Discover more from The Fitzstack
Politicians Are Going to Have to Talk Directly to Voters About Immigration, Housing and Asylum
How does a big cultural issue get resolved, for good or ill?
Protests in Ireland around immigration, asylum and housing have flared up again in the press this month having never really gone away. In this piece I want to discuss the key issue that is preventing politicians from getting a handle on this issue, which is a lack of democratic legitimacy around the decisions they’re making. But I want to start off by going on a little detour, so bear with me and I'll tie it together at the end.
In the interests of keeping things light, let’s talk about Abortion. There have been a couple of referendums on this topic in my lifetime.
In 1983 an amendment was passed to put a clause into the giving “To recognise the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn”, which was passed with around a 66% yes vote.
In 1992 a number of constitutional amendments related to abortion were put before the public, stemming from the X case. These were to amend the constitution “to exclude the risk of suicide as sufficient reason to legally allow an abortion” (this failed, with 65% of people voting against); “to specify that the prohibition of abortion would not limit freedom of travel in and out of the state” (approved, with 62% in favour); “to specify that the prohibition of abortion would not limit the right to distribute information about abortion services in foreign countries” (approved, with 60% in favour).
Finally in 2018, 66% of people voted in favour of an amendment to undo the 8th amendment which had been inserted in 1983, effectively allowing the government to make laws regulating/ permitting abortion.
Over the last 40 years Abortion has been comprehensively polled and parties have had the opportunity to take up positions, exclude dissenters in their ranks, and put their reservations to the public. The public have had multiple choices to vote on what they want and make their preferred direction of travel clear. Activists on both sides have had their chances to make appeals direct and explicitly to the public.
Please note before you pop into my comments telling me about either the horrors or abortion, or the horrors of our restrictive laws: I’m not trying to give my own opinion here. I'm simply saying that as a democratic matter, and from a politician's point of view, the debate is over. Irish people are comfortable with abortion happening, or at least they prefer that to it being outlawed. There is no massive, secret constituency of restrictionists waiting to leap out of the bushes and surprise politicians who are attempting to parse the issue.
From the point of view of voters, no one can claim not to know where a given party stands on all this. FF and FG might occasionally be portrayed as tradionailist parties either by themselves or by their opponents in the media, but no pro-life person is champing at the bit to vote for them on the basis that once they get another go in government, the abortion laws are off the books. Aontú will try to offer you that choice if they get enough traction, but no one else will.
Obviously activists on both sides are unhappy about how we got here and the laws we have on the books now. That’s the nature of caring about something, if it’s wrong it’s wrong, and democratic legitimacy doesn’t come into it. But most people aren’t activists. Notwithstanding another seismic change in Irish culture of the kind that happened between 1983 and 2018 happening again, abortion is here to stay and the direction of travel is one of expansion, not restriction. The electorate is verifiably fine with that.
Let’s get back to immigration, asylum, housing and all that stuff.
The turmoil in Ireland over these issues dropped out of the headlines for a few weeks during April and May, driven in part by Joe Biden’s visit; the media, politicians and public were a little like a family who agreed to stop bickering and tidy up the house for the duration of the distant relative’s visit. But the issue itself continued to simmer, and erupted again following the confrontations at the encampment in Mount Street in Dublin, and at Magowna House in Clare.
On the latter, Minister of State for Integration Joe O’Brien travelled to Clare during the week to meet the protestors and announced a four week freeze on new arrivals to the centre, in the hope that during that period the barriers erected will be removed. Regarding the protests he was quoted as saying “I don’t feel it is an acceptable thing to do – I understand why they have done it. I don’t agree with it and that is why I am here to convince them to hopefully take that barricade down.”
This exasperated tangle of confusing impulses nicely summarises the establishment feeling on these issues. The government is nowhere, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But the good news for Joe and his colleagues is that there is a way out. The only problem is you have to do what you have been avoiding to date - you actually have to put the matter directly before voters, tell them your preferred course of action and why, and let them vote on it.
Historically, that is the last thing any Irish politician has wanted to do on this subject. The topic doesn’t appear in manifestos and isn’t robustly considered in any sector of the media. It’s never the centre or even really a peripheral issue of a national campaign, regardless of how significant a factor it is in people’s lives. The parties have not staked out any clear positions or a destination on it. With the exception of the 2004 referendum, (which passed with 79% of the vote) the issue has never been put before the public.
On the one hand, politicians are happy with that situation because not asking means they never have to hear an answer they don’t like. But it also means on the biggest cultural issue of our time they fundamentally can’t be certain what the public think (though they fear, and can guess) and have no explicit mandate to act in any direction. That is the crux of the whole problem.
Irish politicians don’t want to put their views on these issues to the Irish public for a couple of reasons. For FF, FG and to some extent SF they haven’t worked out what they themselves think and don’t believe they can put a coherent position to the public; in terms of the actions politicians are taking right now they have no faith that these are the right ones, they are simply being buffeted by events and led by people with firmer opinions than them, and hoping it all blows over. They don’t have any faith that if they had a coherent position that the public would accept it. And they have no faith that these issues could have any presence in the public square without the majority of the public embarrassing them by turning into a bunch of massive thick racists. The media, for their part, agree with all this.
I don't regard Ireland's path to legalising abortion as a happy story; I don't know how anyone could think that, regardless of how they feel about it. I agree with the restrictionist objection that, to paraphrase the IRA, on matters like abortion they need to get the right result every time and people pushing for liberalisation only need to do that once. I do however think that it met the most basic function of politics in a democracy, which is that the issue of the day was put directly before the electorate to let them say one way or another what they want - after that, if you don’t like the result your issue is with the voting public. Failing to meet even that low bar on important issues is a recipe for illegitimacy. To whatever limited extent the current crisis can be resolved, that’s the only way of doing it.
Certainly the government/ media preferred approach of viewing the issue purely through the lens of law enforcement isn’t going to help no matter how hard it’s pushed. All it would take is courage to articulate and stand behind the policies you actually believe (or feel you have no choice but to follow), and faith in the essential reasonableness and wisdom of the electorate. Unfortunately those qualities seem to be in short supply everywhere, and particularly in Ireland.