Brendan O’Neill

Ireland’s referendum shows that some people only like democracy when it gives them what they want

Ireland’s referendum shows that some people only like democracy when it gives them what they want
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So referendums are good now? The turnaround has been astonishing. The very people who have spent the best part of two years in moral meltdown at the fact that Britons were given a referendum on membership of the EU are now beside themselves with joy over the abortion referendum in Ireland.

‘You know who loved referendums? HITLER’, they said endlessly about the EU referendum, seeming to suffer from a bad bout of the Ken Livingstone Hitler Tourette’s. Yet now they’ve magically forgotten that all referendums are basically acts of fascism and are hailing the Irish people’s mass vote for the right of women to secure an abortion as a wonderful moment in democracy. Anyone would think they only like democracy when it delivers things they agree with and go back to despising it when it doesn’t...

Don’t get me wrong: I am over the moon about the Irish referendum result. I write this from Ireland, while wearing my Repeal sweatshirt, before heading off for celebratory drinks later this evening.

I am pro-choice. I think sovereignty over oneself, over one’s own body and mind, as the great Brit John Stuart Mill put it, is an essential enlightenment ideal, perhaps the essential enlightenment ideal. It fills me with Irish pride that the Irish have voted in staggering numbers for the right of women to end unwanted pregnancies — estimates say that 68 or 69 percent of voters said Yes to repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution that forbade all terminations except when the pregnancy directly threatened the life of the woman. I’m as proud as I was when the Irish voted against the Lisbon Treaty, and by extension the entire bureaucratic machine in Brussels, in a referendum in 2008.

And there’s the thing: consider how that referendum revolt against Brussels 10 years ago was talked about in comparison with how Friday’s referendum revolt against the Eighth Amendment is being talked about. When they rejected Lisbon, Irish voters were mocked and mauled by both their own political elites and EU technocrats. They were branded ungrateful, thick, probably a bit xenophobic. And they were of course made to vote again — the dreaded Second Referendum that the part-time defenders of democracy always demand when things don’t go their way. See Brexit.

Speaking of Brexit: the difference between the UK liberal media’s treatment of the massive vote for abortion rights in Ireland and the massive vote for Brexit in Britain (17.4m votes, the most for anything in British history, as if you needed reminding) is staggering, if also depressingly unsurprising. In their flighty view, Brexit was the work of plebs brainwashed by a bus, while the the repeal of the Eighth was the work of an enlightened people. Brexit is scary and dangerous and therefore we should call it off; the repeal of the Eighth is brilliant and wonderful and therefore we should see it through. Brexit confirmed democracy is a terrible idea; the repeal of the Eighth shows it is a great idea. And on it goes, hypocrisy upon hypocrisy, anti-democratic wailing one minute, pro-democracy weeping the next. They support democracy, not in principle, but only if it gives them what they want.

And just imagine if anyone tried to do to the Irish referendum result what an army of powerful politicians, legal teams, lords and the filthy rich have tried to do to Brexit: overturn it. There would be outrage. I expect these part-time democrats would even take to the streets. They would brand any usurping of the repeal vote as an assault on democratic rights, women’s rights and no doubt civilisation itself. Yet when Brexiteers venture that the various elitist efforts to do in or dilute the thing millions and millions of us voted for is a bit of an outrage, we’re told we are being shrill and mad and probably a little alt-right. Everyone they don’t like is ‘alt-right’.

The double standards are amazing. Comment-worthy levels of amazing. It all speaks to a quite terrifying attitude to democracy from on high these days, which basically says: if you little people vote for things we like, you can have them; but if you vote for things we don’t like — for an end do the Lisbon Treaty, say, or exit from the EU — you can’t have them. You’ll be made to vote again, you’ll be shut down, you’ll be called Hitler. The legitimacy of democracy is increasingly being determined by the whims and prejudices of small groups of powerful, tetchy people. They should try believing in democracy for real, full-time. Democracy is democracy, repeal is repeal, leave is leave: that’s my view. Either the people get to determine the destiny of their nation, or they don’t.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

Topics in this articlePoliticsabortion