Yes campaign in pole position to carry proposal but turnout concerns persist
ANALYSIS:THERE ARE now just over three weeks to go to the referendum and the campaign for a Yes vote is running smoothly with no serious problems on the horizon.
While there is still time for those opposed to the measure to mobilise opposition to the constitutional amendment, the more serious problem for the Yes campaign at this stage is ensuring a reasonable turnout.
The Government and the other political parties and groups in favour of the proposal have run a coherent campaign and, so far at least, appear to have been winning the argument that the amendment is necessary and that the wording is appropriate.
Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has been effective in building a broad coalition of forces in favour of a Yes vote.
Her calm and considered approach has won over some of those who might have been sceptical about the proposal or even about the need for constitutional change in the first place.
The crucially important challenge for Fitzgerald was to ensure that the wide range of groups concerned with children’s rights backed the wording of the amendment.
In the past governments have run into trouble in referendums on social issues and on Europe when forces on the conservative right have been joined by those on the liberal left in attempting to crush the moderate centre.
This happened in both referendums on the substantive issue of abortion since the X case, with opponents of abortion being joined by pro-choice groups in campaigning for a No vote from very different perspectives.
Similar coalitions from both ends of the political spectrum have led to the defeat of two EU treaties first time around.
In this campaign the small number of vocal opponents of the measure can mostly be characterised as holding right-wing Catholic views and unless that changes in the next couple of weeks it is difficult to see the Yes campaign failing.
Conservative campaigners for a No vote like former MEP Kathy Sinnott in Cork or Limerick campaigner Nora Bennis, who has formed a group called Alliance of Parents Against the State, have so far failed to get much traction for their view that the referendum will give the State too much power to take children into its care.
A more potent argument against the proposal was that advanced by former Supreme Court judge Hugh O’Flaherty who suggested that the amendment might simply be unnecessary in the light of existing constitutional provisions and the laws of the land designed to protect children.
There is some sympathy across the legal profession for O’Flaherty’s views. Constitutional expert Paul Anthony McDermott has expressed scepticism about the amendment, pointing out that the Constitution does not have particular sections dealing with specific groups like the elderly or the disabled and he suggested that it might be risky to go down this road.
He did accept that the children’s rights amendment would not make anything worse but said the only way to give better protection to children was to allocate more money and resources to the relevant services.
If there is a worry in Government about the campaign it is that in the next three weeks some eminent former judges might come together to publicly call for a No vote on the basis that the amendment is unnecessary.
The Government is still smarting from the defeat last year of the amendment designed to give more powers to parliamentary committees of inquiry. The letter from eight former attorneys general calling for a No vote that emerged very late in that campaign is widely credited with swinging a majority of voters against the proposal.
This time around it seems that while some former judges and possibly even some sitting ones are sceptical about whether a Yes vote will make much of a difference that has not been enough, to date at least, to galvanise them into urging a No.
Another factor in the campaign is that RTÉ appears to have changed its interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling on equity in the coverage of referendum campaigns. Since the McKenna judgment in 1995 the State broadcaster has interpreted this ruling as requiring a 50:50 split in terms of Yes and No opinion in debates and in news coverage.
This time around the 50:50 rule will still apply to referendum debates but news stories on the topic will be covered on their merits. That decision will have interesting implications.
Another interesting experiment is that the referendum will be held on a Saturday for the first time. Fitzgerald has expressed the hope that this “family and child friendly” day for voting will encourage a good turnout.
The task for Yes campaigners is to ensure a solid turnout.
The chairwoman of the Referendum Commission, Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan, accepted yesterday that there was a low level of public awareness about the referendum and said she was glad there were still 3½ weeks left in which people could inform themselves.
A low turnout could spell trouble for the amendment and a defeat, coming on the heels of the rejection of the amendment on parliamentary inquiries a year ago, would be a severe setback for the Government. That is likely to ensure that the Coalition parties do everything they can to mobilise their voters on November 10th.
Two sides: For and against
The Coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour and main Opposition parties Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. Also, all of the Independents in the Oireachtas.
More than 100 children’s groups under the Children’s Rights Alliance, including Barnardos and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan.
VOICES CALLING FOR A NO VOTE:
Former Independent MEP Kathy Sinnott and anti-abortion campaigner Nora Bennis, who has formed Alliance of Parents Against the State.
Parents for Children, which includes representatives of the Christian Solidarity Party.
Columnist John Waters. And a group campaigning for the separation of church and State, “Two Rights Now”.