There has been much ink spilt over the recent referendum result in Ireland. Analysis of the reasons as to why the vote was lost may, however, provide seeds for a strategy to win similar debates in the future.
For the first time in Irish politics, the former fault lines of Irish politics—anti versus pro-British, Protestant versus Catholic—were submerged in a wider debate, which was both international in tone and argument. Abortion may have been the issue at stake during the recent campaign, but, make no mistake, this was a battle between a liberal and conservative view of the world, something that the voters within Ireland were as aware of as those watching, or, in some cases, actively supporting, from outside the country.
During the abortion referendum some commentators, mostly on the Left, lamented that US style “culture wars” had come to Ireland. If this was the case, then it is those on the Left who need to take responsibility for this development. The leaders and many on the front benches of the two main political parties had declared themselves pro-life at the last Irish General Election in 2016. During the referendum, they went on to declare themselves “pro-choice.” All the parties on the Left, of course, were stridently “pro-choice” throughout. It could be argued that “culture wars” start when political systems fail and politicians begin to look and speak the same way, thereby giving their electorate not so much a choice of party but rather the choice of an oligarchy with one world view. Inevitably, voters will look for new political groupings to hear different voices saying alternate things. As evidenced in both the US and UK in recent years, voters hate being taken for granted. Never has Irish politics appeared so ripe for new voices.
In addition to the political parties, the other important player in the recent referendum and the ongoing re-making of Ireland, according to this agreed-upon liberal world-view, is the nation’s media. It is even more liberal than the one in the United Kingdom. At least in the latter jurisdiction there has been a long tradition of equal political representation in newspapers, magazines, and, to a lesser extent, on air (most of the UK broadcast media is liberal to the core). The problem for Ireland is that, with the exception of a few isolated figures, there is no conservative media base. So, unless new political parties and alliances emerge, Ireland risks becoming a one-party liberal state. Furthermore, there will be no media challenge to this dispensation, only those who flag-wave the creation of this new Ireland while smugly rubber-stamping its latest laws.
Is this a case of: “Abandon hope all ye who enter”? Not quite.
Take another look at the referendum results.
Look not at the constituency-by-constituency statistics of those who voted for repeal of the Eight Amendment, but nationally, at the 733,632 Irish citizens who voted “No.” Three quarters of a million Irish voters rejected the most well-organized—and lopsided—campaign ever to take place in the Republic’s history. They said “No” not just to abortion. They also voted “No” to a domestic political elite aided and abetted by its newfound international allies and who had at its disposal all available Irish media channels to propagate a liberal message while choking off other views on such platforms as Google and Facebook.
The Irish electorate is relatively small and although the “No” vote is represented as only one third of the electorate, international commentators may have forgotten the highly fractious state of Irish party politics.
To give some context, look at the results from the 2016 General Election. At that election, Fine Gael, the current governing party, won roughly 26 percent of the popular vote. The next largest party, Fianna Fáil, won 24 percent; then came Sinn Féin with just over 13 percent of the vote, and other assorted left wing groupings and independents won around 12 percent. Looking at these figures, the 33.6 percent pro-life vote in the referendum looks not so much like a defeat as an opportunity.
There are already rumours of a conservative challenge to a sitting socialist incumbent in the forthcoming Irish presidential election. The office of President of Ireland is largely ceremonial and symbolic but it could be argued that the 1990 election of Mary Robinson, a socialist, ushered in a new form of Irish politics and gave the liberal left a boost from which it still draws energy.
Whether or not a presidential challenge does materialize, there is still the problem of an irredeemably liberal media. Conservative journals and periodicals both online and in print are needed more than ever to help shape the debate around alternatives to the prevailing liberal views. One of the leading proponents of these liberal views is The Irish Times. Its print circulation currently stands at just over 61,000. So, with a potential market of 733,632 looking for differing views, the proposition of some new conservative Irish media—in whatever form—could prove financially lucrative as well as timely.
It is important to remember that, in the complicated history of the Emerald Isle, defeat has often preceded some more permanent victory for those who are seemingly vanquished. After the crushing of the 1916 Easter Rising, a popular campaign for independence was initiated, urged on by a well-oiled propaganda machine. A mere five years later, the Irish Free State was established.
Without a popular, organized movement of social conservatives, however, and a media to inform and support it, the causes of Irish Catholics and their allies will be lost before they begin.