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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Stung by Defeat, Irish Elites Double Down

Like their counterparts in America, Ireland’s grandees are failing to come to terms with the revolt of the public.

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Dublin Castle was remarkably quiet on March 9, as the results of Ireland’s latest highly publicized referendum campaign became clear. The courtyard stage was empty, and only a smattering of “opposition” campaigners showed themselves. Both proposed constitutional amendments—one targeting motherhood, the other, marriage—failed in a landslide. 

The referenda were scheduled symbolically on International Women’s Day, and the celebration at the Castle was intended as a victory lap for “inclusion” and anti-sexism. An American onlooker might have recalled Hillary Clinton’s Election Night party beneath a glass ceiling in 2016. 

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The Irish result mirrored Clinton’s loss in the degree of shock it inflicted on the political class. Ireland’s government ministers, establishment journalists, and bloated NGO ecosystem had seemed invincible. “It was our responsibility to convince the majority of people to vote ‘Yes,’ and we clearly failed to do so,” said Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar.

Maria Steen, a lawyer and “No” campaigner, delighted in “a great victory for common sense” and a “rejection of a government that seems more concerned with social-media plaudits than actually getting on with the business of governing the country.”

Nearly 68 percent of voters rejected the 39th Amendment, which would have redefined families to include “durable relationships” outside marriage; the wealthy Dún Laoghaire in suburban Dublin was the only constituency to vote in favor. Nearly 74 percent rejected the 40th Amendment, which would have nixed references to motherhood; all constituencies voted “No.” Polls consistently showed both proposals would pass.

By contrast, the successful referenda to legalize same-sex marriage (62 percent for, in 2015) and abortion (66 percent for, in 2018) reflected the establishment forces’ untrammeled power. Those celebrations, naturally, took place at the Castle. 

This year’s referenda featured the same cast. The National Women’s Council of Ireland, which receives 80 percent of its funding from taxpayers, was arguably the central “nonstate” player; its NGO coreligionists included pro-abortion, pro-migration, and LGBT activist groups, as well as a host of nominally apolitical outfits. In the political sphere, Minister of Equality Roderic O’Gorman asserted that “any organisation that sees itself as progressive and as wanting to advance progressive change” would have to explain a decision not to support the “Yes” campaign. The Irish Examiner published this particularly hubristic headline: Why the upcoming referenda are important for the climate. In all, the government spent €23 million on the referendum campaigns.

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Irish societal resistance was minimal until last November, when riots occurred in Dublin after an Algerian migrant stabbed three children and one adult outside a primary school. The event precipitated a belated debate over the government’s largely unchecked open-border and migrant-entitlement policies. Antagonism has proliferated since then. In one demonstration that the ruling class has been slow to adapt to opposition, Varadkar and two other cabinet ministers walked out of a press conference after a journalist from independent outlet Gript posed an unwelcome question. 

When the results were announced, some government figures saw the writing on the wall. Fianna Fáil parliamentarian Willie O’Dea, for example, asserted his party should “get back to basics.” He implored, “Start listening to the people, stop talking down to them and stop listening to the out-of-touch Greens & NGOs.” O’Dea’s approach has not been representative.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said her party would “return to” the subject of “sexist language” in the constitution if her party enters government after the next elections. She had previously insisted wording of the motherhood amendment did not go far enough and that her party would seek to re-run the referendum if it failed. 

The prevailing narrative from politicians and media pundits has been that the public did not understand the wording of the referenda. (These claims, of course, never materialized after the same-sex and abortion referenda, which exhibited smaller result margins.) This Irish Examiner cartoon neatly captures elite sentiments. “The yes side botched the campaign, leaving voters confused, uncertain and uninspired,” explained the Guardian. “The amendments were difficult to explain and understand.” The journalist and “Yes” campaigner Alison O’Connor decried the machinations of “far-right elements”—a common refrain from Dublin’s halls of power.

One might expect government figures, for all their defiant talk, to internalize this humiliating defeat. Early indications suggest the opposite. Finance Minister Michael McGrath declared the government would proceed with its controversial “hate-speech” legislation, which stalled in the Senate last year. It would entail prison sentences for those merely possessing “hate” material (a meme saved to a phone, for example). Intent to distribute would carry a heavier penalty, and for this the burden of proof would fall on the accused. “We shouldn’t ignore the reality that there is a problem in parts of society, particularly on social media, and we don’t want to be a country that is tolerant of people inciting hate,” protested McGrath.

At least two Fianna Fáil parliamentarians are urging the government not to pursue this course. Yet, such voices have doubtful abilities to rein in policy, and no major party on the Irish political scene is likely to tack significantly to the right. Aontú and the Irish Freedom Party offer some much-needed visibility on the Irish right, but both are in their fledgling stages, and their opponents are many.

Though the fruits of its labor have only recently become obvious to the outside world, Ireland’s globalist Left began accumulating power decades ago, when the country was outwardly still traditionalist and Catholic. 

“From the late 1960s…a derivative establishment—counter-revolutionary and increasingly anti-Catholic—worked to eradicate any vestige of stirring of autonomous Irish thinking, action or behaviour,” wrote Irish philosopher Desmond Fennell. “And the recommended [policy direction] was always some kind of conformity with the current New York-London mores, or further subjection to dictates from Brussels. It was like Bulgaria, say, during the years of Soviet domination – except that there wasn’t a Communist Party dictatorship to rationalise the herd-like behaviour and the trampling on the people’s humanity and autonomy.”

John O’Sullivan observed that “an Irish identity built on the Catholic Church had collapsed, and the nation—or, rather, its cultural elite—was looking for a new identity in which Catholicism was treated as something between an embarrassment and a threat.” 

This new identity has suffered its first notable setback. How will Irish society—now altered demographically, socially, and politically—respond?

At least 11 Irish government ministers, including the Taoiseach, are scheduled to travel to the United States for St. Patrick’s Day this weekend. They will wear green, hobnob with the diaspora, and celebrate an Ireland that exists mostly in memory. Perhaps, though, after the festivities subside and the Guinness wears off, they will find yet another version of the country upon their return.

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