Beyond the neon runes

Winning is everything

The posters are up. And they’re quite provocative. Subtlety is not an issue here, mixed messages of no concern; once you see them you know precisely what they refer to. You also know the effect they’re supposed to have on you. The expectation is that they will stop you in your tracks and force you to consider the value of life, consider how precious it is, how sacred. And how each little baby, no matter how old, how tiny, has a right to it. From there the hope is that you will come to a conclusion, an epiphany of sorts, one influenced by these stark, somewhat bleak, proclamations.

And maybe you will, maybe these posters will have the desired effect. Maybe, after months of uncertainty, you’ll be swayed by an image of a tiny foetus, by the fact that, at twelve weeks old, it can yawn, it can stretch, it can suck its thumb, maybe that’s all it will take for you to make up your mind, to align yourself in the pro-life camp and stay there until the end of next month. Or maybe that won’t happen at all. Maybe you’ll see those posters, grimace, and carry on with your day. Maybe you’ll see them, shake your head, and consider voting the other way out of sheer contrariness.

To the best of my knowledge this is only the third time I’ve written about the eighth amendment since beginning this column in 2016. The first time ended with me being hectored online by Graham Linehan and an army of irate pro-choicers. My sin being to describe protestors, on both sides, as vulgar. That was all it took to attract an angry mob, the context completely ignored, the article unread, as they pilloried me for being a toxic tool. There were a few letters to the editor too, all from pro-life advocates, all similarly critical of my piece. Somehow, I managed to enrage both camps, no mean feat.

Suitably chastened I steered clear of the debate for an age, only dipping my toe back in late last year to ask for some decorum as the arguments began to crackle and fizz. No such luck; more letters, more Twitter call-outs, my intelligence, my integrity, called into question. I now know that it’s impossible to write about this topic without upsetting someone, and I’m fine with that, so do your worst. And I understand why people get so upset, of course I do, I understand the passion and the vigour, the combative nature of the soapboxers, the occasional descents into chaos. Abortion is a dirty word, it always will be, and it brings with it a myriad of complex connotations.

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What I cannot understand however, no matter how hard I try, are the dirty tactics employed by those seeking to influence the public vote. It truly boggles my mind. While the aforementioned posters are within the confines of the law, they are morally corrupt in every single way. I appreciate that you’ve got to be direct when fashioning these placards, that a four-by-four piece of cardboard is not the place to wax lyrical on the finer points of the eighth amendment. But these shock tactics aren’t doing anyone any favours. I’m sure those on the pro-life side will argue otherwise, contend that they’ve been left with no choice but to lay it all out in the barest, most blunt, terms, but as someone whose own stance has yet to be confirmed, I can assure you that such vehemence serves only to alienate, to make one question not the rights of an unborn child, but the mindset of those behind the posters.

Granted, I have only seen the pro-life signs thus far, maybe the pro-choice ones will be even more provocative, more likely to cause dismay and disillusion. Because, as I’ve said all along, no-one is coming out of this with any credit. The stridency of those on social media, on both sides, but in particular those in favour of repeal, is quite startling. The self-righteousness, the unwillingness to engage with those who disagree with their views, the aggression, the prickliness, makes reasonable discussion an impossibility. But worse, it turns moderate voters off, it makes them question their allegiance: “Am I really going to stand beside these people, with those views?”

It’s the ultimate irony, that the harder each side tries to win voters, the more it succeeds in pushing them away. I’m sure there are judicious voices in both camps, but I have yet to hear them. What I have heard is a wall of sound, an unrelenting clamour of voices fighting for supremacy, for the right to make themselves known, for the right to be right. And for what? So that their side can win, so that they can pump their fists with glee when the verdict is announced? Is that what this is all about? Winning? Yes, I appreciate the gravity of this referendum, that the result will be an era-defining moment. But a cause for jubilation, for triumphalism? I don’t think so. Quiet reflection perhaps, sombre thought, yes.

That groups from both sides are alleged to have waged war on rival social media accounts, the aim being to discredit them in the eyes of voters just about sums this whole thing up; petty schemes to lower the ratings of Facebook pages are about as childish as it gets. And then there’s the issue of funding and how the respective organisations are financing their marches, their banners and whatnot. With a moratorium on overseas funding, groups must ensure that all donations come from within the State, failure to comply with this law seeing them hauled before an ethics committee. So, what we get is more mudslinging, more arguments, accusations of dodgy dealings, the money was just resting in my account, that sort of thing.

I truly believe that this is all just one big waste of time, that the number of people who will be influenced by these exhaustive campaigns is minimal, and that any new affiliates will be offset by those who migrate the other way, offended by the sanctimony and piety. Because, for all our flaws, we’re a fairly intelligent bunch, us Irish. The majority of us are more than capable of making up our own minds. All we need are a few government-approved pamphlets, clear instructions on what we’re voting on, and we’re good to go. Most of us don’t need to have things rammed in our faces, or down our throats, or anywhere else for that matter. We’re more than happy to bide our time, to have a little think, and cast our vote, unobstructed, when the time comes.

But maybe I’m missing the point? Maybe these protests, these marches, these online skirmishes, aren’t meant to win voters at all. Maybe they don’t care about us and our piddling little votes. All they care about is one another, and about being right, and winning the fight. Because that’s what’s really important here, isn’t it? Winning.


They’re gonna find out who’s naughty or nice

A few weeks ago, I referred to comments made by a local solicitor in which he compared Limerick’s new CCTV system to something one might see in an authoritarian state, like China. The inference was that to be like China would be a bad thing, that communism was awful, dictatorships even worse. After all, this is a country where, until recently, couples were only permitted to have one child. A law which has now been relaxed, allowing parents to have, wait for it, two children.

But not all Chinese policies are so arcane, some of their initiatives are actually quite forward-thinking, maybe even revolutionary. Like its social credit programme, a ranking system which rates citizens based on their everyday behaviour. By monitoring their actions through, I don’t know, high-tech cameras, local councils can determine who’s “keeping trust” and who isn’t. Those acting in a “disgraceful” manner, e.g. smoking in non-smoking zones, driving poorly, or purchasing too many video games, can expect to be reprimanded accordingly.

Penalties include; travel restrictions, banning children from the best schools, limited access to the job market and, oh no, being publicly named as a bad citizen. And if you’re really bold, you’ll get stuck on the naughty list, nothing but years of heckling and unfulfilling work to sustain you. However, those who abide by the laws are rewarded for being good. Be nice, do what the government tell you, and you’ll get better interest rates at the bank, discounts on your bills, and more matches on dating sites.

Why can’t we have something like this in Ireland? We already have the cameras, and sure anything not picked up by those can be tracked by Facebook or Google. They’re already surveilling us, why not put the data to good use? And if you’re behaving yourself then you’ve got nothing to worry about. If, like me, you’re a model citizen, you can look forward to reduced electricity bills, friendly bank tellers, and a red-hot Tinder profile.