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Unemployment, emigration and Ireland’s economy - more pressing issues than children’s rights

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President Michael D. Higgins and wife Sabina cast their referendum votes
Why should we vote, my kids asked me as we trooped down to the polling station on Saturday evening.

The referendum is going to be passed anyway, they said in long suffering voices, conscious of the TV show they were missing. 

Apart from a few mad, far right Christians, everyone is in favor of children's rights, so everyone is going to vote yes, they said.  So we're wasting our time. 

I argued back about people in some places in America lining up for hours to vote for President Obama, about how precious democracy is, about how it's always important to have your say.   Inside, however, I was silently agreeing with them.

The referendum last Saturday on putting basic rights for children, separate from the rights of families, into our Constitution was sure to be passed by a massive majority. 

Our Constitution has always been weighted towards family rights because of our Catholic heritage.  And as our society has changed this has caused problems because children had few rights as individuals. 

It was more difficult than it should be for the state to intervene in highly dysfunctional families where children were at serious risk.  One practical problem was how difficult it was for long term foster parents to adopt children who needed a second chance -- and there were dozens of such cases on the books. 

So change was needed and almost everyone agreed with that, including all the political parties and all the media.  The only ones who disagreed were the fundamentalists who saw this as another attack on Catholic families.  They are the same lunatic fringe who opposed contraception and divorce, and there are only a few of them around these days.

So yes, as we walked in to vote on Saturday night it seemed certain that the referendum on children's rights would be passed by an overwhelming yes vote.  How wrong can you be?   

The referendum was passed all right, but by 58 percent to 42 percent, a much smaller margin than was predicted.

Even worse, only one in three of those eligible to vote in the country turned out, making it one of the lowest referendum votes we have ever had.   As the figures came in on Sunday afternoon, we were suddenly glad of our decision to head out to vote the night before, when it would have been far easier to stay at home and watch The X Factor.

So what happened?  Have we turned back into fundamentalist Holy Catholic Ireland where priests rule? Not really.  But something almost as disturbing is going on.

One of the reasons people didn't bother, apart from the general view that the yes side was going to win easily, was because they felt it didn't matter that much in practical terms. 

Yes, putting children's rights into the Constitution is a good idea.  But far more important is having the funds for enough social workers to tackle the real problems that many kids face when their parents are drugged, drunk and generally incapable of looking after them.  And that's before we even mention other aspects of what goes on, like violence and sexual abuse. 

Life can be very raw and rough in the deprived suburbs around our cities, just as it can be in similar areas in New York or LA or any other big city.  Having protection for kids written into the Constitution is great, but it's no use if there's no money to back up the social services that are needed for intervention in crisis situations. 

That was one factor.  Another was the feeling that, important though children's rights are, there are much more immediate issues to be dealt with by this government at the moment.

Issues like unemployment, emigration and the economic mess we have to deal with.  People are so worried and beaten down by these issues that at the moment they really can't cope with other things, like Constitutional reforms, no matter how worthy they are.

And that is linked to what I believe was the major reason that so many people here didn't bother to vote.  The government has lost its moral authority and many people have lost respect for and trust in what it says. 

In addition to that many people, including many who voted this government into power nearly two years ago, are now extremely angry with the way things have turned out.  In particular they are furious about the way the government has failed to moderate the pay and pensions of the upper layer of our society while everyone else is struggling to pay the bills and survive. 

This referendum gave this huge swell of angry people a chance to register some kind of protest.  They were never going to vote no.  But given their disgust with the government they just could not bring themselves to go out and vote yes, because that was what the government was asking them to do. 

A high yes vote would have been seized on as a kind of positive approval rating by the government, and that's the last thing many voters here want to give them right now. 

In the past two weeks, more and more revelations have come out about the high pay and high guaranteed pensions for life that so many people here have in politics, the banks, the judiciary, the civil service and many other areas in the state sector, where middle and senior staff have deals that the rest of us can only dream about.   

Some of the stuff that is now being revealed is so outrageous that it's almost past belief.  The details of the astronomical pay and pensions in the banks in particular is making people's blood boil, not least because our banks are now effectively owned by the state. 

Last week details of pay and pensions in Anglo, the renegade bank that was the main driver of our economic collapse, were published, with everyone on huge boom time salaries. 

At the same time that the government is cutting home help hours (the minimal service provided for disabled people in their homes) they are telling people that they can do nothing about the huge pay and pension deals that the top bank executives are on.

The pensions debate, in particular, has fuelled an outpouring of anger.  We have all these pillars of Irish society (like Mary Robinson, or the current President Michael D. Higgins) who are all on, or soon to be on, not just one pension but two or three.   The same applies to the politicians who got us into this financial mess. 

The senior civil servants and regulators who were supposed to stop it happening are all on huge guaranteed pensions as well.  And it carries on down the chain across the state sector, with everyone in line for a nice pension.  

Unlike private sector pensions, all these state pensions are funded out of current revenue (or state borrowing).  There is no pension fund to go bust, as has happened to 80 percent of private pensions here.  The state just keeps on borrowing and paying.

This guaranteed pension regime for everyone on the state payroll also apples to most people in the hundreds of government sponsored organizations (a/k/a the quangos) we have and in the semi-state sector, which is why there is an Aer Lingus strike on the way.  Their pension fund is completely bust, but they want the state to bail them out (and you can be sure higher fares and airport charges will be used to make the rest of us pay for that.)

In the real world, when a pension fund goes bust most private companies can't afford to rescue it.  Many companies have gone bust and brought their pension funds down with them. 

One Waterford Glass worker was on radio this week explaining that after his long years of hard work there he was supposed to get a pension of €600 a week.   He is now getting €15 a week. 

Meanwhile, all the state workers are retiring on roughly half their final salary and it's guaranteed for life.  Why should they be different?  The government's answer to this is an uncomfortable silence. 

These pay and pension issues are the real and immediate concerns of people here now, not children's rights.  That's why the vote was so low.   

That and the perception that this government has completely lost the plot.  They came into power promising to force a major deal out of Europe on our banking debt, which should never have been loaded on to the Irish taxpayer in the way that it was.  They have failed to deliver on that. 

Instead, they have kept to the EU/IMF bailout program by cutting spending and raising taxes for ordinary people, while letting the upper tier of the state sector here off the hook. 

There is no equity in what they are doing.  Yet they seem to be blissfully unaware of this and of the sinking regard that people here have for them. 

Why else would Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny think that it was OK to leave the sinking ship behind and head off to Berlin (where else!) a week ago to collect his European of the Year award?  He accepted it on behalf of the Irish people, of course. 

Thanks for nothing, Enda.  

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