Deep thoughts from abroad on validity of votes

Deep thoughts from abroad on validity of votes Melanie McDonagh

After criticising Damian Thompson’s execrable podcast about the referendum in a recent Web Watch, it seems only fair to point to a far better piece on the referendum this week.

‘What really happened in Ireland’s abortion referendum’, a ‘Coffee House’ column by Wicklow-born but London-based Melanie McDonagh is marked, as perhaps inevitable nowadays, by a near omniscient sense of hindsight, but it makes important points, not least about lazy comparisons between the Brexit referendum and our abortion referendum.

Pointing out that Britain’s debate saw mainstream newspapers and periodicals taking meaningfully different stances, and that there were major and recognisable political figures on both sides of the debate, McDonagh notes that things were very different in Ireland.

“There is no equivalent in the small, self-regarding world of Irish journalism, of this magazine, or indeed the Daily Mail or the Guardian. To get some idea of the wildly skewed nature of the referendum, imagine the Brexit campaign without Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Gisela Stuart and the Mail, Telegraph and Spectator. That’s how fair and representative it was,” she writes.

She turns then to the ‘Yes’ side’s focus on the hard cases and its mendacious manipulation of the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar, and the as yet uncertain issue of abortifacient pills.

“Never, in short, has such a mighty wedge followed such a very thin end,” she writes.

Perhaps most remarkably, in the wake of our second ‘Home to Vote’ charade, she recalls an investigation conducted by NewsTalk’s Odran Flynn in January 2016.

“As for the size of the majority, there is no doubt it was hefty, but there remain genuine concerns about the validity of some votes, notably young people registered at home and at university voting twice, plus some of the Home To Vote contingent who shouldn’t have been voting at all,” she writes. “An investigation by the NewsTalk radio station in 2016 suggested that there may be 488,000 unaccountable voters on the register. The appetite for investigating this potential abuse? Zero.”

I had entirely forgotten this story, but one advantage of the internet is that it’s not hard to unearth the kind of story we should have in our minds when considering how a country’s political culture can be shifted. Stories about how there could be almost half a million people improperly registered to vote can easily be read at, and if we turn to we see pretty quickly that while the Department of the Environment pooh-poohed this notion, it doesn’t seem to have done anything to investigate it.

McDonagh’s piece is, as noted, far from flawless, but it at least shows the merit of knowing the territory and the facts on the ground. Over at, on the other hand, Catholics could and surely will waste their time reading the Pennsylvania-born one-time Protestant’s thoughts on ‘Ireland and the end of cultural Catholicism’.

There’s a banal truth in his opening observation that “Ireland’s Catholic faith has eroded, and the once great and powerful Irish Church has become a husk of what it once was”, but it’s with the next sentence that his observations get problematic.

“I am no expert on Ireland, Irish history or the Irish Church, but I expect the malaise has the same roots at the decline of the institutional church not only in the other European countries, but also in the decline of cultural Catholicism in the United States,” he says, before going on and eventually deploying this clunker:

“As long as the Irish had a strong national identity–especially as opposed to the hated English–they banded together and they clung to their Catholicism as part of that distinctive identity. Once they joined the European Union and the English turned out to be much more friendly their strong Irish identity got watered down and their Catholicism with it.”

Nope. Whatever else has hollowed out our Church, this isn’t it.