Pat Leahy: Eighth retainers find unusual allies in Taoiseach and Tánaiste

Comments undermine claim Government proposal represents middle ground

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has acknowledged that the proposal for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks would be a step too far for many people, while Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he would oppose it. Photograph: Barbara Lindberg.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has acknowledged that the proposal for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks would be a step too far for many people, while Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he would oppose it. Photograph: Barbara Lindberg.

 

Below is the current state and shape of the abortion referendum campaign to come over the next three months, pieced together from published research, observation and conversations with participants and observers on both sides and none.

The advantage is with the Repealers at this point. Even their opponents privately acknowledge that they have about 40-45 per cent support in the bag. However, an important caveat here: some of that support is soft. Nonetheless, I cannot see Repeal finishing with anything less than the mid-to-high 40s in percentage terms.

The proportion of committed Retainers is smaller, a fact reflected in all the published polls and confirmed, I am reliably told, in private polling. It’s probably in the mid-30s. But that support is rock solid, and is likely to grow. I expect, and number crunchers agree, that the Retainers will get into the 40s, at least.

The key to the outcome, then, is the undecided voters, many of whom are soft Repealers.

Published polls

To understand this cohort of voters, go back to the research: to repeated Irish Times polls, to the other published polls, and just listen to people: while there is a clear majority in favour of liberalising Irish abortion laws, there is much less certainty on the extent of that liberalisation.

It is the fixed will of a majority of the Irish people to change the law. But among that majority, there is a blocking minority who are uneasy about aspects of the general legalisation of abortion which would follow. If these swing towards the Retain side during the three-month campaign – or stay at home on the day, as some Repealers fear many men will – then there is a route to a narrow majority for the Retainers.

But the starting point – and that is really what we know at this stage – of these decisive middle-grounds voters is pro-Repeal. They may be uncomfortable, but they are looking to be reassured.

If the Repealers want to bring them on board, and keep them on board, they will acknowledge that these doubts and fears are legitimate. People want the fact that it is a difficult decision to be respected. That means that the tone of some of the Repeal campaigners will have to change if they want to win and keep these voters. The tactics required to get an abortion referendum are not the tactics required to win it. Some of the leaders on that side of the argument get this; some of them don’t. And many of the footsoldiers definitely don’t. The greatest threat to the Repeal side is the type of campaign some of its supporters will fight.

The Retainers are coming from behind but they have had an energetic and productive period since Christmas.

Middle ground

The most significant achievement for the Retain campaign has been to disrupt the narrative that was gathering: that the Government’s proposal is the “middle ground”. In achieving this disruption, the Retainers found unusual allies in the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach. The former will actively oppose the 12-week plan, while the latter freely acknowledged in January that it would be a step too far for many people.

The entire thrust of the campaign to keep the Eighth Amendment will be to paint the Government’s proposals as radical, far-reaching and ill thought-out.

There are two principal strands to the campaign to keep the amendment – the Pro-Life Campaign and the Save the Eighth campaign. One person familiar with both summarised their different approaches: the Pro-Life Campaign want to convince you that the unborn is a human being; the Save the Eighth campaign just want to get you to vote No.

They will make their arguments not so much about repeal itself, but about what follows; the proposals for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, and for limited abortion in cases where a woman’s life or health – physical or mental – is threatened afterwards, and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

They will tell voters that politicians cannot be trusted – a powerful trope in an anti-political age.

They will argue that abortion is the last resort in Ireland now, but would become the first resort for many women after legalisation because it would change the culture. Their research tells them that many Irish people are unaware that one in five pregnancies in the UK ends in abortion; they will hammer this message home to the middle-ground waverers: is this what you want in Ireland?

People with Down syndrome will play a role in their campaign. They have, I am told, 85 sets of parents with Down syndrome children ready to campaign.

And the anti-abortion campaigners have an energetic and broadly-based ground game, as will be evident from what is likely to be a very large march in Dublin today.

But the fact remains: the country is inclined towards change. The Retainers are sailing against the prevailing winds. That doesn’t mean they cannot win. But it does mean most things have to go right for them.

One final point is worth making, I think: campaigners on both sides say they want a civil campaign. Few of them mean it. Like committed campaigners anywhere, they want to win. If that means winning ugly, so be it. That’s understandable.

But they should remember: hectoring, self-righteousness and moral superiority will turn off many voters.

If everyone could remember that people of decency and goodwill can hold differing views in good faith, it would make the next few months a more bearable experience for everyone. It might also play well with the middle-ground voters who will decide whether the proposal stands or falls.

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