If you want to win a battle, you need to have a sense of what the other side will do. And I know what I would do if I were planning a campaign against the proposal to change to Constitution to allow for same-sex marriage.
I'd start with a simple and eloquent line from a column Breda O'Brien wrote in The Irish Times in January: "Two men can love each other and two men can love a child. But neither of them can provide a child with a mother."
I’d start printing a variation on the posters that nearly defeated the divorce referendum in 1995: “Hello Divorce. . . Bye Bye Daddy. Vote No”: “Hello Same-Sex Marriage. . . Bye Bye Mammy. Vote No.”
Why? Not because it’s a good argument but because it’s a punch in the emotional solar plexus. It’s worth noting that the original slogan was indeed “Bye Bye Daddy”, not, as it is usually remembered, “Goodbye Daddy”.
This was carefully thought through – the imaginary voice is that of a small child. And the message has visceral power: if you vote for this you are causing a helpless kid pain and distress.
And "Bye Bye Mammy" is even more gut-wrenching. There is no great gospel song called Sometimes I Feel Like a Fatherless Child. But the motherless child is the embodiment of desolation.
A friend of mine, who happens to be gay, and who is hoping for a Yes vote, told me recently of his nightmare campaign video from the No side: two over-the-top camp gay men decked out for a night on the town, sashaying down the street towards the Panti Bar with a sweet little boy in tow. The boy is howling “I want my Mammy!” Ludicrous? Sure. Effective? Surely.
The inability of a gay male couple to provide a child with a mother can hit middle Ireland, the voters who will decide the referendum, in places reasoned argument cannot reach.
Of course, those who oppose single-sex marriage will insist that they are concerned that every child should have both a mother and a father. I’m sure they are, but they’re not really going to campaign on a platform that says women can’t bring up children without men.
They know very well that in Ireland a quarter of all children are already being raised by single mothers, and that insulting those women (and their extended families) is not a winning strategy. It’s the notion of men bringing up children without a mother that is the exposed nerve.
At a rational level, this makes for a crazy distinction – it is an appeal, not against same-sex marriage, but against gay men being allowed to raise children. Two lesbian women raising a child would be fine by this criterion and we know, of course, that it’s not actually fine with conservatives. But we know, too, that to defeat a referendum you don’t have to be logically consistent. You just have to play on enough people’s nerves for doubt to enter their minds. It will not be sufficient for those who want a Yes vote to counter a powerful emotional argument with a calmly rational one.
So what do those of us who support single-sex marriage have to say to the “motherless child”? Yes, we need to make the rational arguments, to point out that the changes in the law actually give children the right to know their biological mothers and to have access to their grandmothers. But we also need to make an emotional case.
And the emotions here are the experiences men have of nurturing and raising children and that those children have of being nurtured by men. These too are powerful, gut-wrenching stories – but they’re stories that have not been told often enough.
The legislative and constitutional changes being proposed do not invent, out of the blue, a new notion of men raising children without their mothers. As things stand, about a quarter of divorced and separated men in Ireland have custody of their children. There are also, of course, men whose wives or partners have died. In all, there are about 30,000 single fathers raising their children alone right now. Most of these men are straight and most of them, I assume, are doing what all parents do – their frazzled, difficult, imperfect best. And most of them, straight or gay, would probably say that it would be a little easier to do it if they had a loving, stable, supportive partner to help them.
It’s what people already know that will win this referendum. The “Bye Bye Mammy” message must be countered with “Hello Reality”. We all know that bringing up a child isn’t about some model of ideal family perfection.
What parent ever believes that he or she has done everything right? In the real world, real children are raised by lots of people doing their limited best – men and women, parents and grandparents, minders and teachers, friends and neighbours.
Those children worry less about what they “should” have than what they do have – and if that’s love and patience and kindness and care, they will be imperfectly okay.