You should stop reading right now. Pay no attention to pretty much every columnist of my generation. We got it wrong. Opinion polls are only as good as the people who interpret them, and we all filter our interpretations though our experience. I first voted in 1983, on the Eighth Amendment, which was approved by two-thirds of those who showed up to vote. Three years later, similar numbers turned out to reject a proposal to allow divorce in Ireland, and seemingly put an end to Garret FitzGerald’s grandly named Constitutional Crusade.
It’s worth noting how referendums were back then. In the first 50 years of Bunreacht na hÉireann, we only got up to ten amendments. Since then, in large part thanks to Ray Crotty’s court challenge to the Single European Act, referendums have become almost an annual event, as much a part of the Irish calendar as the Munster Hurling Final or the Christmas Late Late Toy Show. There have been just under 50 referendum votes over the eighty years of the present Constitution.
The X Case led to three further referendums on abortion in 1992. There were no good choices on offer, and the voters made the best of a bad deal, accepting votes to allow the right obtain information on abortion and to travel abroad, but rejecting an attempt to row back on the Supreme Court decision on suicide as a threat to life.
A decade later, Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil led government tried again, with the twenty-fifth amendment. Again, the government tried to reverse the suicide ruling from the X Case. Voters rejected it narrowly. In the interim, divorce had been introduced by the slimmest of margins in 1995. In each of these referendums, the same faces and voices popped up again and again, rehashing the same arguments. And weirdly, those voices were also raised in the regular referendums on the EU, as the Union expanded and evolved, requiring votes on new Treaties.
But generals lose wars by preparing for the last battle they fought, and the tactics that worked in the 1980s have lost their edge. Despite the fear and damnation promised in 2015, Ireland said Yes to marriage equality in 2015. That should have been a warning klaxon that the country had changed. Yet three years later, the same tactics were deployed in the campaign to ‘Save the Eighth’.
The old voices at Lolek Ltd, a private company trading under the registered business name “Iona Institute”, and the no longer quite so youthful Youth Defence, misread the country. Maybe the old guard thought that abortion was a harder sell for the reformers than marriage equality. The Repeal movement knew that the marriage campaign was won by thousands of coming-out stories, but conservatives thought that shame would keep women quiet. It didn’t work. Women told their stories, and the people listened. The quiet anger that had been bubbling since a few hundred people gathered quietly outside Leinster House the day after news broke of Savita Halappanavar’s death had not gone away.
The No side misread their internal polls, and thought there was a soft Yes vote they could turn to a No. But while the electorate might differ over how abortion might work after the Eighth was gone, they were clear on one thing, the Eighth had to go. Soft support for abortion did not translate into soft support for Repeal. And so we come to this column, and all the columns like it.
If generals make the mistake of fighting the last war, journalists make the mistake of reporting the last campaign. Journalists my age, who lived through the referendums in 2002, and 1995, and 1992, and even 1986 and 1983, remember when it was a hard slog.
Against all of that, it was easy to write off marriage equality as a one-off fluke. But Ireland has changed. Michael Noonan was a government minister in 1983. Enda Kenny was elected in 1975. The Taoiseach who succeeded Enda wasn’t even born when he first entered the Dáil.
Health minister Simon Harris wasn’t born when the Eighth amendment was passed. Invisibly, without the political correspondents and old heads noticing, a new generation took power. The Leinster House lobbies proved to be the greatest echo chamber of them all.
Newspapers spoke about how online bot armies would sway votes and distort debate, while activists built “Repeal Shield” to silence abusive trolls (16,000 (mostly US-based) had been blocked at the time of going to press). Analysts derided a distributed movement without clear leaders, because they’ve been looking at astroturf for so long they’ve forgotten what genuine grassroots activism looks like. The grey-haired commentators are left wondering how they missed a revolution. The answer is simple. We got old. The kids have got this now. And I think the country is in good hands.