The problem with referenda is that they’re bloody awful. They boil complex and sometimes diffuse legal issues down to a binary and visceral response, often a million miles away from the question actually being asked. It’s like trying to conduct surgery with a Fisher-Price screwdriver. But the Irish Constitution requires that we use My First Tool Kit before amending it.
This leads invariably to bitterly irrational division and shocking reductive debate that drifts away from the original point like a bearded man on a raft off a desert island swept up in a strong ocean current with only a stick man for company. Or, indeed, drifts away like the previous sentence.
But one of the upsides to such a setup is the inevitable descent into comic madness it facilitates, and posters and slogans are generally the conduit. At the time of the original divorce referendum in 1986, former dressmaker turned political battleaxe Alice Glenn came up with the gem that ‘Women voting for divorce is like turkeys voting for Christmas.’ That was but the headline though in a whole pamphlet outlining reasons not to let divorce pass, like the monetary cost to the government of setting up the framework to ‘introduce a DIVORCE CULTURE [her capitalising and bolding, not mine] on our impoverished little nation’.
She also pleaded that ‘Because of the tendency to summon emotionally charged arguments, it is necessary … to think clearly about the cold facts about divorce.’ A few lines down the same paragraph, after making this sober call for a non-dramatic discussion of the issues, she said, ‘Once the gates for divorce have been opened, the clamour for more and more divorce goes unabated. You may as well hold back the tides with your hands.’
In the nine years that passed between referenda, attitudes to divorce softened significantly, but the No side’s histrionics were still very much alive. Billboards with the tagline ‘Hello Divorce … Bye Bye Daddy … Vote NO!’ loomed over the country, and even then the re-run referendum carried by 0.6 per cent. But, of course, in the following decade we’d become very acquainted with reruns. The Lisbon Treaty referenda were heartbreakingly stupid, and the Death Star of crass postering.
The Yes side did what they normally did and assumed everyone was smart enough to agree with them, or rather not dumb enough to be against them. Hence posters with anodyne slogans like ‘Yes for Jobs’ and ‘Keep Ireland at the Heart of Europe’. But while some had the faint hint of not trying, or had the sense that Ireland was a kind of geopolitical stent, that wasn’t all the Yes side had to offer.
The worst of all was Young Fine Gael’s risible attempt at sexy humour. No, you read that right. One of the leaflets featured a J. Arthur Rank gong-basher-style human male torso (he appeared to have no head, and could you blame him?) sporting tight blue and yellow pants with the tagline ‘Enlarge your opportunities’. Worse still was their female version (gender balance, yeah!) where a girl is holding actual bloody melons with the slogan ‘Increase your prospects’. Actual bloody melons.
But while the Yes side sat back on its melons, sorry, laurels, the No side ran a tour de force of imaginative postering that framed the campaign. What a pity they were utterly shameless to boot. The conservative pressure group Cóir did most of the running on this, running hot pink love hearts on lampposts with slogans like ‘The EU LOVES Control’ (again, their bold capitalising, not mine). But by far their most notorious posters were the ongoing series of Jamaican-coloured posters with alarming statements in, you guessed it, capitalised bold letters.
‘95% OF EUROPEANS WOULD VOTE NO – STAND UP FOR EUROPE’ said one, making reference to a Charlie McCreevy quote. ‘MILKED DRY!’ claimed another one, with a picture of a cow above. As if the threat of milkless Friesians wasn’t enough, they also invoked 1916, picturing Pearse, Clarke and Connolly with the headline ‘THEY DIED FOR YOUR FREEDOM – DON’T THROW IT AWAY’.
The point about Pearse et al. along with their apparent religious fervour obviously resonated with commenters on their site, one of them writing: ‘Fair play to you for campaignin [sic] against this Godless treaty, They just want to take away our Holy God and replace Him with science. That too and the Fact that the Godless treaty will lead us to being swamped with asylum seakers [sic] and foreigners
from Africa is this what Pearse gave his life for I ask you?’
Another commenter, seemingly concerned at the salty nature of the language in describing how many posters they’d put up, asked, ‘ … do we have to use words such as “Erected” on our About Us page?’
In terms of shrill bombast, the posters were almost beyond parody. Almost, but not quite. Pastiche posters spread like wildfire, with slogans like ‘ONE IN THREE EUROPEANS HAS A MOUSTACHE – VOTE NO’.
After that it just snowballed, a deluge of Cóir mockups each more amusing and surreal than the last. Posters like that of the prostitute peering in a car window with the caption ‘YOUR KIDS WILL GROW UP DUTCH!’ (which the Evening Herald accidentally thought was genuine) and one, presumably harking back to the ‘Milked Dry’ poster, that simply said, ‘GOATS’.
But despite the hours of fun to be had with Cóir, the winner of the most outrageous poster award was
everyone’s favourite pan-European washout, Libertas.
With a cloudy, orangey sky as a background, and a crying wee girl with massive green eyes making an ‘I want a pony!’ face, the poster read ‘IRISH DEMOCRACY, 1916 – 2009? VOTE NO!’ Oh dear. In other words, either they genuinely thought Irish democracy started then and they’ve assembled their knowledge of Irish history from sugar packets, or they had in fact heard of Parnell and O’Connell, but just ignored them to make some daft romantic point. That’s referenda for ye.
* * *
Perpetual Embarrassment Rating: 10/10
Any political party putting forward the notion that Irish democracy started in 1916 is either full of amateurs or idiots. Or both.
National Peril-o-meter: 10/10
Our kids growing up Dutch? Not on my watch!
‘Ah, lads!’ Rating: 9/10
Why, oh why, can’t people online who complain about foreigners coming to this country ever seem to spell properly?
The next proposed referendum:
Over whether we ever hold another referendum again.
The is an extract from Did That Actually Happen: A Journey Through Ridiculous Moments in Irish Politics by Paddy Duffy, published by Hachette Ireland. The book is available in bookshops across the country, priced at approximately €11.99.Also Read