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Is Ireland compassionately centre right or cautiously centre left? A lot hangs on the answer

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been reminded that there is a socially conservative cohort of voters, a realisation that will make the remaining months of the Coalition with the Greens more difficult

In the week since the shock results of the twin referendums, there has been an abundance of hot takes, lists of lessons, much recrimination, revisionism, finger-pointing and a fair bit of wishful thinking masquerading as analysis from all sides.

But what are the actual political consequences of the results? How do they change things for future governments and oppositions, and what do they tell us about politics that will be significant for the period ahead?

There are five principal interlinked lessons and consequences:

  1. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been reminded that there is a socially conservative cohort of voters.
  2. This will alter their calculations.
  3. This is turn will put pressure on the relationship with the Greens.
  4. This will make the end of the Coalition more difficult.
  5. And it will have significant consequences for the programmes of reform that future governments might promise to undertake, and for their delivery.

Let’s examine each of these in a little more detail.


Catholic traditionalists are not a significant political force in Ireland any more. But there is a substantial number of what may be loosely termed social conservatives. A third of voters, after all, resisted both the same-sex marriage and abortion liberalisation referendums. They are not necessarily opposed to changing the Constitution in all instances – but they are wary about it. These voters are found in significant numbers among independents, in working-class areas – and in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It would be a stretch to call all these voters “anti-woke”; but they might take some convincing that there are 74 genders. It has been clear all week that TDs of the two centre parties have taken this reminder on board. Their private thoughts amplify this.

Inevitably, this will have an effect on their political judgments. There was an immediate focus on the proposed hate-speech legislation, which for many TDs falls under the heading of “stuff we’re not mad about but have to put up with”. The Bill has been stalled in the Seanad since last June and, despite several promises that it was returning imminently, has not reappeared on the parliamentary agenda. Last week the Department of Justice would say only “after Easter”. We’ll see. But the new caution extends far beyond the hate speech Bill, which in any event is the responsibility of a Fine Gael Minister, Helen McEntee.

This Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil trepidation will put pressure on the relationship with the Greens because it runs right along the biggest fault-line between them – the cultural chasm. To be honest, relations have been deteriorating for months, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Ministers increasingly given to mutterings about their Green colleagues, and resistance to climate action measures. Expect those to increase in number and volume.

That will inevitably make the already contested territory of how this Government ends more uncertain still. This is not just a matter of timing, though it is often viewed through that prism. It is about how the parties can be Coalition allies and electoral rivals at the same time. As far as I can see, no one has a clue how to go about this.

And all of that will, inevitably, colour the considerations of governments in the future. They will be more wary about such changes – less willing to listen to NGOs, less willing to convene and follow the recommendations of citizens’ assemblies, more nervous about constitutional and other social reforms.

A quick survey of proposed constitutional or legislative reforms that this and future governments are likely to reconsider – or at least proceed with much caution on – include not just the hate speech Bill but also gender-change recognition, especially for under-16s; changing the voting age; votes for emigrants; inserting a right to water and a right to housing in the Constitution; assisted dying and decriminalisation of some drugs.

This is emphatically not to assert that all or any of these things are bad ideas, or that they won’t happen in the future. But the facts of political life mean that governments will be more cautious about them now.

If the broad mass of the public – and not just a vocal minority – aren’t clearly in favour of change, then governments will be wary about them. They will at least have to prepare the ground a good deal more carefully than they did this time.

This is not because Ireland has suddenly become a conservative country – it hasn’t. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that we are broadly social democratic; but it is perhaps a conservative type of social democracy, willing to embrace change only where fully satisfied that it is change for the better, and always wary of the costs of establishing new rights where there is no clarity about who will pay for them.

In recent days, Fintan O’Toole argued in these pages that Ireland is a social democratic country, while Newton Emerson has suggested that Ireland and the UK are both broadly centre right. Perhaps the truth is that the centre of gravity of Irish politics is somewhere between those – we are compassionately centre right, with a concern for social justice and cohesion, or cautiously centre left, always worried about the fiscal implications of social spending programmes. Often we swing between these two poles; and maybe there’s not that much space between them.

Proponents of future changes – inside, but also outside the current Government set-up – should ponder these lessons carefully. Change remains the great political trope of the age. But it will not be enough to simply promise change. They will have to explain: change to what?

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