If only Brexit had been run like Ireland’s referendum

In all the excitement of what happened in Ireland’s referendum on abortion, we should not lose sight of what did not happen. A vote on an emotive subject was not subverted. The tactics that have been so successful for the right and the far right in the UK, the US, Hungary and elsewhere did not work. A democracy navigated its way through some very rough terrain and came home not just alive but more alive than it was before. In the world we inhabit, these things are worth celebrating but also worth learning from. Political circumstances are never quite the same twice, but some of what happened and did not happen in Ireland surely contains more general lessons.

If the right failed spectacularly in Ireland, it was not for want of trying. Save the 8th, one of the two main groups campaigning against the removal of the anti-abortion clause from the Irish constitution, hired Vote Leave’s technical director, the Cambridge Analytica alumnus Thomas Borwick.

Save the 8th and the other anti-repeal campaign, Love Both, used apps developed by a US-based company, Political Social Media (PSM), which worked on both the Brexit and Trump campaigns. The small print told those using the apps that their data could be shared with other PSM clients, including the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and Vote Leave.

Irish voters were subjected to the same polarising tactics that have worked so well elsewhere: shamelessly fake “facts” (the claim, for example, that abortion was to be legalised up to six months into pregnancy); the contemptuous dismissal of expertise (the leading obstetrician Peter Boylan was told in a TV debate to “go back to school”); deliberately shocking visual imagery (posters of aborted foetuses outside maternity hospitals); and a discourse of liberal elites versus the real people. But Irish democracy had an immune system that proved highly effective in resisting this virus. Its success suggests a democratic playbook with at least four good rules.

Fintan O’Toole then goes on to outline what he sees as the four good rules for running a democratic referendum campaign. He is worth reading in full, but to summarise:

  1. Trust the People
  2. Be Honest
  3. Talk to everybody and make assumptions about nobody (avoid tribalism)
  4. The political has to be personalised.

The greatest human immune system against the viruses of hysteria, hatred and lies is storytelling. People were most influenced by the personal testimonies of women who had gone through the trauma of having to travel to the UK for an abortion. The political has to be personalised.

As time has gone on I have heard more and more stories about how yes canvassers were abused by their opponents. Of the hatred and vitriol direct at them in highly personalised terms. One bishops is saying that Catholics who voted Yes should consider going to confession as doing so could be a sin. The media are still full of it. I have responded to one article entitled  Anti-abortion movement has not given up and will not disappear by Breda O’Brien (a leading No campaigner and patron of the Iona Institute) as follows:

Breda – I have news for you… this is only the beginning. The next step is to wrest control of our taxpayer funded schools and hospitals from the Catholic Church and your ilk so that women can have proper healthcare and children can have a proper education. None of your magical thinking and pious sanctimonious moral superiority. You’ve called two thirds of the nation baby killers. They will not forgive you lightly. Calling Varadker patronising takes the biscuit. You have been condescending to us for your adult lifetime. Perhaps you should move to Northern Ireland while there is still a home for bigots there. You have nothing to offer a compassionate, caring, progressive society except more bile and bitterness.

In the meantime the government are moving with all haste to have the legislation required to give effect to the people’s decision passed as soon as possible – with parliament sitting through the summer if necessary. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, the leader of the opposition, is trying to prevent his backbenchers, the majority of whom supported the NO side, from blocking the legislation. Some of the urgency is generated by the need to get the process as far as advanced as possible of the Pope’s visit to Ireland for the “World Meeting of Families” in August. But there is also a realisation that it may well be some time in 2019 before abortion services are actually available in Ireland:

Referendum aftershocks rumble on

The legislation must be carefully drawn up. The medical bodies have to formulate clinical guidelines to govern medical practice in the abortion areas. The drugs in the abortion pills have to be approved by regulatory authorities. The HSE has to figure out how it will organise and pay for the service. The agreement of doctors to provide the service has to be secured.

It will be, the Taoiseach explained, January next year at the earliest before the service is in place. And that’s probably being optimistic.

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