Quick Notes on Tomorrow’s Referendum

I see no reason why my appalling record at predicting electoral outcomes is likely to improve any time soon and so I am inclined to take my own prediction, that the result of a referendum will be a No tomorrow, with a pinch of salt. However I think there are a few things likely to lift the No vote, and even if it turns out that a poorly-attended Yes wins the day, those things still deserve consideration.

The first thing is the general anti-political mood, which has yet to find formal expression. The Fine Gael – Labour government has been in office for 20 months now, and contrary to the constant stream of propaganda emitting from the government and a media that is sympathetic on the whole to the government’s agenda, things are not getting better for most people in Ireland: they’re getting palpably worse.

The effect of the relentless bright-sided briefings, award ceremonies and official pats on the head, supposedly in gratitude for national forbearance, will at best give people the impression that other people’s lives are getting better, while theirs –in many cases, deprived of a job, or of any respite in financial pressures that feed personal and family misery- is getting worse. That is, the effect will be one of deep resentment.

Although the media is sympathetic on the whole to the government’s agenda –internal devaluation and the maintenance of a ‘good business climate’- this sympathy doesn’t extend to individual politicians, or to the government as a whole, in terms of how it executes its responsibilities. Hence the drip-drip of lurid revelations about politicians’ lucrative pension provisions, expense claims, and so on. On the surface of it, this may seem contradictory: how can you support the government’s agenda whilst simultaneously undermining its ability to execute that agenda?

But underneath, it’s simple enough: the agenda, in keeping with that of Irish business elites and Troika supervisors, is to wrest those functions of the State intended to provide some guarantee of social solidarity and stability away from public control and ownership, and, as far as practicable, hand them over to private control, in the interests of profit. In order for this to happen, it’s crucial for public confidence in public institutions –and those who work in them- to be undermined. It’s no coincidence that the stories –subsidised by the public- about politicians’ fat pensions and sinecures should be emerging in the run-up to a projected €3.5bn in cuts in the budget.  

Such stories –alongside those of other high earners in the public sector, such as hospital consultants- are intended to feed the general impression of a public sector composed in the main of self-serving fat cats and faceless bureaucrats, protected by a shadowy cabal of union chiefs.  

To be clear, the point of all this is not to press for public institutions that operate more democratically: the point is to press for the destruction of the idea that public institutions ought to operate democratically at all, but that they should operate the way private sector firms do: in the interests of profit, or in the interests of ‘efficiency’ or ‘value for money’, to cite a couple of common euphemisms. The fact that exorbitant wages for top public sector bosses reflect private sector values, as specifically intended by the Review Body on Higher Remuneration in the Public Sector, is neither here nor there.

So, the day before the referendum, there is widespread resentment toward politicians, who in turn function as a kind of voodoo doll for unionised public sector workers. And alongside that, a growing mistrust of public institutions. And alongside that, a high profile example, not only of farcical government incompetence, but of the government’s intention to manipulate the public –with public money- into voting a particular way in the Children’s Referendum.

I think this will express itself in two ways in the referendum result: first, disengagement and apathy, resulting in a low turnout. Second, a vote against whatever it is that the government is proposing, motivated in part by anti-political resentment, and in part by the conviction that the government can’t be trusted to uphold the rights of children, because it can’t be trusted with anything.

The latter conviction has more than an element of truth: let’s recall that the so-called ‘Stability Treaty’ referendum, in which a Yes vote was demanded by the government, on pain of apocalyptic market vengeance, included the amendment that ‘provision of this Constitution invalidates laws enacted, acts done or measures adopted by the State that are necessitated by the obligations of the State under that Treaty or prevents laws enacted, acts done or measures adopted by bodies competent under that Treaty from having the force of law in the State’. Which is to say, the repayment of banker debt will always take precedence over children’s rights: that is what ‘as far as practicable’ means in the context of the Children’s Referendum. So much for rights.

It is also worth recalling, in this context, that CEO of Barnardo’s Fergus Finlay, one of the foremost advocates of a Yes vote in the Children’s Referendum, backed a Yes vote on the Stability Treaty. This should make us think about the degree of public authority enjoyed by charitable organisations in Ireland. One of the features of the pro-Yes campaign in the Children’s Referendum was a reliance on the opinion of charities, rather than informed discussion on the basis of a common understanding that rights are an essential element of democratic citizenship. “Don’t take my word for it – ask St Vincent de Paul!”, to paraphrase part of Fintan O’Toole’s argument in favour of a Yes.

However, this points towards a deeper problem: the widespread perception that rights have something to do with charitable provision. This perception is informed and framed by the Irish constitution itself, in its requirement of a ‘social order in which justice and charity shall inform all the institutions of the national life’. The effect is an impoverished public discourse with regard to democratic rights, kept that way by the structural reproduction of a hierarchical relation in the functioning of the Irish State. Whatever the result of tomorrow’s vote, the death of the old would appear a long way off.


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