Public apathy is stark and a challenge still possible

THAT’S that one out of the way.

Onward ho to the next big thing — goodbye children, hello budget.

Yesterday’s result will have been greeted with two cheers in government circles and the wider political establishment. Despite another cock-up, a referendum defeat has been avoided, but the result is far from a ringing endorsement of the Government-led campaign.

From early morning yesterday, once boxes were opened, it became obvious that a major shock was not on the cards. The people had spoken and they had said: Yes, yes, kinda...

Apathy and disaffection began to spill out from the boxes from soon after 9am. The vote, at 33%, was one of the lowest ever in any class of a national poll.

Apathy was also present in the number crunchers who come into their own in the early hours of a count. The tallyman is usually up before dawn on the day of a count, to ensure his brain is working at optimum level when the boxes are opened. The tallyman stayed in bed yesterday.

The estimates are that in at least 25% of count centres there was nary a tallyman in sight. Maybe, like God, the tallyman deigns to rest of a Sunday.

Disaffection is a constant feature of any class of a national poll in these days of pain and pestilence. Some wiser heads put the high no vote in urban working-class areas down to an instinctive impulse to hit out at the establishment.

Those who were opposed to the amendment, on the other hand, claimed that it was in these areas that the amendment will have its full impact. However, when Cork North Central returns a yes result by a margin of 47 votes, you have to look beyond the specifics of the issue for some reasoning.

Elsewhere, the modern day martyr, Blessed Seán Quinn of Ballyconnell, made his way onto the ballot paper. “Free Seán Quinn” was scrawled on papers from Cavan across to Sligo-Leitrim and into Donegal. Disaffection comes in many forms.

The atmosphere was muted when the result was officially declared just after 2pm in the national count centre in Dublin Castle. There was none of the whooping that usually accompanies such events.

Frances Fitzgerald, the minister for children, was present to bask in the dull glow of this victory. She had been having a good campaign up until the Supreme Court ruling last week that the Government had been wrong to spend public money on its information campaign. That ruling, combined with the low turnout and relatively close result, took the shine off her star.

She wasn’t the only one to come out of the campaign in poor nick. The campaign worked by politicians came across as deeply hypocritical. Practically all the main parties have been in government at times when the welfare of children in care, and those in danger in the home, has largely been ignored. The lack of political will and resources required to tackle the issue was in sharp contrast to the rhetoric used in the media and on lampposts over the last month.

Many on the no side also put in performances that were less than edifying. Fear, inaccuracies, and untruths were spread like manure across the airwaves and newsprint.

In fact, the only group to emerge from the campaign with credit were those who work with the kind of children who will be affected by the poll. Children’s advocates groups, and others such as lawyers, put in an honest effort to get the vote they saw as best benefiting the children who find themselves at the thin end of nurturing.

Whatever the reasons — the reality is that less than 20% of those eligible to vote actually did so in favour of the amendment. This is not the “strong endorsement” that Fitzgerald claimed.

The electorate didn’t engage with this issue. That may be down to the manner in which the campaign was conducted. It could also be down to the fact that not enough people care about the issue.

Last May, the fiscal treaty referendum attracted about 50% of voters to the poll, compared to 33% this time around. The treaty was sold as something that will affect voters in their pockets, while Saturday’s poll was about other people’s children.

In any event, we may not have heard the last of this referendum. Between the turnout and the result, a challenge is possible if not probable following last week’s Supreme Court result.

But while that battle could get an airing in the Four Courts, the political caravan will have long moved on from that.

If they think the nitty gritty of this referendum presented a few problems, wait until the country gets stuck into the detail of December’s budget.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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