Opinion: What the Liberal Democrats can learn about democracy from the people of Ireland

I cannot be alone amongst Liberal Democrats, after the general election result we have just been through, in questioning the collected wisdom of the UK electorate.

Fortunately, as an Irishman, my faith in the collective wisdom of the people has been dramatically restored by the result of the equal marriage referendum in Ireland, as my people lustily endorsed equality, and cast off the comfort of bigotry to which it is easy to resort in times of economic strife.

But, just as Ireland becoming the first country on earth to enshrine this type of equality into the law by popular vote will, I hope, act as a beacon for other states around Europe and the world to follow a similar path, I hope that the Liberal Democrats also manage to learn the lessons from Ireland’s result.

Of course, the Liberal Democrats have much of which to be proud in these matters, being the driving force behind the introduction of marriage equality in the UK.

Our party is in the foothills of many internal election and selection contests, with most of the candidates in those elections likely to speak about the need to engage with those sections of the populace that currently feel disenfranchised or cut off from politics.

And here is the first lesson to learn from Ireland, as a liberal and an Irishman, I have closely watched the campaign in my country.

And I have been staggered at the passions it has stirred amongst friends and acquaintances of mine whom I have never known to express a political thought. Some of them weren’t even registered to vote.

Yet they were out on the streets, knocking on the doors. One acquaintance, who has never voted in a national election, was ‘knocking up’ yes voters for twelve hours solid on polling day.

Now, not only does that say much about the admirable commitment of the people of Ireland to equality, but also makes the altogether more universal point that the best way to get voters involved is not through fear, greed or semantic campaign slogans, but rather through granting them a stake in a binary outcome.

Whilst every Liberal Democrat who campaigned for the party can be proud of what we achieved in government, the satisfaction won’t be as great as that felt by those in Ireland who made this happen directly at the ballot box.

I also wonder if the LGBT community in Ireland will feel that the people as a whole, rather than politicians in conclave, had delivered the equality they deserve.

The Liberal Democrats have a propensity to dislike the principle of referendums, and a desire to talk about engaging a wider audience than just those decried as the usual suspects, lets square the circle, and deliver the ultimate decentralisation of power, by presenting it to the people more often.


* David Thorpe was the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for East Ham in the 2015 General Election

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  • I hope that the EU referendum will have a similarly positive result in the UK — as the most naturally pro-EU/internationalist party in the UK, I hope we will be in a position to be very positive on this one, and come out of the referendum much enhanced in public opinion having been able to let our true colours show.

  • Its worth remembering that the only reason Ireland had a referendum was because the definition of marriage was embedded in The Constitution, a result of the way the country was established as a semi-theocracy after Independence. The circumstances were peculiar to a time & place with The Church making it into a big issue & then backing off when it saw the trouble it was getting into. Would Yes have won without the series of scandals that had wrecked The Churchs authority ?
    We should carry on fighting to stop the Referendum on Europe happening at all.

  • Helen Tedcastle 26th May '15 - 12:36pm

    It’s amazing how the words ‘bigot’ and ‘bigotry’ so easily bandied around these days to describe fellow countrymen and women who continue to hold a sincere and deep understanding of the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The No side showed magnanimity in conceding defeat gracefully while insisting on their right to hold to a different understanding of marriage from the new paradigm inserted into the Irish constitution.

    The marriage referendum was one of the most divisive campaigns I have seen and the behaviour of the Y es campaign at times bordered on intimidation of their opponents. If this is the new tolerance and the ‘new’ Ireland then it strikes me that intolerance has simply morphed into a new form.

  • Richard Underhill 26th May '15 - 1:19pm

    The change in the demography in the Republic of Ireland became most obvious when they elected Mary Robinson as their first female President.

    Key factors were the European Convention on Human Rights and an STV election with three candidates.

    On the way she shook hands with Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland and had tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

  • One thing I would add is that there is a lesson we can learn from the SNP which the Irish referendum reinforces: that offering hope can be very effective indeed.

    And Helen, I agree that such tactics, if they have indeed been used, are disgraceful, but re: the wider point, I believe it is a key liberal principle that negative rights (eg. the right not to be discriminated against) should trump positive rights (eg. freedom of conviction), particularly when it comes to the role of the state, eg. in the validation of marriage, rather than providing materially different services to different people).

  • It has been said that all campaigns are based either on fear or hope. I don’t think that’s entirely true – you can build a political campaign on anger as well, and probably other emotions – but a campaign that doesn’t know what emotional resonance it’s trying to generate is a campaign doomed to fail.

  • Donnacha Maguire 26th May '15 - 1:40pm

    Well said David. The referendum in Ireland was potentially the most exhilarating campaign I have ever been a part of. While political parties provided some of the structure to the campaign, it was the ordinary apolitical citizenry who won it. They decided that they would decide the future course of their Republic and not let lobby groups and extremes decide. Something to learn from in terms of the BREXIT Referendum.

  • I’m borderline libertarian in my approach to democratic participation but something about this makes me uneasy. Rights, once determined, should by their nature be fixed and fundamental, not necessarily subject to popular whim. This is the argument that keeps us from putting capital punishment to the vote.

    Anyway, it’s a nice result., though I’ve never managed to get too excited about the state’s involvement in marriage.

  • Helen Tedcastle 26th May '15 - 2:28pm

    @ John Grout

    The marriage referendum was framed by the yes campaign around ‘rights’ certainly but the area of the Irish constitution amended pertained not to rights but the section on the family. The amendment was in fact a redefinition of marriage from male/female union to marriage without distinction to gender – gender-neutral.

    Donnacha – it wasn’t quite an apolitical campaign was it. All the main parties officially supported yes and campaigned for it, as did large sections of the media. The campaign also became about the acceptance of gay people in Irish society rather than rights and the emotionalism was whipped up to a frenzy in the last ten days.

    Also, Yes had considerable backing from an American billionaire. So I take the grass roots uprising with a large pinch of salt. Rather the long time effect of the campaigning over the last year or so, coupled with the popular will to move away from the scandals rocking Irish society and the church in recent years, meant a yes was almost guaranteed.

  • George Potter 26th May '15 - 2:33pm

    @Helen Tedcastle

    Given that No campaigners characterised equal marriage as damaging the rights of children and meaning that children would be “taught sodomy” in schools, I am perfectly happy to characterise those no campaigners as bigots.

    And more generally speaking, you can hold your own personal views on marriage – but I’d say that only a bigot seeks to enforce their views on others by denying them the right to marry. Yet this is precisely what the No campaigners were seeking to do.

    If you don’t believe in same sex marriage then don’t have one. Simple as that.

  • Helen Tedcastle – Yes, it was, but this was required under their constitution in order to remove the discrimination I mentioned above. As for the backing of Yes by outside interests, the same can be said for No and its backing by the American right.

  • Helen Tedcastle 26th May '15 - 4:34pm

    @ George Potter
    ‘ I’d say that only a bigot seeks to enforce their views on others by denying them the right to marry. Yet this is precisely what the No campaigners were seeking to do.’

    The No campaigners were defending the definition on marriage as it has been understood for millennia ie: male/female. If that now makes them bigots, then until 2013, most of us were bigots. See how that word is so easy to use and overused to absurdity. The No campaign did not use the terms you describe. They highlighted the issues of surrogacy and assisted reproduction.

    In the Irish constitution, the amendment is added to the family section not the equality and rights section, so there will indeed be legislation needed on these issues as they will undoubtedly arise. This consequence was pointed out in the campaign. Also, I don’t think it is unreasonable to point out that there are issues around the rights and claims of children to know their biological parent/ be brought up by them, arising from surrogacy.

    John Grout – the No campaign was funded by individual donations not the American Right. They had far less money, resources and big party backing than Yes. Did the amendment need to go into the family section rather than the equality section? Not sure I agree with you there if the Yes side were campaigning for equality of treatment?

  • @George Potter
    “only a bigot seeks to enforce their views on others by denying them the right to marry”

    Some gay people were opposed to same sex marriage on the grounds that they saw marriage as a heterosexual institution that might as well stay that way. Were those people bigoted against themselves? And what about the people (presumably a large majority) who do not want to see legal recognition of polygamous marriages – are they all bigoted too?

  • Helen Tedcastle – I’d be interested to see your evidence for the claim of US billionaires backing the Yes campaign when both were subject to strict criteria re: donations. The closest I could find was this Grauniad article:

    As for where the amendment needed to go, well, I’m not an Irish constitutional expert, but: a) I gather that the definition of marriage was what required modification, and it makes sense for said definition to be in the ‘families’ section rather than in the ‘equality’ section of a document which was probably written before the prospect of gay marriage became remotely realistic.

    A final query: why on earth is it a problem if the amendment *is* in the family section? Homosexual couples and their children have a right to be recognised as a family unit, just as much as a heterosexual couple who have adopted or had fertility treatment, or whatever. I would also note that homosexual couples can’t, unlike straight couples, have them in anything other than a planned way they have to justify to outside parties. Or perhaps I am reading too much into your line of questioning, for which apologies.

  • Helen Tedcastle “The No campaigners were defending the definition on marriage as it has been understood for millennia ie: male/female. If that now makes them bigots, then until 2013, most of us were bigots.”

    To be fair the reason why the definition of marriage was stressed “for millennia” as being make-female only was precisely because of widespread bigotry, for millennia. Surely society has moved on in the last 2000 odd years and has become much more liberal these days?

  • Interesting that with about six Yes posters and no canvass campaign in my rural area in the Inishowen Peninsula in Co. Donegal there was still a Yes vote locally. It is rubbish to suggest that a big glossy campaign swing it for yes up here as it was practically non existent. What has changed is a wider acceptance of difference.

    This week’s Inish Times, one of the local papers, quoted two No campaigners at the count in Letterkenny. “These people love one another, and marriage is about more than love”. The other campaigner warmed to his theme, a lot. The Yes campaign “had the same ideas as the French Revolution” and “It’s a victory for man-made religion over revealed religion”. That canvassing at the gates of Roman Catholic Churches didn’t produce the result they had expected. Thankfully.

  • peter tyzack 27th May '15 - 9:28am

    taking references from several contributions above, what does this mean for a resurgent Liberal Democrat Party in the UK and any prospect of eventual success? It means that it doesn’t matter how strong our groundswell of support grows, the overwhelming powers of big money and of extreme views using a powerful media to obliterate our message will ensure that we never gain prominence to create the country we all want. QED? That we must ensure the finance of political parties and campaigning is addressed as a priority, and also of equal importance is that our mass media is subject to some regulation of its ownership and output to stop them mind-washing the public into voting for more of the same.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th May '15 - 11:53am

    The Liberal Democrats have a propensity to dislike the principle of referendums, and a desire to talk about engaging a wider audience than just those decried as the usual suspects, lets square the circle, and deliver the ultimate decentralisation of power, by presenting it to the people more often.

    Why is it that certain things are put forward as topics for referendums and other things not?

    Why, for example has there been all this stuff about a referendum on the EU, but no-one asking for a referendum on the NHS changes pushed through by the last government, or the sale of the Royal Mail, or the fundamental changes to local government pushed through by the last but one national government?

    It does seem to me that the topics that get put forward for referendums tend to be those which have powerful voices behind them, while topics which are just as much important to ordinary people’s lives never get pushed that way if there aren’t influential people with a vested interest in pushing them.

  • Helen Tedcastle 27th May '15 - 12:10pm

    Con Logue
    From the Daily Telegraph’s report on Donegal’s vote: ” And it’s impossible to quantify, but the intervention by singer Daniel O’Donnell towards the end of the campaign when he said that he would be voting Yes, may have helped to sway floating voters.”

    Donegal South West, it was Yes 50.1 per cent to No 49.9 per cent – close but if if Donegal votes normally against Dublin, this time they went with along with the media and political establishment and kicked against the church – probably no doubt, because of the scandals.

  • Helen Tedcastle 27th May '15 - 12:21pm

    In addition: Donegal North East passed the referendum by 52.5 per cent Yes to 47.5 per cent No. Not a landslide but very pleasing to the likes of Enda Kenny et al in Dublin.

  • @paul barker
    >We should carry on fighting to stop the Referendum on Europe happening at all.

    I think what Mr. Thorpe is trying to say above is that giving people votes and choices engages them – whereas Mr. Barker here is saying the complete opposite. Referendums certainly seems liberal and democratic, so why should the Lib Dems be the party that doesn’t want to ask difficult questions? I think it’s an idea worthy of much more debate, because we’ve fallen into this trap of being anti-referendums and it’s working against us, making our opponents seem more democratic and open comparatively. At the moment, I’m swayed towards Mr. Thorpe’s arguments of engaging normal people in politics, it certainly seems to have translated into voters in Scotland.

  • ChrisB:
    Why do you think referendums are “liberal”? They can obviously be an effective vehicle for legitimising the oppression of minority groups. In Ireland a referendum on making abortion unconstitutional was really an exercise in the then majority religious electorate flexing its power over those who were not in accord with the state church.

  • SIMON BANKS 27th May '15 - 8:49pm

    Thanks for this post, David.

    Another point to note is that people were engaged and excited by an issue which affected very few of them personally, and none presumably in the pocket book. There has been a tendency over the last few years for Liberal parties including ours to look for things that would materially benefit particular groups of people. This is OK if it’s second fiddle to distinctive stands on Liberal values, but given too much prominence it makes us look incoherent and materialistic.

  • Richard Underhill 28th Feb '16 - 6:56pm

    Matthew Huntbach 27th May ’15 – 11:53am Former SDP2 leader David Owen said on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 27/2/2016 that referendums are called because of splits in the government. He may be right about an aspect of the euro-referendums of 1975 and 2016, but not about others, such as Scottish and Welsh devolution, a strategic authority for London including a Mayor and Assembly, etcetera.
    Another piece of realpolitik is that referendums (and propositions in the USA) are won or lost according to the popularity of the government. This applies to the referendum in the northeast of England for regional devolution. Tony Blair had a constituency in the region and, surprisingly, invited Charles Kennedy to help, which he did, but, as Charles Kennedy said, Tony Blair had put John Prescott in charge.
    The Fine Gael coalition with Irish Labour is unlikely to continue as the Irish Prime Minister has conceded.
    Friday’s brief comment on the Irish general election on the Today Programme was brief, patronising and sneering. Later in the day and subsequently there has been fuller commentary. The Republic uses STV, which delivers what the voters voted for, currently no overall control, which may make the election of a Taoiseach difficult when the Dail meets.
    2016 is the centenary anniversary of 1916.
    Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have longstanding historical differences.
    An opinion article on page 13 of the Irish Times says that “Haughey and O’Malley made a deal in circumstances more toxic than anything faced by Kenny and Martin.” The overwhelming issue was the number of elected members.

  • Richard Underhill 28th Feb '16 - 11:38pm

    The Irish Times also said that ” … if the UK votes to leave, many of the competences in justice, environment, agriculture and fisheries now allocated to Brussels, would revert to Scotland not London under the current deepening devolution arrangements.”
    “The loyalist bonds between Presbyterian Scotland and Northern Ireland have diminished, a transformation echoed in the collapse of support for the Labour party in Scotland by voters with an Irish Catholic background in the referendum, last year’s general election … ”
    “Letter writers to this newspaper underline how strange it is to see the Democratic Unionist Party supporting a Brexit vote that could trigger Scottish independence. … This decision could undermine the power-sharing arrangement and disrupt cross-Border relations in Ireland with risk and uncertainty.”

  • Richard Underhill 10th Apr '16 - 7:29pm

    The Weekend edition of the Irish Times 9-10 April 2016 states that Fianna Fail have refused coalition negotiations, but the Taoiseach has offered them another opportunity, including Independents, failing which there will be another general election. Ireland does not have the UK’s Fixed Term Parliament Act, it does have the Single Transferable Vote, so electors get what they voted for.
    Former Chancellor Nigel Lawson said on the Andrew Marr programme that there should be border controls between the UK and the Republic. What is his expertise in this area? The Northern Ireland Secretary remains in post, despite the obvious difficulty of being a euro-sceptic, so perhaps she should talk to him.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Apr '16 - 12:35pm

    The Irish Times on 18/4/2016 says that after several votes in the Dail they have not yet elected a Taoiseach. Enda Kenny (Fine Gael) gets the most votes, but longstanding differences with Fianna Fail remain. There are not enough Independents to provide FG with a majority of TDs.
    The Irish Labour party is reconsidering its position, so a further vote is not imminent.
    Alex Salmond MP has been reported to be giving advice, presumably based on his experience of leading a minority SNP government in Scotland after an election which was criticised by the Electoral Commission.

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