Campaign groups are coalescing, raising funds and selecting their headquarters. Political parties are crunching the numbers. On both sides, internal discussions are taking place on how best to frame the arguments and convey them to voters.
The referendum on same- sex marriage is still four months away but, behind the scenes, preparations are well under way. Quietly, battle lines are being drawn.
All involved agree it is an open contest. Opinion polls suggest the Yes side has a strong lead – an Ipsos/MRBI poll for The Irish Times in December put Yes at 71 per cent, No at 17 per cent and Don’t Knows at just 9 per cent – but few of the protagonists put much store by such early figures.
“Our research shows that that support is really, really soft and it will start to unravel quite quickly,” says a source from one of the political parties supporting the referendum.
Campaigners on both sides cite the 2012 children’s referendum as proof that polls can be a poor guide. In that case, the polls at one stage showed 80 per cent in favour but, despite a poorly funded No campaign whose most prominent faces were a former MEP (Kathy Sinnott) and a newspaper columnist (John Waters), the Yes vote on polling day was only 58 per cent.
“I think this will be a very tight referendum,” says Brian Sheehan of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen). “I think Irish people rightly take constitutional change very seriously. We know that from every other referendum. Despite the strong support in the polls, we know we’ll need every single possible vote on the day in order to win the referendum.”
On this, both sides agree. "I'll put it this way," says the columnist David Quinn, who heads the Iona Institute, a Catholic advocacy group that opposes same- sex marriage. "It's beatable with a really good campaign, but on the other hand it could also pass by 20 or 30 points."
On the Yes side, the best- resourced players are the big political parties.
and Sinn Féin are all in favour. Under the umbrella of “Yes Equality”, three groups –
and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties – have joined forces for the campaign and plan to coordinate informally with
, a grassroots organisation that specialises in street demonstrations.
Within the Yes camp, points of tension have begun to emerge. Internal critics worry the campaign has spent too much time talking to the converted rather than organising itself and honing a message with wider appeal. Differences have also surfaced between the parties and civil society groups. Some activists worry the anti-party sentiment among voters could damage the campaign. They argue that the united front of political leaders before the first Lisbon treaty referendum in 2008 allowed the No side successfully to cast itself as the plucky outsider lined up against the elite.
Yet without their electoral machines and their ability to tap into support networks across the country, party officials respond, the Yes campaign is doomed. Research carried out by a number of parties shows that middle-aged rural men are particularly cool on same-sex marriage.
This broadly tallies with the Irish Times poll, which showed that urban voters, women and young people were most likely to vote Yes. It also suggests that the ability of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to mobilise their members outside Dublin will be important to the Yes side’s chances.
Conscious of its appeal to those younger voters, NGOs on the Yes side last year led a voter registration drive that resulted in more than 30,000 students signing up. The parties are more sceptical about the tactic, pointing out that, traditionally, 18- to 25-year-olds are less likely to turn out than their elders.
Key questions being discussed on the Yes side centre on its themes and tone of voice. Framing the topic as marriage equality, it hopes to appeal to people’s sense of inclusion, decency and goodwill (one party official says its politicians are wary of the language of rights, preferring equality and fairness).
Its leaders have also drawn lessons from the constitutional convention’s debate on same-sex marriage, which ended with 79 per cent voting in favour. There, the mood in the room swung noticeably towards the Yes side after two young people raised by same- sex couples took to the microphone and simply told the audience about their experience.
“Gay couples with families already exist,” says a party official. “The problem is they exist outside of the law in comparison to straight couples with kids. This is just about providing the same legal protections for families of same-sex couples that already exist for heterosexual couples, and you frame it that way – that this is pro-family, ensuring that everybody is treated equally on that basis, rather than rights and that type of thing.”
That sentiment reflects a broader point, made mainly within the parties, that the Yes side should not strike too strident a tone and risk alienating voters who don’t have strong views on the topic. It’s a stance others on the Yes side resent, however.
"That is what would be known on the internet as tone trolling – not dealing with the substantive point, admonishing people about what language they may use or what emotional pitch they're at when they use it," says Max Krzyzanowski of LGBT Noise, whose annual March for Marriage last year drew about 10,000 people.
"One of the advantages of having this referendum is that we get to have a candid conversation. You can't at the outset be ruling out tones of voice or formulations of language, treating middle-Ireland voters like they're some sort of endangered bird that will flee the minute they hear some challenging language. I give middle Ireland more credit than that."
The No campaign is still a work in progress. The Catholic Church is opposing the referendum and some of its prominent figures are expected to have a presence in the debate. The Iona Institute will also take part, as will Independent Senator Rónán Mullen and others. A campaign group will be formed to produce anti-amendment posters and disseminate literature, but discussions are still taking place on its make-up. One possibility floated on the No side is that the organisation Mothers and Fathers Matter, which was set up to challenge aspects of the Child and Family Relationships Bill, will become the focal point for the No side.
All agree the four weeks leading up to the campaign, when voters tune in to the issues, will be the most important.
Broadcasting rules will ensure that both sides receive equal airtime, so to some extent they will cancel each other out. The real battle will take place not in television studios but at ground level: at doorsteps, in community halls and on the streets.
The No side, which expects to benefit from the electorate’s traditionally conservative approach to constitutional change, is also deliberating on its tone of voice. Acknowledging that religious rhetoric doesn’t have the same purchase it once had, its emphasis will be on the “common good” and what it believes is the intrinsic value of marriage as an institution binding a man and a woman. The referendum will be framed as “the redefinition of the family”, and the “interests of children” argument will be central.
"We make our position clear not just from a faith point of view but also because we believe it is good for children, that it's good for family and it's good for society to preserve the uniqueness of marriage as we have traditionally understood it," Archbishop Eamon Martin said on Newstalk over Christmas.
Vital to its chances of success, according to one campaigner, is the extent to which the church can mobilise people at local level. A bishops’ pastoral letter, The Meaning of Marriage, has been circulated to 1,360 parishes nationwide.
“A lot depends then on whether priests actually disseminate it properly,” the campaigner says.
The No side takes heart from the debates on same-sex marriage in a number of other countries, including France.
There, in 2013, a campaign against the government’s plan to introduce same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples by way of parliamentary vote led to some of the biggest conservative protests in decades.
The church played a discreet but decisive role in that campaign, eschewing the directly confrontational posture the Spanish church adopted over same-sex marriage but taking a more active role than the bishops in Britain and Belgium on the same issue.
French bishops spoke out strongly and encouraged the demonstrations, while the church’s capacity (notwithstanding weekly Mass attendance of just 2 per cent) to activate networks across the country and to bus protesters to Paris was seen as vital to the success of the movement. The French Bill passed, but it wasn’t easy for the government.
“If the arguments are properly heard, I think people will find that the current definition of marriage is fairest and best, all things considered,” says Mr Mullen.
“I think that argument could win.”