Decades of work on this process were put in jeopardy by another shoddy referendum campaign. Eight points. That’s all it was in the end. 80’000 voters change their minds or don’t show up, and it’s a “No”.
80’000. 8% of the total poll. Less than one in three people choose to cast a vote in this referendum, the other major story coming out of the last days of campaigning. There is no single reason for this, just a lot of small ones.
Saturday voting is one of them. At times on Saturday it seemed people were more concerned with the fate of weekend polls rather than the actual amendment. Well, Saturday voting had a bad day. People are busy on weekends. They have kids to look after, plans made before a date was announced, they aren’t in their constituencies. I was nearly one of those people, having to travel back and forth from Limerick to Kildare over two days due to prior commitments. People have voting patterns where, on weekdays, they go after word, while the kids are in school, etc.
But there are other reasons. Apathy among the electorate resulted in much sneering and criticism from people on Saturday, but the reasons are clear. There are those who did not care about the amendment. There are those who were put off by negative campaigning. There are those who decided that a “Yes” vote was so likely as to excuse them from the process. There were those who, after re-run elections, have lost any faith in the amendment process as a fair way to enact constitutional change. There are those who say a debate characterised by all the political parties of the Dail on one side and a tinfoil hat brigade on the other and balked. There are those who may have been confused about the amendment, a minority I would presume. There are those who ignored the vote in protest at the Supreme Court ruling. And there are those who never vote at any time.
It all adds up and what we got was a turnout dangerously close to a record low, one that tarnishes the good work that so many have out into making this amendment a reality for so long. That’s the real damage for the government. Between the Supreme Court, the far lower margin of victory than expected and the abysmal turnout, the Children’s Rights Referendum, what I and many others would have described as an “easy win” a few months ago, is almost a defeat for the government in terms of public perception and internal relations.
Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and the ULA are pretty much clear and dry. They 31st Amendment, while receiving their tacit endorsement and a smattering of support, was not their baby or their concern. The failures are the governments.
In regards the actual amendment, now passed, further legislation has to be drawn up as per the terms of the actual wording – though if the last few days has reminded us of anything, it’s that Irish government can defer constitutionally mandated legislation forever and a day. The upcoming budget is bound to include provisions that damage child-related services and supports as well, so any last scrap of goodwill the passing of this amendment may get will be wiped away by the end of the year.
I called it a “balls-up” the other day. It still is.
Though, considering the magnitude of what has been happening in the last few days, the aftermath of a somewhat botched referendum is of little consequence.