The repealing of the 8th amendment has been aptly labelled by Leo Varadkar as the “Quiet revolution”. Taking Ireland and most of the world by surprise. It happened slowly and then all at once. Looking at the issue from a personal prescriptive, the journey to Repeal has been a long, drawn out and a haphazard one. Over the last two years at parties and coffee dates in Ireland and across the continent with both Irish and the diaspora, I have engaged in discussion, debating the complexities, grey areas and hard truths of the abortion referendum. I have had pro-choicers scream at me in nightclubs calling me a “Pro-Life W**ker” or Pro-Lifers condescendingly telling me that I simply didn’t “Want to bear the consequences of sleeping around”.
Despite my own dubious political qualities and motivations, I had always asserted and believed that the motion would never stand a chance of passing in quietly conservative and change resistant Ireland. I was wrong. It appears that not only the new highly urbanised generation, but also the rural population and the older demographic have become radically and ideologically different from the nation that declared independence in 1922. Increasing globalisation, European integration, and Church scandal after Church scandal has helped to change the Irish perception of both themselves and the state.
Ultimately this referendum has been a wakeup call for Ireland and exemplified the rise of a dangerous new weapon within political discourse: social media. The yes side consistently and successfully saturated social and popular media with a healthy stream of artwork, celebrity endorsements and creating of fashion trends that any would be socialite had to own (The infamous Repeal jumpers). Despite the often painful hubris and arrogance of the yes side, they benefited from having young leaders who truly understood how modern popular society operates. It was no doubt a mix of social influencers and young Instagram savvy teens who helped to create the image that the only popular, and ergo correct way to vote was – Yes.
This perceived image of Yes being an overwhelmingly popular and compassionate way of voting was consistently and regularly regurgitated by politically illiterate teens, young adults and those engrossed in social media. The capitalising upon this and saturating the internet with twibbons and memes was no doubt integral to ensuring a landslide yes victory.. It was this new battleground which helped turn the tide. The content and way it was pushed fits precisely within the definition for propaganda, that being; information of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.
Within young Ireland, if one wasn’t repealing one wasn’t cool. If one didn’t regularly post, share content or proselytize the messages of the Yes side, then one was viewed by many with distrust and disdain. For all intents and purposes, a social outcast – and it was expertly marketed and portrayed as such. The celebrity, the upper echelons of the elite and social media influencers decided what the acceptable political idea was. If you wanted to be accepted, if you wanted to be a part of “normal” society, you would have to conform, you would have to fit into the preconceived box of what is correct politics. To deviate outside these norms is considered social suicide.
Thus the electorate were subjected to consistent and constant subversive manipulation. It was possible to not realise, or even comprehend the level of brainwashing that was and is still occurring. To their credit, for the best part of a year, the Yes side would fill news feeds, articles and comments sections with posts and statuses filled with content congenial to their position. It was sleek, impassioned and mind numbing in volume. The sheer volume and magnitude of posts that internet users were subjected to no doubt helped to plant the seed within the minds of undecided voters to vote yes. The admirable consistency thus helped to water and protect these seeds, convincing and winning over many an undecided voter.
We Humans are social creatures, who are so desperate to be accepted and liked that we oft unknowingly change and adapt our behaviour to better our social positions and to function within society more smoothly. The people of our generation are fickle minded and easily swung to social fads and popular ideas. When a desperate need to conform, fit in and be a functioning member of society is met with consistent ideological manipulation, one can only see how easy it can be to slowly win over the population to any political idea or position.
The No vote, pro-life groups and traditional Catholic conservatives, in general, could and would not understand nor adapt to the political realities of the world around them. Though they could dominate in debates, such as during the Claire Byrne show. However they could not win the far more crucial battle for control of the internet. Foreign funding for the No campaign proved to be a disaster, despite being tiny compared to what the Yes campaign received from abroad, weakening the No vote and making it look disingenuous in the eyes of voters. The Yes side managed to crowdsource huge amounts of money, they used this excellently to create the false perception that the Yes campaign was a people’s project and a united effort of all truly modern citizens to smash an archaic Catholic Church dominated republic, something that hasn’t existed for decades despite the perception.
The yes side, rather than concentrate on pragmatism, the morality of abortion and cold hard facts, successfully managed to circumnavigate these issues through things like “In her Shoes”. These gut wrenching, unaccountable, unverifiable and occasionally dubious stories, were a prime example of how society was won with intensely personal and individuals stories. It was these stories, and other similarly down to earth and local concepts that made the Yes campaign more relatable to both young and old. These little stories oddly enough played a more crucial role than the actual debating of the issue. This was in comparison with the crude No side marketing line that “Babies will die”. The coarse nature of the No side and the brutality in which they presented their facts was no match for the elegant and sleek propaganda implemented by Yes.
Plato had understood this during the creation of early western society, noting that in a democracy and its elections, irrelevant factors often dominate and affect the democratic process. It is crucial to remember in our contemporary society, that it is not the truth and information that are important, but the way in which they are presented. What is truth and what is not, does not actually matter. It is the ability to impress upon the population that what you say is true that actually matters. If everyone believes in your line and trusts your word, then they will automatically assume the opposition to be capable of nothing other than lies, falsities and fallacies.
The No side could not comprehend this and instead pumped out statistics and numbers, coupled with the fundamental belief that abortion was murder. It was impersonal, dreary and monotonous. Though the figures were alarming and high, it comes down to the fact that people cannot relate to numbers. Statistics and doctors reports were no match in comparison to real life horror stories like that of Savita Halappanavar’s death. It is appropriate to remember the tyrant Stalin’s words, “One death is a tragedy, a million a statistic.” Despite this, the no side seemed to believe that statistics, morality and cries of foul play would carry the vote, but evidently this was not the case.
The No side lost, because they couldn’t adapt and comprehend the changes that have occurred in popular society. They failed to market the referendum and the pro-life side correctly. This failure enabled the Yes side to dictate the rules of the debate, and to twist public opinion in such a way that abortion, a topic far more controversial than gay marriage, was able to win by landslide margin of 33%.
Though I do not lament the repealing of the 8th amendment, the new right does need to learn from what has occurred over the last few months and to change accordingly. They cannot continue to operate in the way they do if they wish to see an Ireland congenial to their values upheld and preserved. A new coherent movement needs to be established, detached from the tragic and politically archaic Catholic hierarchy and the likes of the Iona institute, who possess all the public credibility of an election in North Korea. These institutions damage any cause they are pledged too. They are resistant to social change and have become the last vestiges of one of the worst parts of the country, which most wish to shake off.
The old guard will continue to age, and as it does, the new blood will continue to be ever more intoxicated with the comforting and simplistic embrace of neoliberalism. It will be picked up online and then regurgitated throughout college lecture halls, coffee shops and bars. The New Right and the new generation, needs to throw off the shackles of its parents and its past to create a new tomorrow. One which is steeped in the ideas and ideologies of the past, embracing classical liberalism and European conservatism. They must learn how to fight and win their battles, and crucially, when to fight them. Otherwise the entire movement is doomed to extinction.
It is important for the broader right to learn from this referendum. They must quickly understand the new social phenomena and look at the world through a new prism. No longer will the tried and tested techniques of the past breed results. What conservatism needs are young Instagram savvy & politically motivated youths. The age of the young career politicians is over. Write these socially inept fools off for what they are, self-serving thieves. Instead comb the new conservative movement and universities to find those truly capable in the arts of information dispersal. These are the people who will win future referendums and elections. Not the monotonous fabrications of people disguised as leaders in the youth wings of the political parties.
If conservatism cannot adapt to its new surroundings, and continues to lose all its battles, a grim neo-liberalist future awaits Western Europe, Ireland and its children. The New right must understand itself, the enemy, and the territory upon which it fights its political battles. When it does this, it may stand a chance of success.