Relaxing on a bench in the late afternoon sun, Marguerite Morgan brings the outcome of next month’s referendum on same-sex marriage as close as she can to home: to her son in front of her, making a mess of his ice cream. Morgan, who is from the Naul, in north Co Dublin, keeps a watchful eye on her son and his friend while also making sure that her daughter, silent in her buggy, is happy.
She had hoped to sit near the grass and tree outside the nearby Séamus Ennis Arts Centre as the children ate their ice creams, but she has had to settle for a park bench – down the road but still in the sunshine – as her tiny rural village has visitors. The BeLonGTo group, which supports young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, is filming an advertisement for its Yes campaign, and has claimed Morgan’s favoured spot.
“I thought they were American,” Morgan says of the influx of teenagers bused in from Dublin. When asked how she will vote on May 22nd, she gestures towards her seven-year-old son. “I can see now from his questions recently. He’s very young, and he wants to dress up in girls’ clothes. It’s just recently he is saying he wishes he was a girl and that, even though he has been very feminine from the start. I wouldn’t have a problem with it in the slightest.”
Not everyone she knows is as comfortable with the idea of same-sex marriage, or even with homosexuality, and in her recruitment job she still sees a lot of “stumbling blocks if you are a different colour or if you are different sexuality”.
It is people like Marguerite Morgan who are the target of the advert being filmed just metres away. Its messages are to encourage people to vote and to ensure that supporters of same-sex marriage canvass their social circles. “We realise that conversations matter,” says
, a 27-year-old from Clondalkin who is in the Naul with
. “The best way is having those conversations with people you meet every day, whether it is family members, neighbours or whatever.”
After some opening skirmishes in broadcasting studios earlier this year, and sparring over the Children and Family Relationships Bill, the same-sex-marriage campaign will soon come alive. Politicians expect the “hard campaign” to be under way by the end of the month.
The debate is already taking shape, and although the referendum outcome is uncertain – despite polls indicating a strong Yes – the alarm evident in some political circles at the start of the year has eased somewhat. Where previously there was a sense that many on the Yes side were speaking to themselves and ignoring the middle ground, some TDs now say there is greater focus and discipline.
“We need less of the so-called trendy faces who you see on the television and hear on the radio,” says one TD. “We need more mothers, GAA people, people like that.”
Yes Equality, the umbrella group largely leading the campaign in favour of same-sex marriage, seems to be taking heed, and other groups are following.
The “so-called trendy faces”, while still campaigning, are no longer to the fore, and the emphasis from Yes Equality is now on asking people to convince others in their social circles, particularly those who are older, to back the proposal.
Focus grouping and other research – as well as a few disastrous broadcasts at the start of the year – convinced many on the Yes side that they needed to campaign towards the middle. Ring Your Granny, a recent initiative by Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union, is one example of the new approach.
“The people who have made a big impact are the mothers of gay people,” one leading Opposition TD says. “I was at a fairly hairy meeting in Galway before Easter, and there were a lot of people there who were sceptical or hostile. A mother of two gay sons got up and addressed the room, and the atmosphere changed.”
Good ground game
The Yes side also needs a good ground game, and Yes Equality says it has organisations in almost every constituency. TDs – many of whom admit they will not canvass, for fear of alienating voters ahead of next year’s general election – are sceptical, although regular canvassing workshops are teaching new party volunteers how to make their case on the doorsteps.
“I have not seen any evidence of a ground effort from anyone, and I include the parties in that,” says one deputy. The main parties, all in favour of a Yes vote and in contact with Yes Equality, will have one thing the civil-society groups haven’t: money to put up lots of posters. Yes Equality has spent most of the €100,000 it has raised so far. It hopes to spend €300,000 or so during the campaign, all from donations.
The main ground effort will focus on making sure under-40s and town and city voters – strongly supportive of a Yes – turn out to vote. A recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll showed 84 per cent support among 18- to 24-year-olds and 78 per cent among 25- to 34-year-olds. Unsurprisingly, support dropped among older voters – who are also the ones most likely to turn out.
There is anecdotal evidence of many young Irish emigrants, mostly living in Europe, returning home for May 22nd. The price of some flights into Dublin that day are markedly more expensive than normal – as sure a sign of people arriving home as any.
Tom Moylan, a 26-year-old from Ballsbridge in Dublin who is returning from Brussels to vote, says, "It is literally because this is an issue which resonates more with younger people." Moylan regularly returns to vote – emigrants who have left the country in the past 18 months can still cast a ballot. This time, he believes, he will be joined by many more. "When we are looking back on this and are laughing, or are horrified, I want to say to my children I was there when Irish citizens declared love a human right."
If the Yes side can harness the enthusiasm of the young and translate it into a large turnout, it should win. Campaigners don’t have to look far for an example. The independence movement in Scotland last year was propelled by a generation that is disillusioned with politics but found a cause it believed in, even though the effort to end their country’s place in the United Kingdom failed.
Given all those factors, those on the No side – where the main group is Mothers & Fathers Matter – credibly claim to be the underdogs. “What is happening so far, to my mind, is one-sided propaganda,” says the newspaper columnist
, who is a member of the group and head of the Iona Institute, which campaigns to promote marriage and religion. “There will be posters, there will be leaflets, but less than the Yes side. A lot of it will be across the airwaves.”
Quinn says the main focus of opponents of same-sex marriage will be on its effect on the family. It is nonsense, he says, to suggest that a Yes vote will not affect the traditional family.
Mothers & Fathers Matter, which has yet officially to launch its campaign, says it has lined up a significant number of speakers to challenge the Yes side on the airwaves. The ground campaign for the No side is likely to come from elsewhere. “Watch the church,” one TD says. “You can see it mobilising in the background.”
Sources in the Catholic Church say it will also focus its efforts on the ground. “This isn’t something we can win over the airwaves, so we have to take it back to the local.”
That effort will largely manifest itself in communications to parishes and work done by church family and marriage groups. A diocesan newsletter to parishes this weekend emphasises the “meaning of marriage”, and similar pamphlets will be distributed in the weeks up to polling day.
“Married love is a unique form of love between a man and a woman which has a special benefit for the whole of society,” it says. “To seek to redefine the nature of marriage would undermine it as the fundamental building block of our society.”
Six weeks from today we’ll find out if the electorate agrees.