No, Brexiters, Ireland’s Referendum Was Nothing Like Ours

There were cries of victory on Twitter and beyond as it became clear that Ireland’s referendum on repealing its constitution's 8th amendment on abortion would be won by the Yes side. And by a large margin.

Obviously, this riled some. Toby Young tweeted: “Wonder if any Remainers disputing result of #EURef on grounds that referenda aren’t sensible way to settle important, complicated questions because ordinary people lack the education or intelligence to fully grasp them will dispute result of the Irish Referendum on same grounds?”

Well, he’s got us banged to right there. Let’s quit our remoaning and join the national mission to throw the country off a cliff face. Sorted.

I feel better already. Except…

Young brings up the kind of "clever clever" point that does well on social media but does not stand up beyond 260 characters.

Leave does not need a plan, they said

2.2 million people voted in Ireland’s referendum. The result was clear. By 1.4 millions votes to 700,000, Ireland voted to change its constitution to allow: that is 66.4% versus 33.6%. Every county - bar Donegal - voted Yes. Rural constituencies voted Yes alongside urban ones.

The Brexit referendum revealed the divide: its four entities split two all. Metropolitan areas voted Remain, while towns and country voted Brexit. There were large Brexit victories in places such as Lincoln and Sunderland, while London, Manchester and Liverpool plumped for Remain.

The eventual result was a 52 to 48% split. Out of a much larger electorate of 33 million, the winning side’s margin of victory was 1.4 million. 700,000 votes from one camp to the other could have changed history. Less than two per cent of those who voted.

The concept of a supermajority is an idea not unknown in politics. The US Senate, for instance, requires a three fifth majority for a cloture motion to end debate; two-thirds to override a presidential veto. The Council of Ministers in the European Union required fifteen members and 260 out of 352 in its country-weighted votes. It takes into account turnout but also questions whether 50% plus one is enough for great change.

None of this was resolved beforehand because few predicted a Leave victory. But also few predicted that any result - let alone such a close one - would mean any debate would be screamed down by MPs and their allies in the Brexit press.

It was expected that in the event of Leave vote, Parliament would debate the issues sensibly. The details will be easily sorted later, they said. Leave does not need a plan, they said.     

The vast majority of Brexit-sceptics, of course, have not disputed the result because referendums are not “a sensible way to settle important, complicated questions”. They have disputed a referendum that was called on the basis of Conservative party management, rather than the needs of the country. This is true even if you accept David Cameron’s supposed logic that it were better to hold a referendum with a Remain Prime Minister rather than the Brexiter one he thought would succeed him.

Leaving aside that Ireland’s plebiscite was about a fundamental right whereas Britain’s was about its trade, security and economic policy, here we enter into the major difference between Ireland’s referendum and Britain’s.

Leo Varadkar’s government’s was proposing a change in government policy on abortion. Although it made a winning hashtag, Ireland’s vote was not just to repeal the 8th but to replace it with the 36th amendment.

The exact wording was laid out by the Irish Government two months before the referendum, after considerable debate. Scaremongering became harder. Ireland knew was it was voting against. Ireland knew what it was voting for.

The Brexit referendum was unusual in that the government of the day was campaigning for the status quo. Therefore Leave become the 'change' opposition. The government had not done an analysis of what Brexit would mean so that Leave campaign could claim anything.

They would not have been bound by a government against which they were campaigning anyway but the vacuum provided the conditions for the dishonesty of the Leavers: £350 million for the NHS, and the inevitable accession of Turkey into the EU are two. Both provabley falsehoods.

Ireland did not vote for a leap in the dark

Britain’s topsy-turvy referendum, allowed by the lack of a guiding constitutional document, created a Leave campaign that would be unaccountable for what it did and said. Without office, they had power. They had power but could not be bound to their words and actions. Ireland’s winning side will be clearly accountable: Ireland did not vote for a leap in the dark. That does not mean that the Brexit result is legally in dispute but it is democratically suspect.

If the people spoke with such stentorian clarity, how come two years after we have a government that does not know what it wants?

Yet everything is now about “the will of the people”. The problem is not one of voters' stupidity but politicians' arrogance as they claim one type of Brexit represents the will of 17 million disparate people and anything is else is “not really Brexit”. When Parliament tries to resolve the conflicts of their unaccountable promises, they threaten to bring the whole edifice.

“Clever clever” rarely gets you anywhere. Maybe Remainers were cheering that, when done properly, direct democracy ne3ed not be so divisive.

Ireland and the United Kingdom have a checkered history but one that has recently seen the two countries become allies - especially in European matters.

Put simply, many were cheering in a friend’s success. Enough said.  

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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