Dull campaigns failed to engage voters


ANALYSIS:Despite criticism and court rulings, the on-the-ground trawl was fairly lacklustre

The low point for the No side in the children’s referendum campaign came when newspaper columnist John Waters claimed money was part of foster parents’ motivation for taking children into their care.

And yet Waters became the most prominent and articulate voice among the disparate individuals and micro-groups that opposed the constitutional amendment for a variety of often complex reasons.

No campaigners, who suffered from having few professional communicators in their midst, complained the media was not giving their side sufficient coverage. Parents For Children spokeswoman Maria Mhic Mheanmain said anti-referendum voices were sidelined and there was a lack of proper debate.

Another frustrated No campaigner, solicitor Malachy Steenson, criticised the domestic media for becoming transfixed by the razzmatazz of the US presidential election while an important development on its own doorstep received comparatively little attention.

The concept of “ground game” has entered the Irish political lexicon recently as a result of the exhaustive efforts of Barack Obama team’s of volunteers who knocked on doors and handed out election literature. The “ground game” of the anti-referendum foot soldiers took place below the radar as traditional campaign strategies such as putting up posters were eschewed for lack of funds. While some debate was thrashed out online, old-fashioned word-of-mouth and newsprint in the form of the Catholic newspaper Alive! helped spread the word.


Many on the Yes side also felt dismayed when carefully planned photocalls failed to make print and broadcasters declined to analyse the constitutional amendment in the depth they hoped for. Fianna Fáil TD Mary O’Rourke, a strong pro-referendum voice and veteran of many campaigns, became so exasperated at one point that she welcomed the “commotion” created by Mr Waters during the few televised debates that took place

Lack of tension

Until late last week, the general lack of tension in this story made covering the lacklustre campaign a dull and unappealing daily prospect for many media outlets. That evaporated when the Supreme Court ruled against the Government’s information booklet and website on Friday morning. It created confusion but came too late to counteract the disengagement from the campaign reflected in the low turnout.

There were other strategic slip-ups on the Yes side. Framing the proposed amendment as an opportunity to atone for wrongdoings against children who had suffered in State care in the past was a mistake made by some.

A sloppy error meant some 30,000 printed copies of the referendum Bill had to be pulped after a misprint suggested the proposed amendment related to the article protecting the right to life.

The Yes side also failed to define what children being put into State care actually means in modern Ireland. Thankfully, 91 per cent of children described as being in care are living with foster families and often with relatives. Folk memories of pale-faced youngsters pressing their faces to barred windows in orphanages persist, although this no longer represents the reality.

The Yes side did best when it focused on what was in the wording and provided concrete examples of how the constitutional amendment might work in practice. Fine Gael’s director of elections and Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar stressed that any intervention taken by the State would only be in “exceptional” cases and must be “proportionate”.