Writer and Author

Tag: Referendums

A Moment of History

Una Mullally is hugged by Colm O'Gorman photo by Michael Stamp

Una Mullally is hugged by Colm O’Gorman photo by Michael Stamp

There aren’t many times in life when you can genuinely say you’ve watched history being made. Yesterday was a historic day, a happy day, a profound one. Today my muscles are sore from hours of standing, I’m a little sunburned and I feel 20 again. It feels as if all the cynicism has just melted away. I know this feeling won’t last but I’m holding onto it as long as I can because it feels magical. It feels like Christmas. It feels like a new dawn.

Walking into town around lunchtime there was something palpable in the air, an excitement, a sense of revolution. A steady stream of people were heading for Dublin Castle, conscious there was only one place to be, one place where you could touch history. All around us were rainbow flags, , rainbow umbrellas, rainbow socks, rainbow skirts, rainbow hair. The cathedral quarter had become a sea of colour. The Castle seems like a logical place to go. It holds such an iconic place in Dublin’s history, it’s been the seat of power, a place where leaders have faced judgement – or investigation anyway. It’s a place where you go to see concerts or sand sculptures or Dracula’s garden. A place of power and spectacle.

There are many things I’ll remember about standing in that crowd, watching county after county turning green. Every few minutes the graphic on the large screen that was showing us the feed from the count centre would refresh. The crowd would cheer as the patches of green came back one by one. As the afternoon wore on those patches of green picked out the shape of Ireland. For a second they would hang against the white before the familiar grey template popped back into view. It looked as if Ireland was being made out of green in those moments. The crowd cheered and laughed.

When the Roscommon result came in the howls of genuine anger and betrayal rose in a wounded roar. That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. For the rest of the count Roscommon became the bleeding heart of Ireland but soon it was surrounded with green and the shape of Ireland became clearer with every screen refresh.

I’ll remember David Norris walking through the crowd and getting a standing ovation. The sound system wasn’t working so he held up his arms for quiet and the crowd, those thousands of ecstatic, excited people, were quiet. He had a forceful voice for speeches he told us, before telling those upturned faces that history had been made today, that our little country was a beacon to the rest of the world. We all cheered when he finished with the motto of another country “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, because in that moment everyone understood what the 1798  revolutionaries hoped would be true, that those values are as much part of the Irish DNA as any other. That this was what we were made of.

I’ll remember the mix of people there. The young and optimistic and the older, jaded, disbelieving. Some I knew, some I recognised from many, many years ago. Yesterday we really are one city, one family and it was incredible. I met so many people yesterday. A teacher from the Netherlands who had left Ireland years ago because of the intolerance over his sexuality. As Ireland turned greener with each county vote he turned to me and said, Maybe in a while I’ll look at coming back here to teach. Or the American couple standing behind us that we explained each appearance on the stage. He was a sociology professor. She worked in civil liberties. We agreed that history could be grim viewing if you approached it from the left. Days like this mattered.

It was one of those crowds. One united by a common cause, where people talk and share. No one could get mobile coverage to check the results as they came in. History was obviously clogging up the airwaves. We were in the middle of the crowd and there were many Monty Python moments as we tried to work out what was going on up the front. “Blessed are the cheesemakers”, “That was Cavan” “No Kerry, are you blind?” It was all good-humoured. There must have been No voters somewhere in that crowd but nowhere near us. Yesterday it felt like they didn’t exist. That’s a rare feeling.

Because I know writing this that this feeling of euphoria won’t last. The feeling was overwhelming yesterday, it was love, it was pure solidarity, but it’s a rare and fragile thing. The familiarity of it made the tears come. I hadn’t felt it for a such a long time. It was a feeling of optimism, of common cause, a feeling of invincibility. I’m in  my 40s now. That bright, shining optimism has tarnished, corroded. Cynicism took its place. I mourn it’s loss but now suddenly it’s back. Like a reunion with an old friend I can see the world the way I could half a lifetime ago, when it was all worth fighting for, when we never doubted we could win.

The world can be a pretty bleak place if you’re generally left-leaning. So many of my generation are. We are the children on the 60s, the 70s. We grew up with parents fighting encroaching cynicism just like we are today. But we took the memories that matched our youthful optimism. Our pop culture references are invincible. We all have those iconic moment, times we know where we were when, when the world seemed as if it was understandable just then, where uncertainty wasn’t needed. Yesterday will be a moment like that for a new generation. Because that’s what we’ve done Ireland. We’ve given the world a fairytale to tell its children, to be whispered in the dark when  hope is lost. We’ve done a thing that proves that  people are not shits, that humanity is worth saving. We were that moment in the movie where the music swells and the audience cries. We were the happily ever after, the knight in shining armour.

Yesterday was a battle won, and I don’t hesitate to use the terms of war here. Because a war it is and it is yet to be won. Yesterday was about love but isn’t it always? When we fight these battles it’s always about love, respect and empathy. That’s where the battle lines were drawn. There’s always someone who refuses to show compassion because it will erode their values. For those of us who believe that people are more important than ideologies or things these days don’t happen often. But when they do my god they are amazing. This feeling will fade soon and it’ll be onto the next battle. But after yesterday I’m ready for the fight. Because people are not shits, they can be trusted to do the right thing. They’ve done it once and they will do it again. We know that now.

The Right to Vote

Today Ireland is going to the polls.  By the weekend we’ll have a new President, a new West Dublin TD and, possibly, two changes to the constitution. Since I don’t live in West Dublin, I got to vote in three ballots.  Five years ago I wouldn’t have got to vote in any.

I became an Irish citizen in 2006. One of the reasons I decided to finally take the plunge was because I was sick of feeling like an observer in the country I am happy and proud to call my home.  We have a lot of referendums in Ireland.  It’s something of a national sport.  Since I hit voting age there have been 18 ballots, on both national and European matters that can have a direct bearing on life in this country.  Today’s vote makes it 20.  I remember the feeling of frustration not being able to have a say in votes on divorce, abortion (twice), the death penalty or the right to citizenship. Subjects that were hotly debated every time friends met for a pint or colleagues stopped for a cuppa.  To have thrashed through the issues, teased out the pros and cons, argued the toss, then watched as all my friends headed for the ballot boxes.

Not every referendum is on a “sexy” subject of course.  Not every one will get pulses raised and beer slopped on tables in excited pub conversations.  Some of them are overdue housekeeping, others are labyrinthine pieces of European legislation, but here in Ireland you can usually find someone willing to argue the toss.  Failing any other argument, there will usually be some vociferous contingent who fear that X or Y change will sneak abortion in by the back door.  Not all of them will have a direct bearing on the way you or I personally lead our lives but all of them are important.  It’s not much of a democracy if people are denied a voice but it’s even worse if those that have a voice refuse to use it.

Take today’s votes.  For most of the month long lead in to this vote the focus has been on the circus that was the campaign for our next president.  It’s only been in the last couple of weeks that attention has shifted to the two referendums we also have a say in.  On the face of it these are two of the not-so-sexy subjects, it’ll be interesting to see the voter turn out.  But these are important votes.  One of them is concerned with whether or not judges can have pay cuts.  In these straightened times it sounds like a no brainer.  The Yes Campaign would argue that anyway.  Under the current constitution a judge’s pay cannot be cut while he or she is in office.  The amendment will allow for cuts to be made in line with other public servants.  The problem I have with it personally is that the new wording is as vague as hell.  The third section of the amendment should be punished for crimes against language. But it’s late in the day for arguments – I’ll leave that to Dearbhail McDonald of the Irish Independent.

The problem with both the ballots today is that people are likely to vote with a jerk of the knee towards crooked bankers and ivory tower fat cats.  Fair targets perhaps but there’s a real risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater here.  I’m pretty sure the government were just as eager to see wrongs righted when they drew up these amendments but slinging a load of legalese into the mix, giving it a quick stir by way of debate and tossing it towards the populous for deliberation is all a bit slapdash.  The problem with slapdash is that it can have unforeseen consequences.  I’ve seen the effects of the unforeseen consequence in the day job.  I doubt very much whether those who drew up the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act in 2009 to deal with the threat of criminal gangs foresee that the Act would get one of it’s first airings in court at the collapse of a trial of four men accused of killing a young mother and burning her body.  The trial of those accused of killing Rebecca French collapsed because of confusion over wording. This might be an extreme consequence but it’s a stark reminder why clear wording matters. Legal language might look vague but that’s frequently because it’s over precise.  Too much space for interpretation means years getting clarification through case law and is too open to abuse.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt strongly about the result of a referendum but it’s the first time I’ve been able to act on that conviction. I incorrectly said on Twitter earlier that these were my first referendums. I’ve voted twice before, both for the same thing (Irish governments have had a tendency to keep asking questions until they got the answer they were looking for) but the Lisbon Treaty, important as Europe is, felt like a far more academic exercise.  Today is about having a say in Ireland, not Europe.  This is about having a say in the constitution that grew out of de Valera’s 1937 Bunreacht na hEireann, the document that crystallised the idea of a new sovereign state into a set of rules and guidelines. 

The Divorce Referendum in 1995 was the last time the vote went over 60%.  That means that more than 40% of the voting public couldn’t be bothered to have a say in their country.  That makes me angry. It’s always a yes/no answer, do you or don’t you?  This is why there should be debate, why there should be full and detailed explanations on ALL the arguments.  It’s no longer up to the Referendum Commission to provide the arguments but it should be a civic responsibility to find out as well.  It doesn’t matter how disenchanted you feel with the way things are or who’s running the show, things will never change unless people use their voice.  I waited long enough to get mine. I will always use it.

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