Abortion referendum: ‘Young men feel excluded’

Irish youths outline their feelings on the issues ahead of the Eighth Amendment vote

While thousands of young people have been deeply involved on both sides of the abortion referendum campaign over the last month, large numbers of young men have deliberately stood at one remove.

For many young men, the debate is something they would rather avoid. Some argue that the Eighth Amendment – its survival, or its deletion – is a “women’s issue”, while others fear that they will be criticised if they speak “out of turn”.

Younger voters are more likely than any other age group to lean towards repeal of the Amendment, which prohibits abortion, in Friday’s referendum (67 per cent of 18-24-year-olds are pro-repeal, and 70 per cent of 25-34-year-olds, according to the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll).


But many fear that the absence of young males from polling stations could hit the Yes campaign. “It’s been a concern for quite some time, particularly in the last number of weeks,” said Síona Cahill, USI vice-president for equality and citizenship.

“It’s not even apathy . . . it’s a lot of young guys feeling like it’s not their issue, and it’s not their place to comment, and that lends to a feeling that they shouldn’t be voting on it, and it’s closing down and conversations aren’t happening in those spaces then.”

Áine O’Connell, a sitting member of SpunOut’s Action Panel, agrees. “We’ve seen in the run-up people saying, ‘Oh that’s not my issue’, ‘I shouldn’t have an opinion because it’s not my business’. There are a lot of young men who are very well-meaning in that opinion, but ultimately that is not helpful in something like this,” she said.

As the debate has intensified, both sides of the campaign have attempted to appeal to young men, with the #MenForYes and #MenForNo hashtags trending on Twitter, and Trinity College Dublin’s Students’ Union launching a #RingTheLads campaign to encourage people to reach out and discuss the referendum with the men in their life.

But on bar stools and training grounds, the topic can be more hassle than it’s worth to bring up. Many young men would rather keep their heads down.

Little discussion

"We'd mention it like, what way we'd be voting, but we wouldn't be going too deep into it or anything," said Jack Shiel (19), a student in Limerick and member of the GAA club in Woodford, Co Galway.

“It isn’t something we’d be discussing too much. Some lads have opinions on it alright, but a lot don’t,” said his teammate Éanna Murphy (20), who studies in Galway.

Éanna’s brother Ronan (20), also a student, added: “I’m registered to vote, but I’m not sure how I’ll vote if I’m honest. I’m not sure I’ll vote at all. If I were to vote, I’d probably [vote to repeal], but I haven’t looked into it too much if I’m honest.”

“I wouldn’t know anyone involved in the campaign or in canvassing or anything,” noted Mossy Gardiner (19), another teammate and a student at GMIT.

Across different groups of young men, the referendum isn’t a go-to topic.

"It wouldn't be a huge conversation in the changing room," said Scott Deasy (29), from Cork, who plays rugby with a south Dublin AIL club. "There is a bit of a taboo about it.

“I suppose the atmosphere of a changing room is, for want of a better phrase, craic- or banter-driven. And this isn’t a subject matter for that. It doesn’t dovetail with those kind of jovial matters.”

In many cases, the question of abortion is a distant issue for young males, one they feel detached from.

“There’s a bit of a burying the head in the sand kind of thing,” said Deasy. “A bit of youthful ignorance I suppose. I don’t think there is menace in it or flippancy about it. But there’s definitely a degree of, ‘Sure it’s nothing to do with us’, or, ‘It doesn’t affect me or my immediate social group, or my immediate family, so it’s not something I need to discuss at length in a public forum’.”

‘Very confrontational’

In the nightclubs of Harcourt Street, the conversation is similar.

"It's very confrontational. If you have a disagreement it gets a bit vocal so I tend to steer away from it," said Matthew Nolan (28), who works in sales in Dublin and intends to vote Yes, on a night out in Dicey's.

“I drop it because I don’t want to get into an argument. If they’re very opposed and positive they’re voting No, and I’m Yes, I don’t want to upset them.”

"I wouldn't have that conversation with anyone other than my close friends. If I'm talking to somebody I kind of know, I wouldn't want them to form an opinion on me based on that," said Donagh Egan (20), from Abbeyleix, Co Laois, who was out for the night at Copper Face Jacks. He is leaning towards a No vote.

The political parties are aware there is a degree of disengagement on the issue among young men.

"People are concerned about voicing their own opinion in a situation where it might be seen as the wrong opinion or a bad opinion," said Chloe Manahan, chairwoman of Labour Youth. "I suppose it's something I can understand."

"From what I've seen, it isn't about a lack of engagement or a lack of interest, but almost an unwillingness to tell women what to do. They don't feel it's right for them to make a decision that doesn't affect their own bodies," said Muireann Montague of the Dublin Central Social Democrats.

For Ian Woods, president of Ógra Fianna Fáil, the difference between male and female engagement is a question of personal stake: "Most of the young women I'd know would be quite angry about the issue – it's a more personal, visceral kind of anger."

Nadia Reeves Long, chairwoman of the Young Greens, said she couldn't understand the lack of interest. "Some people are afraid to bring it up, afraid not to be seen in a certain way . . . Some of my friends have indicated to me that perhaps they feel excluded from the debate because they are men and don't know how to get involved. Even if they are incredibly pro-repeal and pro-choice."

“But we’re not here to hold their hands,” she added.

Space for women

For Adrienne Wallace, a People Before Profit activist and election candidate in Carlow-Kilkenny, it's a case of men giving women their space.

“What I have seen is, because men are seeing women’s movements, they’re not backing out of conversations but saying it affects women so let them be in the driving seat. They [men] have opinions and express them, but women have the final say,” she said.

Male engagement on the topic was much higher than it might have been two years ago, she said.

“Young men especially have gone from not being aware to asking about contraception and sex education. People’s minds seem to have broadened.”

She added: “Young men are taking a conscious backseat role. They are happy to let young women take the driving seat. It’s not that they’re leaving us on our own, they’re just aware it affects us more strongly.”

Concerns about young men aside, the political parties are generally happy with the level of youth engagement.

A week before the deadline to register to vote in the referendum, it was reported that 150,000 young people were not on the electoral register, and would therefore be ineligible to vote. This came as a shock, and led to voter registration drives on campuses across the country until the deadline of May 8th.

The USI has estimated that between September and the deadline it signed up about 27,000 students who would not have been registered to vote otherwise, slightly below the 28,000 it signed up in the run-up to the 2015 vote on same-sex marriage.

Killian Foley-Walsh, president of Young Fine Gael, believes that the response to the voter registration drives is indicative of young people's interest in the referendum.

“The numbers of young people especially who have responded to the national drive to get registered is testament to the degree to which young people are engaging with this referendum, although the real test of this will be the . . . turnout on the day,” he said.

The youth vote turnout in Ireland has traditionally lagged behind that of older demographics. Over the last two decades it has consistently risen, but remains low relative to other age brackets.

The Irish National Election Study (INES) puts self-reported voter turnout by the 18-25 demographic at 53.3 per cent in the 2002 general election, 69.2 per cent in the 2007 election and 75.4 per cent in 2011.

In each of these cases, the average across all age groups was at least 10 points higher.

Anecdotal evidence put turnout among young people in the 2015 referendum at a higher level than usual.

‘Vote of conscience’

While most of the smaller political parties are advocating a Yes vote, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have opted to allow party members a “vote of conscience” rather than imposing the whip. Renua is the only political party to support retaining the Eighth Amendment.

This makes campaigning “slightly more complicated” for the youth wings of the major parties, noted Woods. Instead of focusing their efforts on one side or other of the campaign, they have pushed for engagement across the board.

“We have been doing social media campaigning about voter registration deadlines, and then pitching in with the respective campaigns nationally,” Woods said.

“There can be a certain level of apathy amongst young people when it comes to electoral or parliamentary politics, which contributes to the low turnouts we tend to see amongst the 18-24-year-old age group in national elections. This is a problem that everybody in politics needs to address, but especially those of us involved in youth politics,” added Foley-Walsh.

Recent years have seen an increasing role for the youth vote globally and that will be no different in this referendum, said Reeves Long.

“I think young people have been important in terms of what’s happened recently. Corbyn was massively the result of a youth vote; Brexit was older people voting and limiting opportunities for young people; marriage equality had huge numbers of young people voting.”

According to Cahill, politically disengaged students have ended up becoming involved in this campaign.

“In colleges, there are people [for whom] . . . this is their first vote, and they weren’t as active for previous referenda or general elections, they wouldn’t associate with any national parties, but now this is something that they feel is incredibly important.

“I was surprised by that, I thought that it was going to be Students’ Union people, who are already incredibly dedicated, redoubling efforts, but it’s actually been the opposite of that, where you are seeing young people and students getting involved in the campaign who normally wouldn’t canvass or get engaged in that type of thing before,” she said.

As the referendum draws closer, this is an increasing phenomenon, said Wallace. “Even generally, down the pub, a lot of people have something to say on it. Before I’d be ranting away myself. Now a lot of people are engaged and have opinions.”

Manahan agrees. “I think young people have been amenable to getting involved,” she said. “People talk about how you want to campaign to better the situation of others, because it’s the right thing to do, not because it affects you personally.”

Marriage equality

That said, many have noted that it is a more difficult topic for younger people to engage with than the 2015 marriage equality debate.

“I find there is a slight difference,” said Wallace. “Not huge or profound. Marriage equality was a no-brainer. Ireland had come on a lot. Here people are asking harder questions.”

The current debate is “a lot more sombre”, said Manahan. “A lot of the situations are quite tragic. A lot of people are reluctant to come out with testimony because of the controversy and stigma. Maybe that is the difference between this and marriage equality.”

Woods was Ógra Fianna Fáil’s campaigns director for the marriage equality referendum. This vote inspires greater passions, he said.

“I think people are a lot more energised for [this] referendum, but they’re energised for both sides. People who wanted to vote No in the marriage equality referendum stayed home and didn’t really campaign on the issue, whereas this referendum is definitely energising conservative voters in a way that the marriage equality referendum didn’t.”

“Perhaps with marriage equality people were more inclined to go, ‘Oh yeah, I’m voting Yes’,” said Reeves Long. “In this situation people don’t want to bring it up. But then I bring it up all the time. It’s hard to put yourself into other people’s shoes.”

Those who were Yes advocates in the marriage equality referendum are less likely to take to the streets to campaign in this vote, said Montague..

“There were people who were very involved in the marriage equality campaign who do support this referendum, but they’re more silent supporters, in terms of donating for posters, or a little bit of their own personal canvassing – but not feeling confident to go out on the doors,” she said.

As polls tighten, activists are keen to impress on young people the importance of their vote. Support for the Amendment among 18-24-year-olds in particular dropped sharply between April and May.

“Until it’s over you can’t afford to be complacent,” said Manahan. “I wouldn’t be worried about young people. But that doesn’t mitigate the need to urge them to get out to vote.”