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Ireland’s progressive centre cannot hold

As Leo Varadkar steps down as Taoiseach, voters are turning away from the Republic’s mainstream liberal consensus.

By Finn McRedmond

On a May evening in 2018, Dublin Castle was mobbed by people celebrating a referendum result: 66.4 per cent of Irish voters had supported legalising abortion. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, was met with cheering crowds. It was reminiscent of 2015 when the country had just voted by 62 per cent to legalise same-sex marriage, becoming the first country in the world to do so by popular vote. The world watched Ireland’s transformation. Hillary Clinton tweeted her congratulations. At last Ireland had escaped the shackles of Rome and strode into the world: cosmopolitan, modern and happy.

Today, the commanding heights of the Irish establishment are likely yearning for this halcyon past. On 8 March their vision of Ireland as a great progressive power was complicated by voters. Two proposals, supported by the government, were put to referendum: one sought to expand the constitution’s definition of the family, the other to update its stipulations about women and their role in the home. The argument was simple: these aspects of the constitution are an expression of the values of the 1930s, not the 21st century. Both proposals – so the government thought – would be accepted. Progressive Ireland would expand again.

This was a dangerous assumption. The first proposed alteration was defeated with 67.7 per cent against; the second with 73.9 per cent saying no. Turnout was meagre. Varadkar owned the loss: “It was our responsibility to convince the majority of people to vote ‘Yes’ and we clearly failed to do so.” On 20 March, Varadkar unexpectedly stood down as Taoiseach, while also relinquishing his role as the leader of Fine Gael, saying his reasons were “both personal and political”. What redeems Varadkar’s government is that every mainstream party supported both proposals. And so there were no cheering crowds or street parties or tweets from Hillary Clinton. The magic and harmony of Ireland’s social revolution in the 2010s had dissipated.

By 2018 many in Ireland believed that their nation had reached the end of history. The rapid, progressive shifts of the 2010s had seen a weary old Catholic country vote in gay marriage and abortion with the zeal of a convert; in 2018 the electorate celebrated the end to a medieval ban on blasphemy. Unlike supposedly reactionary Brexit Britain, Ireland could revel in a new role as a beacon of liberal values. It was as though “a new world had landed from outer space on top of an old one”, as Fintan O’Toole wrote in his 2021 history of modern Ireland, We Don’t Know Ourselves. The arc of the moral universe was long, but it bent towards justice.

The result of these referendums doesn’t indicate that the country has turned back to papism. It seems unlikely that Ireland voted to relinquish the values it fought hard to cultivate over the past decade. But they point to something arguably as troubling. The government misread the electorate. Some voters thought the proposals were too conservative, others were annoyed they were being bothered by such frivolous questions. The hunger for rapid liberalisation seems much shallower than the centre of power is willing to admit.

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The referendum results were an expression of general disenchantment with the system and evidence of a political establishment that no longer understands its own voters. This disconnect is the real story. It looks like a set-up straight from the populist model: socially deaf elites on one side and a truculent populace on the other.

The Dublin riots last November offered a similar example. According to the 2022 census, the number of those who live in Ireland but were born elsewhere now forms 20 per cent of the population. This demographic change was already a source of tension before erupting into complete chaos when a foreign-born man attacked school children with a knife. Central Dublin was beset by a mob and engulfed in flames. Years of head-in-the-sand immigration policy – under which Ireland’s population profoundly shifted without much more than passing comment from politicians – had turned the country into a tinderbox.

There are now two Irelands. One is represented by the politicians who emphasise Ireland’s commitment to diversity, who remind the world that St Patrick was an immigrant; and the other by anti-refugee protesters in Dublin’s East Wall area, arson attacks on proposed asylum centres and upturned trams in the capital’s centre. It is likely that immigration will be the political landmine in Ireland’s upcoming election. And, just like the referendum, this is evidence of the deeper sickness in Irish politics: the mainstream parties all offering the same answers to difficult questions.

The Dublin political classes’ attempt to referendum their way through the culture wars has brought them closer together but further from the electorate. In 2020, for the first time in history, the historic enemies Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael went into government to keep Sinn Féin out of power. The centre has dominated Irish politics for a long time now.

But not even Sinn Féin, who fashion themselves as the change option in Irish politics, offer any real break with consensus on immigration. They supported the proposals in the referendum too. In truth it is perhaps rather easy to feel politically homeless in Ireland right now, at least until a serious electoral force emerges to challenge the status quo.

Amid riots, embarrassing referendums and a looming general election, there is a growing sense that the energy that once filled Dublin Castle’s courtyard with revellers in 2018 has metastasised into something darker.

[See also: Anti-migrant protests are tearing Ireland apart]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024