Since coming to power the present Government has not been shy about going down the referendum route. To date it has sought to make six Constitutional amendments and next May will seek to make two more.
While some of these campaigns have been low-key and something of a damp squib, the May referenda certainly will not. The proposal to allow same-sex marriage promises to give rise to the most intense referendum campaign for two decades and ensure Ireland is the subject of international attention.
The next few months promise much excitement with a number of questions to be answered. Is Ireland about to become the first State in the world to introduce this measure by way of a referendum? Is the country really ready for such a change or will the public baulk at the last minute? What sort of campaign will opponents of the measure wage? Will they play on the fear of change some voters might have? Will the second referendum proposing to reduce the minimum age for presidential candidates get any attention at all?
Referenda as a tool of change
While referenda are commonplace in Ireland they are not all that popular globally and have been criticised as stymieing the ability of governments to introduce change. The fact they only offer a blunt yes/no choice means if voters have any modicum of doubt over a proposed change, they tend to opt for the comfort of the status quo.
Insider likens a referendum to a courtroom trial. In such a trial the key relationship is between the prosecution and the jury. The task of the prosecution is to convince the jury that the accused is guilty – needing to prove beyond reasonable doubt that this is the case, the bar is set high. The defence also gets plenty of the limelight – but does not have to prove anything. The defence’s task is simply to sew a seed of doubt in jurors’ minds and persuade them to stop short of convicting.
The No side in a referendum campaign is often criticised for being negative and not offering a positive alternative vision. This misses the point. The No side is not arguing for alternative visions but for a continuation of the status quo. In the recent referendum on Scottish independence Alastair Darling was not arguing for Scots to jump in a different direction - he was pleading with them not to jump at all.
Despite the final result the mood music from that campaign was very favourable towards the argument for independence and the SNP seem likely to benefit electorally. In a sense the Scottish people are now at a stage where they like the idea of independence – but have not been fully persuaded that they should make it a reality. The same is likely to be true of the UK referendum on EU membership – the Eurosceptic argument is undoubtedly in the ascendancy but is unlikely to persuade voters to withdraw from the EU.
In Ireland the mood music is now very firmly, overwhelmingly even, in favour of the broader ‘gay rights agenda’. This does not mean however that Irish voters are certain to endorse same-sex marriage. Insider would sum it up as a case of the Irish people wanting to endorse the proposal but still needing to be convinced.
What the Yes side must do
If the Yes side wants to get this one across the line, it needs to spell out clearly in what way the change will benefit gay and lesbian people. In particular it needs to be able to explain in what areas the existing system of civil partnership falls short. It must also convey this as something that will enable gay and lesbian people to partake fully in society as equals rather than being some sort of sop to a marginalised community. The Yes side also must explain how the change will benefit society as a whole.
Insider was impressed by the manner in which British prime minister David Cameron sold this change to Westminster. The line he took was that opening up marriage to people in same-sex relationships would see such couples put down firmer roots and help create stronger and more stable communities.
The manner in which the campaign is conducted will also be of great importance. It is important that gay rights advocates do not see this as an opportunity to extract vengeance for the discrimination faced by them over many years. They must capitalise on and not blow the large amount of goodwill that now exists towards them.
Insider has also heard the point made that ‘civil society’ groups must get involved in this campaign in particular given the unpopularity of politicians. That is true up to a point – however the leading politicians on the Yes side, especially Taoiseach Enda Kenny, must also play a role. After all if the guy who is bringing forward the motion cannot be bothered selling it, why should you vote for it?
Is Ireland too conservative for this?
We hear much talk of Ireland having been, until very recently, a very conservative country on social issues and of there still being a streak of conservatism running through the Irish psyche. Much is made of the difficulty governments have in getting referenda on such social changes passed. Do the facts support this?
Certainly the 1980s were a high watermark for social conservatism with the passing of a referendum to highly restrict the availability of abortion and the emphatic rejection of the first divorce referendum in 1986.
Since then it must be said the electorate have shown themselves to be more open to social changes – we have had four referenda on abortion, two of which were attempted row backs on the X-case (both of these were rejected ) and another two that have allowed for greater access to information and the right to travel. We have also seen the people vote in favour of divorce in 1995, while, despite a late scare, the Children Referendum was comfortably carried in 2012.
Many people are still scared by the dramatic narrowing of the gap in opinion polls that saw the second divorce referendum only being carried by a hair’s breadth after seemingly being on course for an easy passage only a few months earlier. That was two decades ago however and society has undoubtedly changed since then.
Insider also recalls seeing some surveys of first time voters in Galway West around that time that indicated a narrow majority of them were in favour of same-sex marriage even though it was not even on the agenda and seemed a far-fetched idea at the time.
Finally while many people have raised the possible role of the Roman Catholic Church in campaigning against gay marriage, it is interesting to note that many of the countries and US states that have introduced this measure to date are those with a high concentration of Catholics.
Government beware - could the danger lie elsewhere?
The current Fine Gael-Labour Government has lost two referenda and the people have rejected no fewer than five proposals since the turn of the millennium. Looking at the history of Irish referenda however, and contrary to popular belief, it is not social change that causes voters to get cold feet but what might be termed administrative changes to the system of governance.
For instance the two referenda lost by this Government – on giving powers to Oireachtas committees and on abolishing the Seanad – both fall into this category. Over the years we have seen voters reject three FF-inspired proposals to change the voting system and Dáil constituencies. We also saw a seemingly uncontroversial proposal on cabinet confidentiality only pass by a whisker in 1997 while the FF/PD government in 2001 had to abandon plans to hold a referendum amending the system for disciplining and removing judges.
The proposal to reduce the minimum age for presidential candidates falls into this category of ‘administrative change’. Insider is absolutely perplexed at this move by the Government and is not alone in this regard. It is not clear that there is any great demand for this change – in fact it is not even clear that this is FG and Labour policy. Even when this matter was discussed at the Conventional Convention delegates only passed a motion to put it to a referendum by a 50-47 margin.
Coming back to what Insider said earlier about referenda – that the onus is entirely on the Yes side to set out clearly the rationale for such change and to persuade the public that it is worth making the jump – it is difficult to see much hope of this referendum being passed. In addition it is worth noting that, in an era of cynicism about politics, the one office the public has a high degree of confidence in is the presidency and yet the Government now sees fit to tinker with that position.
It is of course possible to persuade people that a good office can be made even better but the bar is set very high in this one and going on past experience the Government is unlikely to pass it. Insider concludes that while the parameters within which referenda are fought are well established they still carry a great degree of unpredictability and we can all look forward to an entertaining few months.