Much to dislike about the 8th referendum campaign

As the campaigns to repeal or retain the 8th Amendment forge ahead, the first major television debate is now in the history books.

The “three on three” format, on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live with audience contributions and boisterous applause throughout, has been criticised for shedding more heat than light.

Meanwhile, Google’s late stage decision to call a halt to all online referendum advertisements, no matter who pays for them, has sparked outrage from backers of a No vote, who are widely regarded to have had an advantage on the internet and who directed substantial resources there.

The timing and extent of the ban is unfortunate at many levels and may lend credence to the cries of the No side that elements of the “establishment” explicitly and implicitly leaned on Google to act, lest it be blamed ultimately in certain powerful quarters for retention of the 8th Amendment.  That said, the assertions of anti-abortion campaigners that they had to focus on the web because the mainstream media would not allow them to get their message out are overwrought.  Additionally, their online focus, a la the Trump campaign and Brexit, may have been misplaced in a small jurisdiction like Ireland.

In a highly charged environment, both sides can be forgiven and – speaking ruthlessly politically – congratulated for efficacious advocacy.

In relentless and single-minded pursuit of victory, however, the Yes and No campaigns have each employed a stratagem that is disturbing, unnecessary and could have detrimental consequences that endure long after the people decide on the 25th.

One of the repeated mantras of those leading the campaign to retain the 8th Amendment has been that repealing this provision from the Constitution is tantamount to “handing a blank cheque to politicians” to determine what Ireland’s abortion laws should be.

Extraordinarily, speaking from the audience in the Claire Byrne Live debate, Senator Rónán Mullen said “I’m a politician.  You can’t trust politicians.” This appeal may be shrewd, but only in the short term.

It is staggering to suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with empowering the men and women who a majority of voters have placed their sacred trust in at the ballot box to make laws on abortion or any other topic.

This is the very essence of the system of government that nearly everyone in the western world believes to be the best of a bad lot.

It is also at odds with the perspective of the pro-life movement in the United States, which has long made the case that elected officials are precisely the people who should be making the law on abortion and other hot-button cultural issues.

In reality, this stance is more closely aligned with the platform of Direct Democracy Ireland, whose endorsement of governance by popular referendum is broadly deemed unworkable and situates it on the far out fringe of Irish politics.  

Repealers have utilised a tactic that is similarly worrying.  That is the “othering” of those who disagree with them or have sincere reservations about a more liberal abortion regime.  Together for Yes literature features exhortations to a “more compassionate” nation and states that a vote to remove the 8th Amendment is required to “support, respect and protect women.”

The implication is crystal clear: those who take a different view are less compassionate and do not want a country that appropriately supports, respects or protects women.

This is deeply offensive, in particular, to the large constituency of Irish women intending to vote No, who would doubtless vigorously deny bearing any ill will to fellow women.

Sadly, though unsurprisingly, the rhetoric is considerably harsher on social media.  On Twitter, well-known anti-abortion and pro-choice spokespersons are routinely attacked viciously. And many ordinary citizens are blocked, simply because of their voting intentions.

We all have to live here after the referendum.  Claims that we can’t trust the politicians we elect or that people who see a complex issue differently are somehow “other” are equally unsettling, especially given that we have avoided the bitter divides that now shape politics in our neighbours on the other side of the Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

In the remaining days, each campaign has a powerful closing question to ask.  

  • For repeal, do you want to help women and finally do something about the very hard cases?
  • For retain, is 12 weeks (three months) of unrestricted access to abortion a step way too far?

It may well come down to which question voters would rather answer.  Herein lies one of the oft-cited weaknesses of referendums. Specifically, even when asked a binary question, voters may actually be responding to a different one because they don’t like either of the two options on offer from the government that framed their “choice.”  They can also be turned off by poorly chosen spokespersons and the tenor of the debate itself and make their decision for reasons peripheral to the question – or not vote at all.

Lastly, there’s one thing that activists on both sides of the referendum should be mindful of as the votes are counted on the 26th.  If the Yes side prevails, there may well be more unborn Irish children who will never get a chance at life.  If the No side manages a come from behind triumph, Irish women who receive dreadful news about the viability of the potential life growing within them will still have to make a heart wrenching journey overseas to access a procedure they never wanted.

It is understandable that winning campaigners who have poured everything they have into a cause they believe so deeply in will be grateful for the verdict delivered by the people.

But neither outcome is cause for celebration.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney and Law Lecturer at NUI Galway who comments regularly on politics, current affairs and law in Ireland and the US.

Twitter: @LarryPDonnelly

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