Later this year, the Irish people will go to the polls to decide whether or not to include the following piece of text to their constitution: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”. The wording, which was decided last Wednesday by the Dáil, would enshrine the rights of same-sex couples to get married in this state. What lies before us as a nation is in many ways a unique opportunity; never before have the citizens of a country passed marriage equality into their law through referendum, in the case of other states it has gone through parliament or gone through the courts.
Were this amendment to pass, it would represent a massive turnaround for a country where homosexuality was illegal until 1993. While that may seem a long time ago, after all most students currently attending UCD weren’t born during such a time, to go from the threat of prison to the possibility of a full legal marriage rights for same sex couples is a major shift in the social landscape of our country in only twenty two years.
However it is important to note that while the nation has changed in many ways, in many other ways it has stayed the same; and that is something vital to remember when considering the issue of marriage equality. While polls have shown the support for the referendum passing to be in the high seventies, internally there are fears in the Yes campaign that, as the referendum campaign is only now starting in earnest, that support will prove to be soft and erode quickly as the No campaign use fear mongering techniques to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of voters. The most cited example for this type of decline was the campaign around the Thirty-first Amendment of the Constitution, also known as the “Children’s Referendum”. At the beginning of that campaign a RedC poll held by the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) showed 74% support for that bill, a number which dropped to 58% on polling day.
Fears of a repeat of, or possibly a worse result than, that referendum may not be unwarranted for a number of reasons. Firstly, the broadcast media in this country are obligated by law to give equal coverage time to both sides of the referendum debate. Not only does this mean that news coverage of the campaigns must be balanced, it also means that both sides must be represented equally on panel discussions on the subject. This means that those who many would argue hold views that are on the fringe of society, and the polling mentioned above would support those claims, are suddenly treated with the same level of credence as mainstream arguments.
From the point of view of having a fair and balanced media this is obviously a good thing, as it ensures that our national broadcast cannot be partisan towards any campaign, but from the point of view of the marriage equality campaign this is a disaster. That final result from the children’s referendum does not seem like a massive drop in support until you factor in that the No campaign was mainly the work of former MEP Kathy Sinnott and columnist Jon Waters, it did not have nearly the level of organisation and manpower that the No side in this upcoming campaign will have, and yet it cut 20% off the margin over the course of the campaign.
The second major issue that plays against the Yes side is their ability to frame the debate. Whereas the Yes side have attempted to remain positive and centre their argument around the idea of love, hence the Union of Students in Ireland using the hashtag “#makegráthelaw” to try and drum up support for the Yes side, the No side have taken a different approach. In the same way in which the No side in the Children’s Referendum used the argument that voting yes in that referendum could put children in danger, so too are they doing it here.
Their agenda, to focus on the fears as to whether children raised by same sex couples will be denied a fundamental right by not having and mother and a father, has so far been the one that has been most effective at shaping the debate, as seen by the Iona Institute’s Brenda O’Brien on Claire Byrne Live or Ronán Mullen on Seán O’Rourke. This has extended to claims that the referendum opens the door for same sex adoption and in vitro fertilisation, which they claim may be harmful for the long term effect on a child mentally.
The Yes campaigners have been ineffective at dealing with these questions; their claims that these fears are irrelevant to the discussion at hand as legislation is being passed to deal with issues surrounding in vitro fertilisation and adoption have done little to silence the doubters. That those issues are only now being dealt with is a massive mistake by the government, in reality this legislation should have been passed through the Dáil months ago so as to put paid to any fears surrounding this issue. By delaying it, they have given imputes to the No campaign by allowing them to scaremonger people who are unsure of the effects of allowing same sex couples to marry.
The leaders of the Yes movement have also not helped themselves by oftentimes failing to control campaigners who have been seen as liberally throwing accusations of homophobia at those who show reservations towards the proposals, ironically feeding the narrative that Yes campaign are simply intolerant of those with opposing viewpoints. These are clear examples of the effectiveness of the No side’s communications machine and if the Yes side do not find constructive ways to deal with this soon then it may see a haemorrhaging of votes come polling day.
However the most relevant issue facing the issue facing the Yes campaign in regards to students is that the demographics of this referendum do not favour them. While it is true that there is support for the referendum to pass from most age groups, the starkest levels of support come from young people, while the No side gains ground the older the demographics become. This represents a major challenge for the Yes side; put simply young people don’t tend to vote. This can manifest in a number of negative ways. Firstly, and most obviously, younger people not turning out to vote would be a huge blow to the Yes side in terms of getting out their core constituents, hence the drive last semester by Yes Equality and the Union of Students in Ireland to get students registered to vote.
But the problem with students failing to engage with the political process goes beyond simply getting them out to vote. Polls indicate that young people have been already won over; ultimately even if they turn out they may not decide the outcome of the election on votes alone. Many in the Yes campaign feel that the referendum will really be won on the doors, where canvassers can meet older voters face to face and dispel any of the scaremongering and mistruths that they have accused the No side of propagating. Many voters are open to the idea of marriage equality, but would worry about possible negative ramifications down the road, especially where children are considered. It is therefore imperative that those fears would be put aside by campaigners. Again, young people and their lack of experience in the political sphere could be a hindrance in this sense.
Whereas older canvassers are more likely to have some experience in what to say at the doors, most young have not been involved in a political campaign before and hence may make mistakes in what to say. Back to the homophobia point from earlier, it is vital to the Yes campaign that the people they have on the doors know exactly what to say and what not to say, as poor organization may lead to someone saying something that would be counter-productive. This is all taking into account the people who actually decide to hit the doors for the referendum, previous elections and referenda have shown that young people are unlikely to engage with this method of campaigning, especially when there are easier, if unimaginably less productive, routes like twitter campaigns to take part in that don’t require any real effort.
So will the referendum be passed? The honest answer is probably yes, at least if everything goes according to plan. But the early signs are not good. The inability of the Yes campaign to frame the issue means they may end up being on the defensive throughout the entire campaign, being forced to sell people on the referendum rather than force the No side into selling people on why it should be turned down. What will be important is that young people do more than just vote or post their support for the referendum on their Facebook page.
It will be expected that everyone goes out over the next few months and does their part, between convincing family members and neighbours to going door to door with the various political and apolitical groups and making clear, sound arguments that get through to people and cut through the scaremongering. Nobody wants to wake up on the morning after the referendum feeling like they could have and should have done more. If you play your part, then whatever the outcome, you can feel proud to have done all that you could.