Note on the Children Referendum

This is a comment I left a while back on an Irish Times editorial about the low turnout in the Children Referendum., which seems a long time ago now.

Perhaps people did not go out and vote because this time they knew there would be no wrathful God Of The Markets standing ready to exact brutal punishment should they fail to vote Yes.

To say that there was a wide public consensus in favour of the Yes vote is not saying very much, because the scope and wording of the amendment was carefully crafted so as to ensure that even more conservative sectors of Irish society could not oppose it and more progressive sectors could not argue against it. So the overall position of the Family as the ‘necessary basis of social order’ remains unassailable; the ‘as far as practicable’ clause means ‘within reason, as decided by ‘the markets’’; and the provision appears only to apply to those children in Ireland whom the constitution recognises as Irish citizens. Where you have a widespread sense that very little is at stake, it’s hardly surprising if the turnout proves low.

But the low turnout this referendum ought to be seen against the backdrop of a broader trend in Western societies. Social provisions and entitlements, supposedly guaranteed in constitutions, are being stripped away, under an offensive conducted by elected governments, acting not on behalf of their electorates, but in the interests of major financial powers.

When this offensive, which is entirely anti-democratic, requires the need for a constitutional change, electorates are either ignored, as was the case recently in Spain, or they are threatened with the apocalyptic violence of the markets, by government, business groups and sympathetic media organisations, to make sure they vote the right way. This was the case in Ireland with the Lisbon Treaty and the so-called Stability Treaty referenda . The political effect of this offensive is a widespread disenchantment with the existing political system, alongside the emptying of constitutions of any meaningful content in practice, in terms of social and democratic rights.

The social effects, among other things, are unemployment, hyper-exploitation in the workplace, deprivation and hopelessness. In Ireland, political and media establishments have no interest in addressing the political effect, and routinely present the social effects –as with the upcoming budget cuts- as an inevitable economic necessity. In this context, it should hardly come as any surprise if most people switch off from what they have to say about the importance of rights and constitutions.

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