Recently one of my children had a birthday party at our house. One of the adults asked them if they now felt older? The child appeared a little bemused before emphatically replying ‘No’. For the majority of people in this State the same applies to us today. Yesterday was a significant moment in our Nation’s history but it is hard for many to describe how this different new reality actually feels. Many of these same people voted magnanimously to extend the right of marrying the person they love to all citizens. Marriage is no longer the preserve of heterosexual couples and marriage will be simply defined as a union of two people based on the bond of love. Yet so much in our Country remains the same. The weather forecast for Ireland yesterday said that it would be sunny, with the rain spreading in from the West and patchy showers later in the afternoon. Strangely in a scene similar to that in the film ‘Grounghog Day’, the weather forecast for today also says that there would be sunny spells, followed by showers spreading from the West later. No change there then! But things have changed, dramatically, especially for the many supporters of what will become the 34th Amendment to our Constitution. Many will have woken up feeling that they are now living in a more tolerant, accepting society, a country that despite today’s weather forecast, will seem just a little bit warmer than it did yesterday.
Except in Roscommon-South Leitrim that is, where many ‘Yes’ supporters are disappointed that their Constituency is the odd man / woman out by not voting yes to Marriage Equality. Outside the Constituency the response has been predictable enough. Twitterati and Facebookers are quick to point the accusing finger at those homophobic, medievalists that populate this area. Some of the comments are particularly uninformed and generic. One comment suggested people in the area were banjo-playing opportunistic rapists waiting for a ‘purdy mouth’ to come along. Comparing Roscommon-South Leitrim to ‘Deliverance’ country does not however cut as deep as to be ridiculed by one’s own.
Many expats decried Roscommon and South Leitrim kinspeople for letting them down and spoiling the party. The comedienne, Katherine Lynch said that ‘Leitrim was dead to her’, but the Mohill native is known for being tongue in cheek, and I hope she is this time too. Others made quips about Roscommon seceding and joining Zimbabwe, more suggested that if the Referendum was about marrying cousins or farm animals, there would have been a better response. Most of the authors of such comments probably only did so for fun but the cumulative effect of this condemnation is to pillory and castigate a rural constituency where 48.52% of Voters actually supported the idea of Gay marriage. That is phenomenal figure yet many ‘Yes’ campaigners are quick to forget about those same people who made the effort to go out and vote for the same cause as them. Such an attitude seems bizarre and is surely the best recent example of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
In such a rush to chastise and cajole the Voters of Roscommon-South Leitrim it seems completely lost on the accusers of just how paradoxical their utterances are; especially in light of what they themselves were asking the people of Ireland to do last Friday. In doing so and in disregarding the right of a person to Vote in whatever way they wished, the accusers are themselves guilty of spreading intolerance, narrow-mindedness and prejudice. In many ways it spoiled some of the positivity that emanated from the result. Surely any accuser should wait and carry out a little analysis of why there was a higher percentage of No voters in this area than any other constituency. Don’t forget the referendum was carried by a slim margin of just 33 votes in Donegal North East and was in the low fifties in some other areas. Roscommon-South Leitrim is only unique because the bar is set at 50%, the simple majority rule , and it just fell short of that threshold.
This is a predominantly rural community but its traditionalism and conservatism does not always stand up to scrutiny. Leitrim is home of one of the seven signatories of our Proclamation of Independence and a true social revolutionary, Sean MacDiarmada. It also is the birthplace of the socialist Jimmy Gralton, the only man to be deported from the country of his birth for his ‘radicalism’. It is the home of John McGahern a paradigm of tolerance, respect and liberal values. Leitrim is also well known for its large Bohemian community of artists, writers and sculptors who have certainly made the area more diverse in both thought and outlook. So why is the area so out of kilter with the predominantly urban / sub-urban parts of the country. Firstly, I’d advise anyone who supports the lazy sterotyping of the constituents here as homophobic banjo players, to take a short tour through the Constituency and make a few notes on the following matters in particular;
- What do think of the vibrancy of the towns in the area? Are the high streets thriving?
- Did you meet many young people in the 18-35 age bracket?
- How did you travel by the way? Was it by public transport? Doubtful.
- How many flourishing businesses did you see?
- Make sure to bring bottled water (it’s a case of ‘water water everywhere but not a drop to drink’ in large areas here you cant even drink the tap water?
- Did it take you long to upload one of your barbed comments to your social media account? Seriously try it, the broadband here is terrible and satellite alternatives are expensive.
If you tried the above suggestions you’d invariably find many depressed market towns, some dead, some dying, others like Carrick-on-Shannon dependent on tourism and weekends of stag and hen parties. But when the stags and hens leave, and we clean up after them, nothing much has changed. There are very little employment opportunities in the area, most of the young people have left and one of the best barometers to confirm this is the local GAA clubs struggling to field teams. So what about those who are left? The majority are members of a demographic that the yes campaign had most difficulty connecting with throughout the country, nothing unique there. The difference is that a larger percentage of them reside here proportionally than in any other constituency. We have the oldest electorate, fact.
Not all ‘No’ voters in the area are part of this traditional, conservative group and the majority, I’m absolutely sure of this, are not homophobic. This is an area where the people are frustrated and disconnected from Government and Politics in general. Their communities are decimated by the loss of essential services; Rural post offices – Gone, Rural Garda Stations – Gone, Rural Scools and teaching posts – under threat, Public Transport- almost non-existent with routes been cut by Bus Eireann annually. Oh and on your tour you will have noticed the motorway ended before Mullingar. The IDA rarely ever visits places like Leitrim, Longford and Roscommon and therefore he chances of major investment is slim. The largest employer in the north of the area, MBNA, is gone and despite all the assurances of Minister Bruton no replacement has been found. Those small and medium enterprises that do exist find they are hamstrung by poor infrastructure, especially the lack of adequate broadband. A mobile phone call usually involves leaving the house and finding a place of optimum coverage, maybe climb up on the roof or up a tree! Mental Health campaigners will confirm that the erosion of services has led the greater isolation amongst the elderly in the area, many of whom have had their home help hours cut back. The area also has had the highest rates of suicide in the country particularly amongst our young people. When people talk about Equality do they factor these issues in to the equation.
Many will say these issues have nothing to do with the Marriage equality Referendum but such a view is foolish and naïve. The Voters in this area are completely disconnected from National Government and detached from the prevailing messages of the mainstream Dublin based media. They are chastised now as bold children who did not do what they were expected and urged to do. That is precisely the point, a community that has been neglected so much in terms of investment, both socially and economically will also be prone not to toe the establishment line. And let’s be absolutely clear, whatever about past prejudice and mores, supporting same sex marriage is the establishment view and was advocated by all the main political parties.
It is in such an environment as exists in Roscommon and South Leitrim that induces the people to elect people such as Ming Flanagan and Michael Fitzmaurice, two men who many in polite society on this Island would consider square pegs in the neat round holes of Dail Eireann. Yes campaigners will also say that the vote in traditional working class areas was high but all this shows is that rural and urban deprivation are two different creatures altogether. This constituency and its people are rooted in the soil, its towns developed to serve the farming hinterland in a symbiotic model. Now both are in decline and nothing is been done to address it. The influence of the church is also a red herring. There are hardly any vocations now for the priesthood in this area no more than Dublin or Cork or any of the cities and mass attendances have dwindled. The voters here are as likely to react negatively to Mother Church telling them ‘Vote No’ as to the Taoiseach telling them to ‘Vote Yes’.
Despite all the foregoing almost half of the people who voted in Roscommon South Leitrim voted YES to change, Yes to a more inclusive society for members of the LGBT community. That is something the YES keyboard warriors should be celebrating and instead of pulling the plug and letting their own children flow out with the bathwater. Many people from the area who would be voting ‘Yes’ now live in other parts of the country and contributed to the Yes campaigns and votes in those areas. In the run up to the election many ‘Yes’ campaigners told us this Referendum was about promoting tolerance of difference and respect for minorities. Surely then if the accusers are genuine and honest, they should extend the same respect to the people of Roscommon South Leitrim who simply didn’t agree with them, something which it is their hard won, Constitutional right to do so. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously wrote ‘. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.
The only way of depicting the Roscommon South-Leitrim result as indefensible is to portray the constituents as backward, conservative zealots and such a strategy diminishes the core and heart of what was achieved by the ‘Yes’ campaign in this Referendum. So a huge sorry from us for not being above-average and being 13% behind the average test score nationally. Feel free to go ahead and bully us on the internet. At least Marian Keyes had the decency to apologise but insults are like toothpaste, once out its impossible to get it back into the tube.