A poster encouraging a Yes vote in the coming referendum. Photo:Getty Images
Show Hide image

It's apathy, not shy No voters, that may sink the Republic of Ireland's equal marriage referendum

The Republic of Ireland is on the brink of making history this week. But a low turnout could still sink the Yes side.

On Friday, Ireland will become the first country to hold a referendum on whether to legalise same sex marriage. Polling shows the Yes campaign to be garnering massive support. Not only is Ireland likely to introduce same sex marriage but it will do so with the mass backing of its people. All the major political parties are backing same sex marriage. Now they just need to get over the last hurdles to make it a reality and insert same sex marriage into the Irish constitution.

Numerous commentators have raised the possibility of inaccurate polling, comparing the polling on the referendum to the polling on the recent UK general election. While it is doubtless that there are shy no voters, just as there were shy Tories, it is likely that there is not enough of them to sway the vote significantly. The polls surrounding the UK election where somewhat different. Rather than showing a significant lead for one side, as the Irish marriage referendum polls do, they showed both sides at around the same levels of support. Support for same sex marriage in Ireland on the other hand is polling at 70 per cent compared to 30 per cent against, once the undecided have been removed. Only 13 per cent are claiming to be undecided, an insignificant number that is not going to cause a massive upset although may cause the gap between yes and no to narrow. Another major poll shows support at 69 per cent when the undecided are included and 73 per cent when they’re excluded.  

The so called ‘shy no voter’ is inevitable in a referendum on something like this. It’s a topic that is highly charged and passionately argued about, it’s inevitable that some no voters would rather keep their vote to themselves. Some of the major parties have been lobbying their members who may be against or undecided on Friday. Those affiliated to Fianna Fáil are most likely to vote no, polling figures range from 42 per cent to 47 per cent voting against. However Fianna Fáil has attempted to garner support among its members. Yesterday evening they sent out an email to members explaining clearly and simply what the referendum was about, why it was important and addressing common concerns about the same sex marriage such as the issue of surrogacy and adoption. Fianna Fáil’s leader Micheál Martin has also advocated the Yes vote relentlessly during the campaign. During a recent interview with Vincent Browne he dismissed the issues surrounding the referendum, arguing that ‘The question is simple: who may marry and who may not marry – nothing more’. The shy no voter is not likely to be the Yes campaigns biggest challenge, the undecided aren’t a significant number and parties are attempting to address fears as well as they can. 

The biggest challenges for the Yes campaign will be getting out the Yes vote on the day. If they are to realise anywhere near their polling figures, it is vital that people are not apathetic about the referendum and don’t assume that polling figures means that the referendum will pass with ease and they don’t need to vote. This has previously been a problem in Irish referendums. The initial Nice Treaty referendum suffered from an extremely low turnout, only 34 per cent, and the no vote triumphed. However a referendum on the same Treaty, with some further assurances from Europe on issues such as military neutrality, saw turnout at almost 50 per cent and passed, the no vote stagnating but the yes vote grew substantially with almost twice the number of people voting for the Nice Treaty. This suggests that turnout was a major factor in the Nice Treaty referendum rather than a serious objection to the content.  Polling data suggests that getting out the vote will be particularly important as voter turnout is usually higher among older age groups and those in the 65 and older category are most likely to vote against same sex marriage. 18 to 24 year olds are the most likely to vote Yes however they are also less likely to vote. In the last push before voting opens, these are the voters that must be inspired and convinced that their vote matters.

The possibility of Ireland being the first country to legalise same sex marriage by popular vote is something for Ireland to be very proud of. Once same sex marriage is a part of the constitution it is protected from easy changes and can only be altered by another referendum. The biggest hurdle now will be to get out the vote, particularly those who may not normally vote but feel strongly about same sex marriage. This is far more important than worrying about shy no voters or the possible inaccuracies of opinion polls. History has shown that low turnout can sway referendums in ways that the majority of the population didn’t necessarily want such as with the Nice Treaty. If people vote and don’t take the Yes vote support for granted, then Friday will be a historic moment for Irish politics. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.