Irish voters have delivered a stunning blow to the establishment

The rejection of the family and care amendments reminds us why direct democracy matters.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics World

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The Irish people have just delivered a stunning rebuke to the political establishment. In Friday’s dual referendum, voters overwhelmingly rejected the government’s attempts to change the meaning of ‘family’ and the references to women in Ireland’s constitution. Sixty-seven per cent voted ‘No’ in the ‘family’ referendum and 74 per cent voted similarly in the ‘care’ referendum.

In the family referendum, the government wanted to change the meaning of ‘family’, as defined in the 1937 constitution, so that it extended beyond marriage to include households based on ‘durable relationships’. In the care referendum, it proposed replacing language surrounding a ‘woman’s duties’ in the home with a clause recognising the role of ‘family members’ in the provision of care.

The vagueness of the formulations is no accident. Its authors’ wanted to obscure their objective – namely, to devalue the moral authority of the traditional marital family unit. Since an explicit attack on the status of marriage was likely to provoke a backlash, the government tried to hide its motives behind meaningless platitudes about ‘durable relationships’.

Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the government simply wanted to change the ‘very old-fashioned, very sexist language about women’ in the constitution. For the likes of Varadkar, the term ‘old-fashioned’ serves as a pejorative way of saying ‘traditional’. As far as these woke technocrats are concerned, anything that smacks of tradition is bad.

The Yes campaigners claimed that the traditional idea of the family no longer reflects the contemporary reality of Ireland where, according to Politico, ‘two-fifths of children are born out of wedlock and most women work outside the home’. Yet it seems that the majority of Irish people prefer ‘old-fashioned’ ideals to those promoted by their cultural and political elites.

Irish voters have not simply rejected the Irish government here – they have also rejected the entire political establishment. After all, Varadkar’s proposals were supported by all of Ireland’s major political parties, as well as by most NGOs, academics and cultural elites. The overwhelming defeat of these proposals shows how out of touch the political establishment is. So many politicians, academics and pundits have no real idea how ordinary people feel about family life. Yes, a growing number of children are born out of wedlock in Ireland. But the majority of Irish people still see the institution of marriage as the foundation of society.

Predictably, Ireland’s political elites are blaming everything other than themselves for this defeat. In particular, they claim that the wording of the constitutional amendments was far too difficult for ordinary people to understand.

Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns, a vociferous supporter of the amendments, said that the voters were confused. Irish journalist Rory Carroll claimed that the ‘Yes’ campaign was ‘uncertain and uninspired’ and that the ‘amendments were difficult to explain and understand’. Laura Cahillane, an associate professor at the University of Limerick School of Law, claimed that ‘when people are confused, they are more likely to reject change’.

The elites’ attempts to blame the wording of the amendments for their defeat is an exercise in displacement. It allows them to avoid facing up to the fact that the electorate thoroughly rejected their outlook.

Would the result of the referendums have been fundamentally different if the amendments had been crafted by a gifted wordsmith? That seems unlikely. The majority of the Irish people understood that marriage, an institution central to their way of life, was under attack. And so, fed up with the political elite’s relentless promotion of woke values, Irish voters used the dual referendum to say enough is enough.

Moreover, the attempt to put this ballot-box defeat down to people’s ‘confusion’ is an implicit attack on democracy. The elites are effectively saying that voters didn’t understand what they were doing. That they’re just not as smart as politicians, academics and commentators.

This response is all too familiar. As we saw in 2016, when Brits voted for Brexit and Americans elected Donald Trump to be president, Western elites are all too ready to attack the public and the institution of democracy if it does not deliver the ‘correct’ result. As one pundit put it in a 2016 article, the ‘political schism of our time’ is not between left and right; it’s between ‘the sane [and] the mindless angry’. He called for ‘the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses’. Similarly, philosopher AC Grayling responded to Brexit in his 2017 book, Democracy and its Crisis, by complaining that ‘something has gone seriously wrong in the state of democracy’.

The elites’ response to Brexit and to this dual referendum defeat in Ireland captures their two-faced attitude towards democracy – and direct democracy in particular. They’re all too happy to champion democracy as long as people vote the ‘correct’ way. But the moment people reject the establishment position, be it on the EU or the family, then something is deemed to have gone wrong. People didn’t know what they were voting for, the wording was ‘confusing’ and so on.

Yet it’s precisely because democracy and referendums allow people to challenge the establishment that they are so valuable. They’re a chance for people to say what they actually think – not just vote for the least-worst party.

Indeed, one reason it has been possible for governments to institutionalise elite, woke views on gender and family life is because the people are so rarely asked what they think. Few mainstream parties are willing to give voice to the public’s scepticism. The elite’s values have simply been imposed on society from above in the name of ‘modernisation’.

That is why holding a referendum is such an important democratic exercise. It provides an opportunity for people to express their views and to stop the political elites from forcing their ideals on the rest of society. In this regard, last week’s dual referendum clarified rather than confused matters.

Direct democracy does not provide all the answers, of course. It needs to coexist with representative democracy. But as this defeat of the Irish establishment shows, direct democracy is the best weapon that the people have to make their voices heard.

Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.

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Topics Politics World


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