23 November 2012

Referendum result poses questions

The Church of Ireland Gazette carries the following editorial comment on page 2 this morning [Friday, 23 November 2012]:

Referendum result poses questions

The passing of the latest Constitutional amendment in a referendum in the Republic earlier this month was a gain for children’s rights but sends out alarming signals about the health of the political process.

The Children Referendum was passed by a slim and uncomfortable margin of 58 per cent to 42 per cent. The scale of the ‘No’ vote came as a shock both to the Government and to the children’s rights groups that had campaigned during the run-up to the referendum. Government ministers were quick to berate the Churches for an apparent reluctance to enter the debate, but the political parties can be cited too for failing to mobilize canvassers on the ground in many constituencies, and for being interested in rolling out their campaigners only when Dáil seats are at stake.

Even more worrying is the fact that barely a third of voters bothered to go to the polls, with a low turnout of 33.49 per cent – one of the lowest referendum turnouts on record. Seven constituencies recorded turnouts below 30 per cent. Many of those constituencies are in relatively deprived or neglected areas, such as North inner city Dublin, where social workers, judges and politicians are not always held in high esteem. Voting was made easier by holding the referendum at a weekend, but the fact that two-thirds of the population did not turn out says much about how many people are increasingly disengaged from the political process. An immediate question for the Government is whether Saturday voting works, and whether future elections should be held at weekends rather than on mid-week working days. However, the long-term dilemma is whether voters are feeling increasingly alienated from the political class, as financial policies continue to bite deeply, as unemployment and immigration continue to rise and as austerity hangs as a gloomy cloud over everyone.

The Republic of Ireland is a restrained society compared to other European countries facing sweeping austerity measures. Dublin has not seen the protests and riots that have occurred in Athens, Rome, Madrid and Lisbon. Now there is the danger that the ballot box has become the people’s only revenge against politicians, but the failures of the political system should never have been used to threaten the future happiness and the rights of children in need of protection.

It is now up to the Government to match the referendum with action in legislation and implementing children’s rights, but it must also face up to the major underlying questions that have emerged in this referendum.

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