A tale of three referendums

To what degree can referendums not just measure the national character, but shape it?

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The Aer Lingus float at Dublin Pride 2019

That was the question I was asking myself as I attended Dublin’s Pride Parade yesterday, because one thing was wonderfully obvious — Ireland is a very changed country from the one I grew up in. The streets of the capital were emblazoned with rainbows, and people everywhere were revelling in the sheer joy that Pride represents.

It was a display of collective exuberance that is profoundly moving once you stop to think about it all for a moment. In terms of the scale and reach across the city, it felt second only to St Patrick’s Day, which is quite remarkable. One is a national holiday ostensibly marking the man who brought Christianity to the island, while the other has become a jubilant celebration of who we actually are now we have chosen to define ourselves outside that religiosity — above all, a resounding expression of how open-minded and inclusive and multicultural we have become.

How we went from the Ireland of just a few decades ago — institutionally and culturally homophobic, basically — to the Pride-embracing Ireland of today is obviously bound up with a whole host of social and economic changes we have undergone.

But the central importance of the 2015 marriage equality referendum in that progress cannot be underestimated. It’s not as if Ireland was some LGBT+ Eden before that referendum changed the course of modern Irish society. We were becoming rapidly more tolerant, for sure, but even a few years ago, seeing two men hold hands on the street was still relatively rare. How did the change happen so fast?

Both the 2015 marriage referendum and the 2018 referendum on reproductive rights put hugely important questions to the Irish people to vote on.

But referendums like that also ask larger questions about who we are as people, and the results go beyond determining whether people can marry who they want or whether women have autonomy over their reproductive rights. (Putting the rights of a minority to a public vote is probably not the wisest course of action, in the ideal course of things, but that’s another matter.)

The results of those two referendums gave us a clear and incontrovertible picture of our national character, and the clarity of that portrait was so resounding that it has dramatically altered our sense of self. We know beyond doubt that for all our myriad imperfections, ultimately we are open-minded, empathetic, inclusive and tolerant. Dublin Pride 2019 was a beautiful manifestation of that.

More importantly, those referendums also served to catalyse change and reshape our sense of self. A referendum and the discourse it requires is an opportunity for national self-examination, sure, but in the process it becomes an opportunity for national change.

Of course, it’s impossible to wonder about how a referendum could inspire such change without thinking of our poor neighbours and the Brexit calamity. After all, the UK’s experiment with direct democracy via a referendum on membership of the EU also served not just to measure public opinion, but to reshape the entire polity.

Unfortunately, rather than acting as a catalyst for open-mindedness and inclusivity, Brexit has delivered the exact opposite, fomenting a very ugly post-referendum discourse that is marked by close-mindedness, intolerance, bigotry and exclusion. For all the UK’s myriad imperfections, those were not remotely the qualities that used to define British public life before 2016.

It’s always important to remember that the UK’s position in the EU was not actually that central a question in the British national discourse before David Cameron made his ill-fated decision to put it to the people. It was a central part of the Conservative party’s internal discourse, of course, but not really a live topic for most of the rest of the country.

Now, however, the country has been riven by Brexit, with EU membership elevated to become the nation’s dividing issue, a matter of fierce tribal identity, with two polarised camps moving further and further away from each other.

Perhaps another question on a different topic altogether would have had a positive catalysing effect on British society, though I suspect what we are currently witnessing is the result of a fundamental inability of British society to conduct an honest and critical self-examination, which is a crucial part of the referendum process.

Brexit has revealed a rather astonishing level of mass national irresponsibility. Cake-ism, as it has become known, has become the British national disease — wanting all the benefits with none of the responsibility. The benefits of EU membership come with responsibilities; the benefits of holding a referendum on issues of national importance also come with responsiblities. The UK’s institutions seemingly decided it didn’t like the look of any of those responsibilities — the news media shirked its responsibility to conduct a rigorous, informative national debate, while both sides of the political class shirked their responsibility to deal honestly with the issue, preferring to indulge in dangerous scaremongering in order to win. The grave responsibilities relating to peace in Northern Ireland were so marginalised as to be practically invisible.

Our recent referendums forced us to reckon with who we really are and who we wanted to be — and in the process, we seized the opportunity to become a dramatically better version of ourselves.

Brexit, unfortunately, has had quite the opposite effect — British society proved incapable of such a reckoning, and in the process risks becoming a dramatically diminished version of itself.

Societal change does not happen at an even, predictable pace, but instead accelerates at those moments when events conspire to cause a realignment.

It is sobering to compare how these referendums led to two starkly different realignments. In the UK’s case, it has led to a fissure, and I worry how deep and damaging that fissure will prove to be.

Here in Ireland, the realignment was palpable on the streets yesterday. Dublin’s Pride Parade began as a vital protest for LGBT+ rights, and evolved into a celebration of those rights gradually being realised. Rather beautifully, Dublin Pride now also functions in some small way as a celebration of our own national moment of self-reflection and self-renewal.

Writer and editor based in Dublin

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