Referendum gave us a taste of real power.

Sunday business post logoSunday Business Post column, May 31 2015

One of the more moving aspects of the marriage equality debate was the stories of people who were canvassing for the first time. Many approached doors or strangers on the street, leaflets shaking in their hands. After all, it’s a big deal engaging strangers in a social setting where often normal good manners don’t apply. But what’s most interesting about their experience is how different it actually is to the experience they would have had if they participated in day to day party politics.

The marriage equality referendum campaign had a clear defined end and a clearly defined result, whether it was yay or nay. The campaigners, at least on the Yes side, knew what the outcome would be if they delivered a Yes vote. It’s a sharp contrast to normal political campaigns.

Sure, one has polling day to aim towards and the definitive outcome of one’s candidate getting elected or not, but after polling day the cloudy murkiness of the Oireachtas closes in, enveloping even the most noble of aspiring candidates. You can get the finest of people elected, but then watch as Dáil Éireann tells them to cut out all that nonsense about changing things and shut the hell up and vote the way you’re told. The country is awash with bitter or simply disappointed people who helped a candidate get elected but then walked away as the alien bodysnatchers of Leinster House replaced your radical reformer with a forelock tugging lickspittle.

But surely, some will say, the referendum disproves that. People got pro-equality candidates elected who then went on to get the bill passed. Primarily Labour, by the way, who should get the credit if there is any justice, but whom I suspect instead will discover this won’t be the last time we see Labour TDs bawling their eyes out at a count centre.

The problem is that marriage equality is almost the giant pink elephant in the room because of its rarity. Every other reform, from abortion to political reform onwards, has been blocked by the stultifying dead hand of our parliamentary establishment.

That’s what makes the events of May 22 so extraordinary, because once the bill had passed ordinary citizens took over and fought the campaign themselves. The parties, and indeed many party members played a role, but it wasn’t the parties that made so many citizens decide to fly home, or got so many young people to register to vote, or indeed so many first-timers to brave the cold canvassing door. I’m not convinced this would have passed if the parties alone had campaigned. Is anyone else?

It’s true, this issue was laced with a once-in-a-generation raw emotion, but it was also about power. Ordinary people, from knocking on doors to wearing a Yes badge down the shops in a small village, had the power to make this happen, to convince friends, family and neighbours, get them registered, get them a lift down to the polling booth to cast actual legally binding ballots. Real power. And that’s the problem: all these new people will almost certainly never experience this sort of power again if they get involved in party politics and its guff.

As we have learnt with abortion, political reform, direct provision, the rotting corpse of Irish politics doesn’t actually want to do anything about this stuff.

If we want all these young and not so young who registered to vote and participated in politics for the first time to remain active, how do we do it? Tell them to attend their local cumann meeting? Get involved in the name-calling bunfights and shafting of Irish party politics? Let’s not forget the many politicians who seemed to take umbrage at being asked their opinion on the subject, as if it was none of their business and why were you bothering them? Abortion term limits? Banking lending policies? Will ye get away with yourself! I’ve three funerals alone to be attending this morning!

The reality is that the May 22 referendum showed us what could happen if power is taken from politicians and given to the people. Why should calling a plebiscite or constitutional referendum only be the preserve of an Oireachtas that doesn’t really like all these high-falutin’ issues anyway? You want to keep all these people in politics? Give them the power to propose change directly to their fellow citizens. You know, the power TDs don’t like using anyway because it’s too “political”.

California does it. So does Switzerland. Why not let all these enthusiastic new activists have a fair crack at the levers of power? After all, they own them.

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