Here is my analysis of where the two sides in the upcoming referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment currently stand. It first appeared on Broadsheet.ie here
Back in late 2014 I was invited to assist the nascent Marriage Equality campaign with its preparations. They asked me to help draft a campaign playbook, or ‘campaign bible’ as it was labelled by some, along the lines of the one I had put together for the successful 2013 Seanad referendum.
As part of my groundwork I tried to get some insights into the mindset of No voters. To this end I went for a few beers and a chat with an old political colleague who I knew to be quite socially conservative. I dragged the conversation slowly and steadily around to the topic of gay marriage and prepared myself for the explosion. None came.
“Have you decided how you will vote?”, I asked
“Not sure, yet” came the reply.
I was astounded that he was not a definite No, so I pushed a bit further.
“Are you saying that you might even vote yes”, I enquired.
“Yes” he said. “This is not like abortion. I am not comfortable with gay marriage, but it doesn’t hurt me and at the end of the day this isn’t about life or death… abortion is.”
That was the moment when I realised that the marriage equality referendum was very winnable. It is also the conversation that echoed in my mind in the weeks after the marriage equality result when some sought to use that big win as a predictor of any future abortion referendum.
With that one line my friend summed up the outlook of many of those opposed to repealing the 8th Amendment. They sincerely and passionately believe this is about the protection of life. It is black and white to them. It is not about some zealotry or wanton disregard for the rights of women, it is about a deep-seated belief, not necessarily religious, that this is about taking a life.
I am not arguing that they are right, neither I am defending the campaign material the No Repeal side has produced, I am merely reminding the Repeal the 8th campaign that many who will vote No will be acting sincerely. I am also suggesting that the Repeal campaign recognize that, something I have discerned from much of their public commentary, so far.
To this end I offer a paraphrasing of the cautionary note I included at the start of the marriage equality campaign playbook/bible:
This campaign is not about being proven right or correcting the wrongs of the past, it is about getting 50% +1 of those who turn out to Vote YES.
Do not criticise voters for their deeply held views. These views should be respected. Avoid labelling opponents, and dismissing sincerely held beliefs, as ‘conservative’, ‘backward’ etc., but be firm in identifying where the other side is scaremongering, raising baseless fears and deliberately misleading and confusing voters.
Messages that fail and are counterproductive:
Voting No will embarrass us internationally
We need to drag Ireland into the 21st century
This will be a liberal victory over conservatism
I offer this to the repeal side not because I am implacably on their side but because much of their messaging so far has seemed directed at those who have already decided to vote to repeal. The same is true for the No side, some of whose self-ordained leaders have already decided to go with the old “scorched earth” approach.
As it stands, both sides appear more focused on addressing their own partisans rather than persuading the cohort of “undecided” or “unwilling to say how they’ll vote” – which a recent poll put together at 20%.
While it may seem like a winning strategy on paper for the repeal side right now, they ignore the ‘differential turnout’ factor at their peril. As the good folks in Ireland Thinks observed in the analysis of their December 2017 poll for the Daily Mail on this question:
In any referendum campaign it is not just which side people prefer but whether they actually turn out and vote that is important… It is often ‘who wants it more’ that determines who is more likely to turn out and vote.
Perhaps it was the prospect of a shrill and deeply entrenched campaign that helped bring the calm and reasoned Dáil statement of the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, last week, into focus. In my view it was the first major input into the debate that (a). sought to persuading the undecided middle ground and (b). didn’t attempt to portray the other side as the devil incarnate.
Though many pundits seemed surprised by its contents, it was clear he was heading that way, indeed he flagged it himself in an interview (from 11m35s) on Radio Kerry a few days before. There he also readily accepted that the majority of his TDs were opposed to the Oireachtas Committee recommendations – perhaps by a margin of 4:1 – so why are some Fianna Fáil activists acting so shocked?
Fianna Fáil adopted the policy of allowing a conscience votes back in 2013 when the Protection of Human Life Bill was being discussed. The idea that you can allow some a conscience vote but then bind the leadership according a members’ vote is an affront to the concept of conscience, democracy and leadership.
Party membership carries many rights and privileges but replacing you and your views for the electorate at large is not one of them. Neither 50,000 nor 500,000 self-selecting members of party X or Y are representative of anyone except themselves. It is one of the mistakes that Momentum has made in its relationship with the UK Labour Party and there is no reason to go that road here.
Members earn the right to be listened to and to have a say in candidate selection and party organisation by virtue of their activism, but that very activism, knocking on doors and meeting the wider public, reminds them that there is a diversity of views out there and that political parties that succeed are the ones who listen to that diversity and reflect it in their policies. Good leaders realise that. Great ones act on it.
Hopefully Martin’s intervention – and the measured response yesterday from Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath on Sean O’Rourke’s show on RTÉ Radio 1 arguing the other side – is an indication that tone and pitch of the campaign debate is set to rise, but I will not get my hopes up.
And even if it does, bear in mind that this week sees the 45th anniversary of the landmark Roe Vs Wade case where US Supreme Court ruled abortion legal. 45 years later it is still a defining and divisive issue in American politics. Win, lose or draw, this debate is not likely to go away for very long.