Vote of confidence in our troubled political system

Long after the chants of ‘Simon, Simon’ have faded, the referendum’s political fallout will be far-reaching, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

Vote of confidence in our troubled political system

Long after the chants of ‘Simon, Simon’ have faded, the referendum’s political fallout will be far-reaching, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

Late on Saturday afternoon, the Taoiseach arrived to warm cheers from the huge crowd at Dublin Castle.

But within a few steps of beginning his journey to the podium, he must have been miffed.

Flanked by several members of his Cabinet, including Health Minister Simon Harris, Leo Varadkar and his entourage could hear a name being chanted by the thousands around them.

The chant was not “Leo, Leo, Leo” but rather one of “Simon, Simon, Simon”. One sign, seen held above the heads of the crowd, read: “I fancy Simon Harris.”

Yes campaigner holds up sign reading 'I fancy Simon Harris' during the referendum vote count at Dublin Castle. Pic: Gareth Chaney Collins
Yes campaigner holds up sign reading 'I fancy Simon Harris' during the referendum vote count at Dublin Castle. Pic: Gareth Chaney Collins

Buoyed by the realisation that Ireland had voted overwhelmingly by 66.4% to 33.6% to back his proposal to repeal the Eighth Amendment, this was Harris’ moment.

He made his own Taoiseach his side man.

Earlier in the day, queues of women were forming around him to simply come up and thank him. Some got teary-eyed when they spoke.

Many said his strong performance in the final Prime Time debate, up against Peadar Tóibín of Sinn Féin, cemented his status as a key driver of reform.

Having had doubt cast upon his continuance in Cabinet under Varadkar a year ago, given that he supported Simon Coveney’s leadership bid, Harris has now made himself undroppable.

But the good cheers were not limited to Fine Gael in the sun at Dublin Castle.

It was clearly a day when party politics took a back seat.

Micheál Martin, when he took the podium, got a huge cheer. So did Mary Lou McDonald, so did Ivana Bacik and others.

But as much as Harris has earned his acclaim, Varadkar is also due a sizeable amount of credit.

He committed to the referendum amid some doubt within his own party ranks, and backed it all the way, including the proposal to permit abortions largely without restriction up to 12 weeks. He promised to deliver a referendum within one year of taking office, and he did so.

Varadkar described the vote as a “quiet revolution”, a great act of democracy.

“Today, we as a people have spoken. And we say that we trust women and we respect women and their decisions. For me it is also the day when we said ‘no more’. No more doctors telling their patients there is nothing that can be done for them in their own country.

“No more lonely journeys across the Irish Sea. No more stigma. The veil of secrecy is lifted. No more isolation. The burden of shame is gone,” he said.

As the day wore on, the most remarkable thing for me was the huge vote of confidence the people have given to our beleaguered political system.

Amid many perverse arguments from many TDs (especially within Fianna Fáil) during the campaign, that politicians could not be trusted to handle such a crucial issue, the public thumbed their noses at that.

They have overwhelmingly endorsed the right of our elected leaders to set the laws of the land, on complex issues as well as straightforward ones.

Given all the scandals to have engulfed Irish politics in my lifetime, the willingness of the people to grant the powers to set the laws to TDs and senators is remarkable, but justified.

But just what was behind the huge yes vote, and what are the political ramifications of it?

Firstly, it was startling to read from the exit poll data how many people had their minds made up years ago.

In both the yes and no camps, up to three quarters of people told pollsters they had their minds made up as long as five years ago.

Without question though, the fallout from the scandalous death of Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital in 2012 was a major influence on how people voted.

The mural of Savita Halappanavar in Dublin. Pic: Niall Carson/PA Wire
The mural of Savita Halappanavar in Dublin. Pic: Niall Carson/PA Wire

As reflected in the strength of the yes vote in counties such as Kerry, Roscommon, Galway, and Tipperary, where the loudest political voices for no hail from, the desire for change was immense.

While many may not be fully comfortable with the proposed legislation, they did not wish to be an impediment to what they saw was necessary change.

Speaking in terms of political tactics during the campaign, several leading yes campaigners were shocked at the failure of the no campaign to make the unease over the 12-week proposal their main line of attack.

Without doubt, this was the most controversial aspect of the proposal for change and should have been exploited to a much greater extent.

Had they done so, that would have helped swing some of the don’t-knows their way, but instead, they all seemed to break for the yes side.

Instead in the last few days, they reverted back to their base arguments of politicians can’t be trusted, and life is precious.

Another fascinating aspect of the campaign was the stark absence of the Catholic Church in the debate.

This was the clearest illustration of how marginalised it has become when compared with the role it played in 1983 when the hypocrites Eamonn Casey and Michael Cleary were leading voices for the introduction of the Eighth Amendment.

Certainly, the vote shows that for many, the suffocating choker of Catholic clericalism has been banished to the past. That is where it should stay.

And interestingly, while the Church was all-but ignored by the domestic media during the campaign, its demise in influence was a key theme for the visiting foreign journalists covering this global story.

Politically, the unforeseen scale of the victory for the yes side undoubtedly gives Harris a strong mandate for change, and to move the legislation as quickly as possible.

This is where the battleground moves to now.

Those TDs and senators who opposed the move to change, it could be argued, have no mandate to block progress now, given the scale of the public vote.

This was reflected by the likes of Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary and Michael McGrath, who advocated no but who have said they will not block the legislation and may even support it when it is brought forward.

Martin, speaking to reporters on Saturday, made it clear that he expects his troops to now fall into line and ensure swift passage of the new laws.

But the result means Fianna Fáil, as a party, is now caught on the horns of a dilemma.

Just what sort of party is it, and what sort of party does it want to be? Conservative or liberal? Pro-business or pro-worker? Urban or rural?

It seems it has no clue what kind of party it is.

Martin, along with a small handful of his TDs, such as Billy Kelleher and Timmy Dooley, got the public mood right, but those who didn’t have serious questions to answer.

Those questions need to be answered quickly or Fianna Fáil’s relevance as a dominant national political force may be consigned, like the Church, to the past.

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