From The Archives: Marriage Equality Referendum Would Not Have Happened Without Labour

One year on from our historic and momentous 'Yes' vote on Ireland's same-sex marriage referendum, we look back at Labour's crucial contribution to making it possible

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. It is time to exercise our democratic rights and mandate a new Government.

The parties “stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot...” Ah yes, Harry’s speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V: in so many ways, it is apposite!

“In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man/ As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, they imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood/ Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage...”

The whistle blows and it’s all to play for! Or so they say. We’re in election mode, after all... Certainly, Micheál Martin is going for it. Polls suggest that Fine Gael will be the largest party in the next Dáil and if they’re right Martin is fighting for Fianna Fáil to overtake Sinn Féin as the second largest. For a long time it looked as though that might mean leading the opposition – but as the figures look now, well you never know. It could yet mean being leader of a very complex and extraordinarily messy coalition arrangement.

So many imponderables are in play: new constituencies, large numbers of independent candidates, a range of new parties and alliances, how transfers will work in any given constituency, how local issues will play out. For those who buy into it, it makes for a fascinating multiplayer contest. For the apathetic, well, it’s a few weeks of pure hell.

Not for the first time, and in a reversal of the salutation of Roman gladiators, we here in Hog House openly salute those who are about to die, or not. Nos salutant vos. No matter how big your ego or bankroll, putting your ass on the line for voter approval is a brave thing to do, especially in these vicious times.

It’s a spectator sport. There’s a lot of noise and heat, often at the expense of light. Our election coverage increasingly mimics Strictly Come Dancing, the Voice of Ireland, X-Factor or, yes, the Great British Bake-Off...

You know the drill. Competitors are encouraged by their partisans, and praised or derided by the jaded smartass celebrities who sit in judgement. Change the last to celebrity commentators, and the relationship between would-be representatives and the Irish media is there, in a nutshell.

Social media are changing things too. It’s not just that parties use them to reach out. There’s also an increase in photogenic/telegenic and tweetable candidates and lots of Photoshopped campaign photos.

But there’s a problem here too. Inadvertently or otherwise, digital editions and social media have established a vast space that is ‘safe’ for abuse and have played a big part in the seemingly unstoppable rise of vitriol and hate.

Meanwhile, the “like” button herds people towards those with similar views. The idea of civilised debate – so central to our democratic processes – is being lost. Almost inevitably, there is migration towards the fringes. On the right, this means populism and demagoguery and on the left, too often, spiteful anger...

It’s a global phenomenon and is generally interpreted as a rejection of the establishment. Hence, we are told, the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, two anti-elite outsiders. Hence also new political movements across Europe. These manifest a rightful rage against the last two decades of “austerity” that made the elite more elite – and a demand for change.

A recent poll, which asked a sample of Irish voters if they wanted a change of government, found that they did. But what does this actually mean? Many might want change – but not everybody wants the same change. Far from it.

In truth, voting for change for its own sake is an idiot’s response. Right now, it is hard to escape the conclusion that a desire for change might override sense or decency – with the near inevitable effect that conflict and alienation will be increased. Nobody thought that would happen in Poland, but it did, with knobs on: a hard right, reformist Government was elected on a change platform. A lot of Poles are now, to put it mildly, far less happy than they were.

Back in Ireland, observers seem agreed that Labour are in for a bashing. But be fair. If you think the outgoing Government did well, vote for them again. On the other hand if there’s someone who better represents your views or your vision, give them your No 1. The multiple choice vote allows voters to calibrate.

Use your preferences wisely. With PR we can’t predict who will wind up in Government: with coalition politics, by voting one way we can trigger exactly the opposite outcome.

Labour TDs say they entered Government almost five years ago to try to mitigate the harshness of the reform agenda that a Fine Gael government, supported by a few independents, would have imposed. And, in many respects – though clearly not all – they did precisely that. They certainly ensured that a Polish-style outcome was not going to happen.

It may, of course, be a very good thing to upturn the apple cart. Then again, maybe it isn’t. The thing is, it’s your vote and nobody else’s. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied by any loud concensus. All the turmoil of a century ago in Ireland was about you having the right to participate in electing a Government.

We need to evaluate the outgoing Government’s performance against what was going on all around us. You have to factor in the past too. Do leopards change their spots? Perhaps they do – but you’re the one with the vote.

Labour must have known that they’d become the whipping boys for the commentariat and the voters. Clearly, they thought, on balance, that what they were about to do was far better than not doing it. Given the disastrous state of the economy and the pervasive influence of the Troika, they would have to be party to unpalatable measures – but if they could minimise the negatives till a recovery kicked in, then anything taken away from disadvantaged citizens could gradually be restored. It may not be fashionable to say it, but those ambitions are currently being realised.

Yes, they missed the opportunity to force a realignment of Irish politics along left-right lines: they chose to counterbalance Fine Gael instead, arguing that somebody had to. You can posit that this was a failure of long-term vision. But Labour should be given proper credit for what they did achieve – and that isn’t happening...

For example, as David Norris has emphasised, it is the Labour Party who should be thanked for shepherding Marriage Equality over the line in Ireland. That the voters came from far and wide and approved the proposal in spades reflects wonderfully well on the Irish people – but without the Labour Party in government, make no mistake, it wouldn’t ever have got to a vote.

The lives of a significant number of people have been transformed as a result, so it is deeply puzzling that they aren’t mobilising to show their support for the instigators of that change at Government level. To vote for Labour candidates would at least demonstrate the kind of respect that Labour showed in Government to those who desperately needed and wanted change on this crucial issue.

Labour has, for a long time, been the key party in the vanguard of driving social change in Ireland. And there is a need for more of that right now, including repealing the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. Use your vote carefully – and well...

The Hog


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