On the same-sex marriage and presidential age referendums

By Michael Gallagher

The expectation was that the same-sex marriage referendum would deliver a comfortable Yes and the vote on reducing the minimum age for the president an equally decisive No, and that’s just how it worked out. The latter achieved the distinction of delivering the lowest Yes vote (only 27 per cent) of any of the 39 referendums held in this country to date but will otherwise be remembered only for being entirely forgettable, and the puzzle for future historians will be to work out how it ever got onto the ballot paper, given that no-one seemed sufficiently motivated to put together a leaflet or a poster about it, let alone canvass for it.

The same-sex marriage referendum, in contrast, evidently reached parts of the body politic that referendum proposals don’t usually get to. Turnout was just over 60 per cent, the highest since the divorce referendum of November 1995, implying that the issue at stake seemed to the electorate to be more important than the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, the election of a president in 1997 and 2011, and even, remarkable as it may seem, the possible abolition of the Seanad.

The spectacle of voters, especially youthful ones, travelling back from abroad to cast a vote that was highly unlikely to make a difference to the outcome suggests that many on both sides regarded their vote as being expressive rather than instrumental and saw something greater at stake than merely the difference between civil partnership and same-sex marriage. For some Yes voters, a statement about equality in Irish society and, perhaps, almost an act of contrition, an opportunity to expunge a residual sense of guilt at the toleration of the long existence on the statute book of laws that now seem bizarre and discriminatory, given that the decriminalisation of homosexuality (a phrase that already has an old-fashioned ring to it) occurred only in 1993. For some No voters, a doomed but in their eyes valiant attempt to stop the apparently relentless slide into a society defined by moral relativism, where ‘anything goes’ and abortion on demand is the order of the day.

Did we see the emergence of a new voting pattern in Irish politics or did the familiar liberal–conservative divide raise its head once more? Eyeballing the data certainly suggests the latter. Long-standing liberal bastions on the southside of Dublin were once again to the fore in voting Yes, while the ten constituencies with a Yes vote lower than 55 per cent were the traditionally most conservative ones, in the west and north-west. Dublin voted 71–29 in favour while in the rest of the country it was a rather closer 59–41.

A more systematic analysis confirms this. Comparing the percentage Yes votes on 22 May with those cast in the divorce referendum of 1995 produces a Pearson correlation (r) of 0.87, a remarkably high figure given the twenty-year time difference. (Constituency boundaries have changed since 1995, but by amalgamations we can identify 39 more or less comparable units.) The largest ‘swings to liberalism’ were in traditionally conservative areas – Limerick West with a shift of 27 per cent, Cork NW and Cork E head the list – while the smallest swings were in relatively liberal areas (Dublin NE, Dun Laoghaire and Meath all saw the liberal vote grow by less than 5 per cent compared with 1995.) Thus the Dublin-versus-the-rest difference narrowed in 2015: in 1995 the Dublin margin was 64–36 compared with 45–55 in the rest of country, a 19-point difference, but in the 2015 vote, as mentioned above, the difference was just 12 points. In short, votes were cast very much along the established liberal–conservative dimension, with the liberal side now decidedly in the ascendant.

Comparing the referendum votes with the way votes were cast at the 2011 general election confirms a strong relationship (0.77) with Labour support across the 43 constituencies. Yes support correlates negatively with support for the other three main parties (-0.47 with FF support, -0.39 with FG support and -0.26 with SF support), even though all of those parties were, at leadership level at least, entirely in favour of the proposal. (A negative correlation does not necessarily mean that individual supporters of these parties tended to vote No; it merely indicates that where those parties were stronger in 2011, the No vote tended to be higher in 2015.)

Certainly Labour, of all the parties, has the most reason to feel encouraged by the outcome, given that it was Labour that insisted that the issue be on the agenda of the Constitutional Convention and went on to be the most committed promoter of the proposal. This will not necessarily translate directly into additional support for the party; as Harry McGee pointed out in the Irish Times, the number of valid votes cast in the referendum in Carlow–Kilkenny was over 1,000 more than in the by-election on the same day, in which Labour fared poorly. Even so, the outcome has put a spring in the step of Labour members, providing reassurance that their party has made a difference, a boost in morale that may yet increase their ability to persuade voters that they are a party worth supporting, and it will have convinced the party strategists that a manifesto pledge to put before the people a referendum on removing the eighth (the ‘pro-life’) amendment will be well received among potential Labour voters.

Fine Gael handled the issue well, sufficiently in favour to assure its urban supporters that the liberalism of Garret FitzGerald remains significant within the party but not so zealous in rural areas as to cause its more conservative supporters to fear that they are being forgotten. Sinn Féin was on the winning side, but the party’s stance on moral issues is really not in any way central to its electoral appeal.

For Fianna Fáil, everything seemed to have gone well, with the Carlow–Kilkenny by-election victory as a bonus, until the dramatic resignation on 25 May of its most prominent liberal, Senator Averil Power, citing the party’s lack of commitment, or pusillanimity as she saw it, in the referendum as the main factor in her decision. This is reminiscent of events of twenty years ago. In 1995, the FF leadership – Bertie Ahern as leader and Mary O’Rourke as deputy leader – held a press conference to declare that the party was calling for a Yes vote in the second divorce referendum, which was the start of Fianna Fáil’s campaign on that occasion and pretty much the end of it too. No-one doubted that the bulk of the parliamentary party and the membership was decidedly lukewarm about, if not indeed opposed to, legalising divorce, and anecdotally it was said that in many areas FF members formed the backbone of the anti-divorce campaign. Yet as soon as the referendum was over the party reunited around what cynics saw as its core value, namely getting back into government, and the party duly returned to office at the next general election eighteen months later. That will not be so easy this time. For a party that seems in need of a unique selling point – not a problem when starting from a base of 40 per cent of the votes, but a major problem when starting from 20 per cent – the existence of a sizeable bloc of the electorate, namely the 38 per cent who voted No, who currently feel unrepresented by any political party must offer a tempting, albeit probably shrinking, electoral market.

The committed and enthusiastic Yes organisation became a formidable force by the end of the campaign, but in terms of the future it’s not clear that anything more can be built upon it. The next ‘moral issue’ referendum is likely to be on abortion, which, involving as it does a clash of claimed rights (a woman’s right to choose versus the right to life of the unborn) that was absent from the same-sex marriage debate, in which it was rather hard to see how anyone’s rights would be infringed by the passing of the proposal, will not generate the same level of unqualified positivity that the goal of ‘Equality’, which is how the Yes side framed the issue, did in 2015.

As for the No side, it must be clear that the world is changing around it, and the reversing of the pre-emptive strike of 1983, the ‘pro-life amendment’ that was intended to prevent the legislature from legalising abortion for generations to come even though at that time scarcely anyone was advocating such legalisation, is likely within ten years at most. The No side has sincere concerns, yet its instinctive opposition to any kind of liberal change, even when it is difficult to find reasons to oppose the specific change proposed (point 5 in an Iona Institute leaflet listing ‘Five Reasons to Vote No’ was ‘No other country has ever voted for this’, which may qualify for a prize as the weakest argument ever put forward in a referendum campaign), as well as its record of giving dire warnings about the likely consequences, which never quite materialise in reality, of every liberalising step, inevitably risk giving a mind-numbing predictability to its message. The maxim of ‘choose your battles’ comes to mind, a point that the Catholic Church, or at least Diarmuid Martin, is evidently also considering.

The defeat of the 1986 divorce referendum was seen at the time as the last nail in the coffin of the 1982–87 Fine Gael–Labour coalition government, a morale-sapping reverse that presaged its heavy defeat in the election eight months later. These are different times, yet last week’s result can only have reinforced a growing sense within the government parties that they might yet, against the odds, just possibly secure re-election for a second term.

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