Why do Irish social conservatives accept defeat so easily?

It’s a political stereotype to paint conservatives as rugged and liberals as effete. The reality, at least in Ireland, is somewhat different. When Irish liberals lost the 1986 divorce referendum, they didn’t accept it as a settled matter, but came back again in 1995 and got what they wanted.

I sometimes wonder why Irish conservatives just accept that ratchet effect, that once another liberal victory is achieved they accept it and retreat? Take abortion. In 1992 conservatives fought against the right to information and the right to travel. They lost both, by margins similar to the liberal defeat in 1986. Why do they not put reversing the right to travel in particular on their agenda? Is it no longer what they claimed it was at the time? SPUC was amongst one of the most powerful and feared political movements in the country. What happened? Did they all become liberal? Or just die?

It’s the same with marriage equality. If there’s a No vote in May, I know that liberals won’t give up, but will come back and fight again. If there’s a Yes vote, will conservatives just accept another defeat and roll over? Probably.

I’m writing this as a liberal who is just plain curious as to why Irish conservatives give up so easy. Even the Irish conservatives I know would run screaming from a political grouping that advocated reopening the divorce or decriminalisation of homosexuality issues. Is it because they accept that a society can only go one way, that is, more liberal?

3 thoughts on “Why do Irish social conservatives accept defeat so easily?

  1. Initially, I just wanted to write this: be very happy and grateful that you live in a country where social conservatism doesn’t lash out violently every time even a bit of progressive criticism is voiced.

    I live in Eastern Euroe, and for the last 20 years every mild push towards more egalitarianism, equality and/or progressive politics has been hit hard, politically and sometimes physically, by those on the socially conservative right who wish to proactively strengthen and protect patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia and all that.

    To be a little more pointed: I think this is a question of framing and political context, more than anything. In Western Europe, Ireland included, we’ve now had about 70 years of more or less stable “liberal democratic consensus”. In a framework where reasoned debate is more of an accepted norm than blunt power politics, it is much easier to praise and – dare I say – sanctify progressive achievements than reactionary or conservative ones. And for all its faults, liberal democracy in the Anglo-Saxon tradition does, indeed, fetishize debate quite a bit. So I think that’s why conservatives tend to view lost battles as lost causes; an atmosphere of reason-above-all doesn’t help traditionalist positions.

    It also helps a lot that socially conservative movements have been quite self-destructive over the past few decades. I don’t think I have to illustrate this in an Irish context 🙂

  2. liberals own the media and the political parties. When liberals lose a referendum they have the parties to simply run it through again. When conservatives lose they have no way to persuade the Dail to have another go. Describing SPUC as powerful is just old liberal nonsense. The media have power, political parties have power – when they make up their minds to go in a particular direction then that’s that.

  3. It’s an interesting point, and I have had this discussion with a consultant who worked in DC for the past thirty years about it. You could write a book on it, but the basic matter is not so much that they accept defeat, conservatism by its very nature generally just seeks to keep what is the status quo. Look at the US for an example,the abolition of slavery, racial segregation, even abortion to a small degree and various other progressions in the political life of the country were eventually accepted by conservatives (of course there’s still a few dissidents and in the case of abortion allot more). They sort of accepted it and simply moved on to stopping further progression (maybe this occupies all their time?). Of course recently in the US with the rise of Christian fundamentalism , there’s been a shift, instead of wishing to preserve the status quo they actually want to go backwards, the consultant I was speaking to called this regressive politics, so basically before you had progressives pulling the conservatives along, now the conservatives(or regressives) are no longer sitting down being pulled along they are actually pulling in the opposite direction. So I imagine conservatives in Ireland simply don’t want progressive policies but they also don’t want to have to pull backwards with the exception of a few radicals. Anyways I could write for days about it because it’s pretty interesting. Just found your website, very interesting 🙂

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