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What lies ahead in the closing weeks of the marriage referendum campaign?

With the result still far from guaranteed, where are campaigners likely to focus their energies in the final days?

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

SINCE THE START of 2015, campaigners on both sides of the upcoming referendum, which will ask voters whether the Constitution should be amended to extend the right to civil marriage to persons of the same sex, have been busy strategising, debating, disseminating their arguments and knocking on doors. With three weeks to go until the people of Ireland go to the polls, this activity will intensify as both the Yes and No camps seek to win over the hearts and minds of those who genuinely haven’t yet decided how they will vote or whose current views aren’t set in stone.

Every survey conducted to date has shown the Yes side to have a commanding lead. The recent Red C/Sunday Business Post poll reveals that 68% of all voters and 78% of likely voters will endorse the amendment. The outcomes of recent referenda, however, in particular the one on the abolition of Seanad Éireann, would suggest that it is foolhardy to place too much stock in the polls. That polls may overstate the size of the Yes vote is even more likely in this referendum, given that the “Bradley effect” – the term used to describe the phenomenon of people wanting to give socially desirable or “politically correct” responses to pollsters’ questions and thereby skewing the figures – on the issue of same sex marriage may be as high as 10%. Accordingly, the Yes side is taking nothing for granted.

With the result still far from guaranteed, where are campaigners likely to focus their energies in the final days? Notwithstanding the fact that polls aren’t gospel, two findings of the Red C/Sunday Business Post poll may offer some guidance to the No side.

Points of note for the No campaign 

In the poll, 67% of respondents disagreed with the following statement. “Children have always been central to marriage. It is inappropriate for children to be raised by gay couples.” Advocates for a No vote have attempted at every opportunity to link the referendum on same sex marriage to the rights of children and to the notion that it is best for children to be raised by a mother and a father. This finding would seem to indicate that child-centric arguments are not resonating with the electorate to the extent that the No side might have anticipated.

On the other hand, 46% of poll respondents – probably a majority, allowing for a “Bradley effect” – agreed with the following statement. “Same sex couples have full legal protection and can enter state-recognised civil partnerships. There is no need to go further and completely change the definition of marriage.” This finding will surely encourage No campaigners and could form the basis of their closing argument to the Irish people in the last days.

There is an undeniable and quite appropriate caution in the electorate about altering the Constitution and authorising potentially far-reaching change. It is likely that cautiousness was an animating factor in the voters ultimately determining that abolishing the Seanad at the behest of the Government was not a good idea. Appealing adroitly to this innate sense of caution might be the strongest hand that No campaigners have left to play. And simultaneously stressing the present availability of civil partnerships may embolden and/or provide cover to those who have doubts about the referendum, but who fear being labelled homophobic, to vote No.

Points of note for the Yes campaign 

For Yes campaigners, there are five critical points that need to be made and reinforced over the next three weeks.

First, the issues of surrogacy and child and family relationships more generally have nothing to do with the marriage referendum. They are not being dealt with here. And those trains have already left the station.

Second, the claim that civil partnership is marriage in all but name must be discredited. This can be accomplished both by delineating the manifest legal differences between the two in a straightforward, accessible fashion and, more importantly, by making the case that civil partnership for the minority and marriage for the majority is the modern day equivalent of “separate but equal”.

Third, what has happened, or not happened, in other jurisdictions that have legalised marriage for same sex couples must be cited. For instance, same sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts, where many Irish people have family and friends, for more than a decade. Back then, dire predictions were made as to the consequences of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. None of these has come to pass and, indeed, the broader societal impact of same sex marriage there has been insignificant. Crucially, there is not one shred of evidence that children have suffered or been disadvantaged in any way. The precedent of Massachusetts directly rebuts many of the central arguments made by the No side.

Fourth, people of faith intending to vote Yes, specifically practising Catholics, must continually state their position in favour of marriage equality and de-link it from what some regard a “hyper-secular,” left wing agenda on other hot button topics like abortion.

Fifth, all politics is personal. Establishing a personal connection to this issue for as much of the electorate as possible is vital to getting them to tick the Yes box on the ballot paper. People desperately want to believe that their vote is helping someone in a real and tangible way. In its dialogue with the Irish people, especially on the door steps and at local level, the Yes side must have compelling human stories at the ready in order to empower them to act on their benevolent instincts.

In the end, messaging and posturing aside, winning elections is a numbers game. If the Yes campaign can effectively mobilise their putative supporters to go to their polling stations and vote on the 22nd, the referendum will pass. If they can’t, it could be very close. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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