On Friday the Irish will vote on two issues. Both are being sold as reforms, one a social reform, the other a political reform. Both can be said to have come from the the ‘People’ via the Constitutional Convention. If polls are even broadly accurate one will pass comfortably, the other will be easily defeated.
Why will the marriage referendum pass and the proposal to lower the age of eligibility for election to the office of the President be defeated? The major difference is the genesis of the proposals. The marriage referendum is a result of years of campaigning to extend the rights of LGBT in Ireland. It was a campaign led by demands from ordinary people. That it came through a Constitutional Convention is of little importance. That was politics; it was just a means of getting it by some Fine Gael backwoodsmen.
Labour may benefit from being identified as offering political leadership in this campaign. It has allowed it and some other parties to oil some of their rusty campaign machines. It offered the members, especially Labour members, a chance to be proud of their party again. It has also mobilised a group of people who were apolitical. They might now extend their involvement in politics beyond this issue.
The referendum campaign has been extraordinary. For the first time we see a vote where people are willing to buy campaign badges and T-shirts (not provided free by the party or some plutocrat). It has behind it a coalition from left to right, from ecologists, nationalists, state socialists to liberals. Opposed is one group from the Catholic right. Normally it takes more than this to defeat a government proposal. It’s the sort of movement that political campaigns will want to bottle. Certainly they’ll study it and try to learn lessons from it.
On the face of it the other referendum is also about equality – this time to end discrimination on grounds of age. I can’t think of many reasons why one would object to the change. But there is no mobilisation, no excitement, no debate, almost literally nothing. And it will be defeated.
This might seem odd. It’s a government proposal, with no real opponents. There is no coalition of different groups coming together in the way greens, nationalists, the socialists and conservative Catholics came together to defeat the Nice and Lisbon treaties. This is because it was (like a lot of the nonsense that came out of the Constitutional Convention) an invention of elites. Here the government wanted to give the illusion of reform. I doubt one twenty-something had ever being motivated to even tweet about the injustice of not being able to stand for election. No one really thinks that anyone under 35 would want to stand, and you’d worry for the mental health of anyone that age who would. It will be defeated for the same reason the Seanad abolition referendum was defeated: no one demanded it, it wasn’t an issue and it exposed a cynicism on the part of the government.
The lesson the government should have learned after the Seanad referendum, and might finally learn now is that constitutional changes should have some rationale for them. They should offer something approaching a real change for and demanded by at least a group of ordinary people.