Democracy fail - child referendum passes by huge majority on tiny turnout

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Poster at the Four Courts Image by infomatique  License creativecommons by-sa Once it became clear that the Children's referendum was going to be passed Twitter came alive with outraged Yes campaigners complaining about the low turnout. It demonstrated that no one, it appears, was willing to 'think of the children.' Pop singer Sinead O'Connor went so far as to suggest that it should be made a criminal offence not to vote. 

Image by infomatique License CC by-sa

It was all a bit too 'the people have failed the party' to take. The reference is to the poem Bertolt Brecht wrote after the 1953 workers rising in East Germany.

The Solution
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writer's Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

The referendum was carried by a 58% Yes vote but only 33.5% of the electorate voted. Those campaigning for the referendum argued that it would redress the balance between the rights of a child and the rights of their parents, that under the old constitution fell almost entirely on the side of the parents. This made it impossible for instance for children who had been in foster care for years but whose parents were married to be adopted.

So why the low turnout?  Was it really because no one would 'think of the childern'?

Firstly 'apathy' explains nothing as this was an unusually low turnout for a referendum. It was this referendum in particular that people were indifferent too. I would suggest the following were among the reasons why this was the case

- there has been a very long history of the neglect and abuse of children in institutions that were either state owned or state funded.
- the referendum is happening in a period where to protect the banks and the wealthy 1% the state has been viciously attacking children through multiple education cuts, the reduction or removal of children's allowances & deliberate underfunding of healthcare to the point where services are collapsing.

This made it hard to believe that the state genuinely had the interests of children to heart in any significant way. Restoring some of that funding by, for instance, ending the situation where the Irish super rich can declare themselves as tax exiles by taking long holidays outside Ireland would have done far more to improve life for children. But in addition

- most of the same parties that campaigned for the referendum showed their complete opposition to equality for children when they pushed through the racist 2004 referendum. Under this if you were a child born in Ireland who happened not to have parents who were Irish citizens then you were no longer entitled to citizenship. This 2012 referendum does nothing to redress that inequality between new born babies that is enshrined in Irish law.
- the experience of asylum seekers and the poorest sections of the working class is that they disproportionately have their children taken into care. This is probably why the Yes vote was considerably smaller in constituencies where a large percentage of the population is from those sections of the working class.

It's not hard to see why a combination of the four factors above made many people unlikely to take the claims of the political parties that the referendum was all about protecting children seriously. But then add to this the nature of the campaign itself.

- in 1995 in the McKenna judgement the supreme court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the political parties in power to use public money to back their side of a referendum. Naturally the political parties hate this - as they want to spend campaign money on the issue they really care about, getting themselves elected back into power. So with each referendum since they have pared away at the edges of that judgement tilting the balance of the publicly funded 'explanations' towards advocacy of the vote they want. This time they pushed it too far and right before the referendum the McCrystal summary judgment found that the campaign was one sided in favour of the yes campaign.
- no doubt as part of the 'modern politics' focus group approach the Yes campaign seldom argued for why a Yes vote was good, preparing lowest common denominator 'sad looking children' on posters. Just about one step removed from posters with kittens or puppies, perhaps we will see them at the next election.

Meaningless feel good sloganeering has become the staple of modern politics. With recent EU referendums for instance, we are normally urged to 'Vote Yes to Jobs,' a verbal equivalent of pictures of kittens. The cost of such non politics is a growing disinterest in what is seen as a meaningless discussion. You can't really push to use such lowest common denominator approaches in a referendum and then whinge when the as expected result is many people not taking the referendum too seriously.

Given the above and the growing anger at the party political system it is lucky this referendum, which was backed by all the electoralist parties, didn't result in a 'fuck you' No vote. But as much as people distrust and dislike the electoralist parties they distrust and dislike the catholic church and the ultra right ideological nut jobs who promote the 'save the family' agenda more. The prominence of the likes of Dana or John Waters on the No side was enough to dissuade most of those who might otherwise have been tempted to opt for the No fuck you approach.

The low turnout should not be read as the people having failed the political party system but rather of the people once more seeing through it. Yes all children should be treated equally so lets get rid of the racist citizenship test of the 2004 referendum and the poverty that results in the children of the poorest sections of the working class being disproportionately taken into care. Yes children should be protected so lets reverse the vicious cuts in education, healthcare and social welfare that were introduced to protect the banks and the wealthy 1%. Give us a referendum where we get to vote for or against that sort of program and I guarantee you a turnout over 80%.

Of course we have a political system that was carefully designed to prevent that sort of referendum ever seeing the light of day. And unfortunately, in the name of 'real politics,' almost all the individuals and organisations that urged a Yes vote in the name of children's rights tolerate that system. But as long as you do tolerate it don't be indigent when the bulk of the population is disinterested in the minor gains that system deems affordable.

Andrew Flood

Comments

Yep. I was vaguely surprised

Yep.
I was vaguely surprised in the end to vote Yes, I suppose the status quo is on the whole worse than the the change.
But it's only paper until they legislate and fund some action.

s/indigent/indignant/

j

"uninterested", not

"uninterested", not "disinterested".

I think you're spot on there

I think you're spot on there Andrew. This was the first referendum I have ever missed, I was working up the country and couldn't really be bothered for the reasons Andrew has stated. Stephen Collins in the Irish Times today concedes that there is a real hostility to and distrust of the state amongst a goodly section of the population reflected in the No vote, and he's mister establishment apologist. All the religious nut jobs and conspiracy nuts were out against this, the Sovereign Indo made it front page news and that was alienating from the no vote , but all the parties and government linin up on the yes side was no more reassuring.

I do think however that there was a genuine fear state power over people's children in some of the no vote and question were validly raised. The problem is of course in our context who exactly looks out for the children who are vunerable certainly not the religious, the states record is pretty shit also the real question is can we evolve systems that actually address the issue without it being oppressive agencies intervening. I think that's the question and a referendum does not address that at all.

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