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Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

The Yes campaign excludes those with reservations about same sex marriage

The fact is that some voters have reservations about gay couples adopting children, therefore genuine engagement on this issue is needed.

ONE OF THE most consistent observations I’ve heard from political activists over the past weeks is that they believe the marriage equality referendum will pass by the skin of its teeth, or fail altogether. Read the top line of the polls and it looks likely to stomp in with a 70% yes vote, but if you dig into them then you find that less than half that yes vote is strongly secured.

The Yes Equality Campaign are doing a fine job in a technical sense. They have a well-defined message delivered with panache, and are hitting the right notes on social media. Unfortunately I think there’s a great deal of groupthink and an unwillingness to deal with the concerns of wavering yes voters, with an undercurrent of active antagonism against anyone who would have doubts.

I have been to and heard tales of many political events where the topic of the referendum has come up and dissenters voicing concerns about passing this referendum have been shouted down or told, essentially and in some cases outright, that they’re homophobes for contemplating voting no. There have been events where, after the first or second doubter has been savaged, the rest have shut their mouths and simply decided to get on with quietly voting down the referendum. Instead of taking an opportunity to debate and convince, the yes side seems convinced of the righteousness of its cause; and adopted the George W maxim of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

This is not a great strategy for winning hearts and minds when a significant portion of the yes vote, let alone undecided voters, is wavering.

Reservations don’t go away just because you ignore them

The yes campaign has adopted an attitude of manifest destiny that has quietened many no voters without actually dispelling their concerns. The no side has been represented by the likes of the Iona Institute, with all the baggage that comes with them. But there are plenty of people I know who will be voting no, who are well known and articulate figures who could front a campaign with a lot less baggage in the arena of social conservatism. Indeed, some I know who will be voting no are otherwise social liberals who have concerns with this specific referendum whilst being otherwise supportive of LGBT rights.

Let’s cut right to the heart of it: according to a RedC poll, when you look at people who say they are going to vote yes only half of them have no reservations about gay couples adopting children. That’s specifically among stated yes voters, not the waverers or no voters. That’s a pretty damn soft number to be riding into a referendum with, where the old theory holds true that “if you don’t know, vote no.”

A lot of people are genuinely concerned about gay adoption. Telling them they’re homophobes or just plain wrong isn’t going to convince them. Ignoring the issue certainly won’t help either. Most people I’ve met seem genuinely surprised that single gay people can adopt today, and feel that this is something that was brought in under cover at some point.

People with doubts will express them in the privacy of the ballot booth

Right or wrong, this referendum has put the issue on the table and it does need to be dealt with when we will be in a situation afterwards that gay couples will be on a par with straight couples when it comes to adopting. Again, you might think it’s a reactionary point of view, or you might think it shouldn’t be a part of this debate at all, but you still have to convince someone to think differently, rather than antagonising them and giving them a good reason to go and vote down the referendum. They can vote no for whatever reason they like.

This reservation and others that people may have are not being dealt with by the yes side. On the ground, folks with these sorts of doubts are being conditioned to shut their mouths and keep their opinion to themselves until they’re in the privacy of the ballot booth.

The yes side also scored an own goal this week when the Youth Defence website was hacked and replaced with a mural supporting the referendum. Youth Defence have not been involved in the marriage equality referendum, despite holding socially conservative views and having extensive resources and grassroots networks to tap up. The cheering response of many yes campaigners on social media was a further example of the arrogance that is coming off them in waves. Had this been any issue close to their hearts, they’d have been up in arms about this sort of thing.

I’m no fan of Youth Defence, nor are many pro-life people for that matter. But I spoke to a few people who would disagree with abortion, but who are planning or thinking about voting yes in the equality referendum. The reaction was universal revulsion at the idea that yes campaigners seem to be exclusively pro-choice, pro-gay rights; with no room for the sort of coalition building that is good sense around referendum times. Whatever mealy mouthed stuff comes from the yes campaign now, people who are considering voting for the equality referendum now know from the major reaction to the YD hack that they are not really welcome in the fold if they happen to hold a different view to the majority of these people on another issue, like abortion.

Look at the reservations people have, and work to deal with them

The yes campaign hasn’t put reservations to bed in a convincing manner, and they seem to be an exclusive and exclusionary club of hardcore liberals who look down their noses at anyone who would lend them a vote but disagree on other issues. I think they’re spending tremendous amounts of time in self-congratulatory events, like one-sided debates and town hall meetings up and down the country, and as a result are failing to actually bed down the waverers and stem any rush to a no vote on May 22.

There’s a few weeks to go. I reckon efforts like specific “pro-life, pro-equality” meetings and a straight up big debate on children in gay households would be of benefit to the yes campaign. Look at the reservations people have, and work to deal with them rather than ignoring them in the hopes they go away.

The no side have a clear route to success: hammer the message home to doubters that married gay couples will be on a par with married straight couples when it comes to adopting children, and remind them that the yes campaign isn’t open to their point of view on other issues like abortion.

From there, it’s a turnout campaign.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman on columnist for You can follow him on Twitter here.

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