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

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution