Belfast Telegraph

Ian O'Doherty: Bad losers are obnoxious but bad winners, as the referendum result showed, are much worse

The way the Yes camp pursues its opponents on social media leaves an unpleasant taste, writes Ian O'Doherty

Just like 66.4% of the Irish population, I woke up on Saturday morning feeling happy and relieved, but mostly relieved. I was happy, because we had just delivered a vote which, at one stage, I genuinely thought we would never see in my lifetime. I remember well the scuffles of the early-1990s, when the more hardcore pro-life groups were happy to bring their own burly security with them whenever they marched.

I remember the photographers being thrown to the ground, the reporters being harassed. I remember my parents' home phone number being released and them having to change it because of the abusive - or somehow even worse, silent - calls that came in day and night from fanatical strangers who were quick to threaten and attack anyone who was pro-choice. I remember being warned to stay away from one street, where a particularly virulent and obnoxious group of pro-lifers used to meet.

I remember the scare tactics. The attempts at intimidation. The menacing air they created around themselves while they sang rebel songs in the bar they frequented, daring anyone to challenge them. They basked in the knowledge that they had the whip hand over everyone else and could act with virtual impunity.

So, yes, I was happy to see those people lose by such a resounding margin and it is that margin which brings the relief, as well. The real fear we all faced was that this was going to be another one of those referendums which came down to a few loose votes here and there.

It shouldn't be forgotten, after all, that the 15th amendment to the constitution, which paved the way for divorce in the Republic in 1995, was carried by fewer than 10,000 votes, leaving a tiny percentage difference of 50.28% to 49.72%. There was a very real chance last Friday's vote could have gone the same way.

Even though the early, pre-landslide, indicators were that the repeal of the eighth would be more comfortable than had been expected, nobody could have predicted such a decisive result. And with such a decisive result comes a mandate. Had the vote come down to the wire and only delivered a sliver of a margin, as in 1995, we would have been looking at a summer of extreme discontent.

Instead, thankfully, politicians on the No side, who threatened filibusters and the politics of obstruction and who had glowered darkly that they could kill this government if it came down to it, now know the people have spoken. Those people won't be in a forgiving mood towards any politician who tries to stand in the way of the electoral juggernaut that was Friday's result.

The last few months had become so wearisome that both sides must be grateful it is finally, comprehensively, over - regardless of how the result went for them. While we didn't have quite the same tensions on the streets which have occurred in this country in the not-too-distant past, the mood in the last few weeks was grim and toxic and no quarter was asked for, or given, as the competing ideologies went after each other with increasing enthusiasm.

While I was too young to vote for the last abortion referendum, my parents were both pro-choice and, like anyone who voted that way back then, they were subject to ridicule, contempt and triumphalist sneering from the victorious side.

In one of those interesting historical coincidences which keep us all amused, the winning margin for the pro-life side on that occasion was 67% - a resounding figure virtually indistinguishable from Friday's result and one which offers a fascinating and telling snapshot of just how much this country has changed in a generation.

But while ideas might change and social mores and fashions may come and go, personality types tend to remain constant. Human nature is, after all, human nature. And so, just as some members of that victorious 67% in 1983 were obnoxious, smug and vengeful towards the losing side, that same miasma of triumphalist contempt has been clearly in evidence from many victorious repealers.

Nobody likes a bad loser, but bad losers are under-rated. After all, as the old sporting adage goes, show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser. But there is something almost uniquely unpleasant about a bad winner and there have been plenty of those in the last few days.

Even in victory, the old canards are still taken out. There has been much cliched wittering about this being the final victory against the Catholic Church. But since when has the Catholic Church had a genuine hold over the people?

It seems to have been forgotten that, as far back as 1996, then-finance minister Ruairi Quinn declared Ireland a "post-Catholic, pluralist Republic". When you consider this statement was made by a senior cabinet figure two decades ago, the idea that we have only now shrugged off some Gilead-like theocracy is fatuous (and historically illiterate).

The fact that a third of the country still sided with the Church means nought to our new clerics, who have been strident in their assertions that "this is our country" and there is no place for "hatred and bigotry" in our society.

What that really means is that there is no place for dissent and it now appears that, having won the war, many on the victorious side are looking forward to being a brutal occupying force.

Like many - hopefully the majority - of the Yes voters, I am happy, but not exultant, with the result. It was an uncomfortable choice to have to make, but we have a civic obligation to make uncomfortable choices.

But the zeal with which some of the more hysterical campaigners are now pursuing their opponents on social media and on the airwaves reminds me of those bleak and uncomfortable days back in the 1980s.

Alban Maginness returns next week

Belfast Telegraph

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