Eight lessons for democracy from the Eighth (however you voted) …

There’s so much to unpack from the Repeal referendum that it’s hard to do them justice in one (shortish) blog. But, hey, here goes.

The “boring bits” of democracy really matter. Repeal arose from a deliberative process amongst a randomly chosen set of citizens. Largely private, it allowed space for a range of opinions in a permissive, non-confrontational space, far removed the increasingly normative Twitter “Diss Course” that’s so popular with the political media. It revealed the same 2/3 support as the Referendum result.

Over time and through experience minds change. Even popular decisions can be undone. The Eighth Amendment was a power-show of clerical dominance in 1983. But as the X case demonstrated, it made for poor law. If as Terry Prone contests “minds had been made up aeons beforehand”, then the present ability of politicians to track such changes over time appears vanishingly thin.

Importance of returning to “sources”. Every big party is now log-jumping midstream (some with greater comportment than others) and punting heavily in the opposite direction from where they were headed a year ago. TDs were confronted with a powerful exercise in deliberation, but it was the emergence of a popular and resonant idea that finally forced them to listen to their own voters.

A garnish of credibility is insufficient. The past caught up with traditional authority. An appeal to individual conscience came via a Church which has failed to prioritise it in its own actions. Ditto compassion. Balancing the demand for personal autonomy with a wider moral obligation is a delicate act that needed a moderate reclamation, rekindling, and revitalisation of older narratives.

Anecdote, knowledge and direction woven into a single narrative quickly captured compassion for the Repeal side. Listening more than they preached enabled previously hidden anecdotes and stories of the experience of abortion to connect with substantive knowledge of the subject in ways that proved effective against some extremely crude populist techniques.

Listening, before setting policy can trigger substantial change more quickly than internal systems and policymakers are accustomed to experiencing. It allowed politicians to make nuanced contributions with an unusual degree of power and authority from the very earliest days of the campaign, even amongst those who made their stand on the losing, anti-repeal side of the argument.

Voters understand nuance and complexity. As Derek Mooney puts it, voters “can grasp and appreciate the nuances when given time and information needed.” In an emergent network culture, exactitude in language, meaning and purpose are critical where ideas get transformed, repurposed, or distorted as they pass from hand to hand. The best performers on both sides offered precise analyses.

Democracy is NOT a referendum, it’s a process. All the above still matter going into an urgent legislative process. At a time of abundant opinion, the need is for actionable insight into actionable ideas to keep the country moving.  Representatives must weave a narrative bridge that connects the wisdom of parish scéalaithe, their needs and social purposes with the means of change.

Aimsigh do thobar féin, a chroí,
óir tá am an anáis romhainn amach
Caithfear pilleadh arís ar na foinsí.

Cathal Ó Searcaigh

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty