Jim Carroll

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The marriage equality referendum and the hearts and minds campaign

The yes and no camps are working away on their campaigns, but the vast majority of voters are not quite as engaged

Wed, Apr 8, 2015, 09:31


There’s an interesting observation in this Mediabite interview with Sunday Independent columnist Gene Kerrigan about the state of the political nation in Ireland. “My view would not be on particular stories, or particular angles on stories, but on the general view of how the world works and that it is a bigger thing”, says Kerrigan. “Politics is a bigger thing than Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and whether we can we trust Sinn Fein, or what Lucinda is up to this week. All of those things are very minor. Things are seen in the very limited context of one arena, made up of a few political parties. That is responsible for things not being covered properly and politics not being seen in a wider sense — how the world works.”

It’s certainly true when it comes to how we cover politics in this state. Here, politics is largely seen as a form of bloodsports involving probably a couple of thousand people at most. You get the ins and the outs of who is in or out on Kildare Street, the back-room rumbles involving various characters you’d be hard pressed to pick out of a Garda line-up and the shenanigans of councillors and various local government reps, most of whom have their eyes on a bigger prize than the county council chamber.

There’s rarely a focus on the actual policies which are underlining the process and “how the world works”, to quote Kerrigan. Of course, policy papers are produced and presented, but the real politics are do with alliances and allegiances rather than anything else. Loyalty to the party cause trumps loyalty to your policies every time. It’s minor rather than major which dominates.

Perhaps this explains in some way the strange lull which surrounds the marriage equality referendum to be held in six weeks’ time. Sure, there is campaigning and canvasing going on and there are strong, committed teams behind both yes and no positions. But the majority of our elected representatives are behind the proposal so there’s not really the usual snap and snarl you usually get from how an issue like this is covered. We have consensus from the players of the game. Any of the opinion polls which have been conducted have given the nod to the yes side, though the margin has naturally tightened as the campaign has trundled along.

But just because the campaign is not getting the usual amount of attention and is seen in many quarters as a done deal doesn’t mean it will stick to the script. As we’ve seen with recent referendums, the Irish electorate are great lads and lasses for saying one thing in advance and something else entirely when they go to the local national school to vote. Anyone expecting a big yes vote on May 22 because marriage equality is one of those things that surely everyone must be for may be in for a rude awakening on May 23 after the votes are counted.

The warnings about complacency on the yes side are already painted on the wall. In recent weeks, there have been pieces in this paper from Eoghan McDermott and Noel Whelan about the campaign’s swings and roundabouts. McDermott’s piece in particular is worth noting, as he parses how the campaign is currently being conducted and the likeliehood of how various arguments will be set and answered. If you’re a yes voter, you should have second thoughts when you consider what could unfold before polling day. If you’re in the no camp, you’ll know a lot can happen in the next six weeks as that no vote strengthens and grows.

But aside from lack of coverage in the bloodsports pages, sorry political columns, has this referendum taken off? You can point to various social media campaigns, which have been the hallmark of the yes campaign on this occasion rather than widepsread public canvasing, as evidence of huge momentum, but remember that you select your social media network yourself so there’s an element of preaching to the converted here. You’re hardly going to have a Twitter timeline full of no voters if you’re all for equality unless you’re slagging them off and engaging in the sort of immature behaviour which makes social media resemble an unruly playground at times.

Beyond such online heartlands, there’s a strong sense when you talk to people up and down the country from Tuam to Thurles that this campaign has just not ignited. There are other issues, especially economic ones, which take precedence as bills have to be paid and heads kept above water. You can understand why this forthcoming referendum means so much to gay men and women and their families and friends (and that probably covers the majority of households in the country at this stage), but the campaign seems to have been conducted in sotto voce tones after the initial flurry of interest and predictable Punch-and-Judy show set-piece debates.

Of course, this will change as the weeks count down and the difference between committed voters on both sides whittle down to single figure percentages. As always happens with campaigns of this ilk, the number of hardcore yes and no voters probably cancel oneanother out so it’s the middleground, the old and new mainstream, who will decide this one.

What are the issues which will convince them to make their mind up? Is their willingness to do the right thing for their own or their neighbour’s gay son and boyfriend, and show that Ireland 2015 is a country where equality matters, outweighed by the arguments around children which the no side keep throwing into the mix? Is the feel-good factor which surrounds voting yes and giving gay citizens the same rights as everyone else in the country thrown into shadow by the doubts and questions which the no side are making hay with?

What’s needed on the yes side is, as McDermott put it in his piece, an emotional connect. We know deep down that equality is a great thing altogether and we don’t need anyone to tell us that. It’s a simple, basic, decent thing to believe in. Even the no side can’t argue with that – we’re all God’s children and all of that – which is why they’ve muddied the waters.

If the yes campaign want to win this one at the first time of asking rather than end up with an Irish solution to an Irish problem (see the Nice referendum), they need to get out there and tell their stories and make that simple connection with the mass of the electorate who are not yet convinced, engaged or commited. Forget about taking swipes at the no side and pointing out that they’re all living in the same house, the usual tactics of politics as bloodsports. Concentrate on the simple message. And remember, even at this stage, to stay positive.