A yes campaign poster in Dublin. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Will Ireland make history and vote for same sex marriage?

This referendum has brought a clear dichotomy in Irish society into sharp focus: the divide between traditional Catholicism and a more progressive, global outlook.

There’s now a mural of two women embracing on the side of a fifteenth-century castle in the Irish countryside. The man responsible, artist and secondary school teacher Joe Caslin, passionately supports a yes vote in Ireland’s upcoming referendum on equal marriage.

Ireland is set to make history this Friday as the first country to put the issue of same sex marriage to its citizens in a national popular vote. For young Irish people in particular – like the teenagers that Caslin himself teaches – the stakes are extremely high.

“The language that’s being used around this referendum can be quite horrific at times and there’s little empathy given to young gay men or women that are maybe on the cusp of coming out; that this is their lives,” Caslin told me last month when another of his murals appeared in Dublin city centre.

The Irish government’s proposal is superficially straightforward: to add a sentence to the constitution that will allow for same sex marriages. A previous court ruling means that, without this change, any marriage equality bill proposed by government could be open to constitutional challenge.

Over the past few months, the battle between the yes and no camps has been fierce, intensified by strict media regulations. Irish people have grown weary of the topic, subjected to an endless cycle of televised debates and newspaper columnists pushing for both sides. You can only imagine how difficult it must be to be gay in Ireland right now, watching as the country holds a nationwide discussion over whether you should have access to marriage, or simply be “grateful” for the existing civil partnerships.

The yes side – which includes all the major political parties – has been accused of “arrogance”, while the no campaign has controversially focused on adoption and surrogacy, issues that are not directly related to the referendum question (gay couples can already adopt and surrogacy is yet to be regulated in the country).

Many of Ireland’s potential yes voters – the younger generation – are now “economic exiles” who will not be able to participate in a decision that will have a massive impact on thousands of lives. Only those living outside the country for less than 18 months are eligible to vote and they must do so in person. As someone who has lived in the UK for a number of years, I know how hard it is not to have a vote on an issue of such national importance.

What has been heartening, though, is witnessing how the topic has engaged young people – both at home and abroad. Campaigns such as “Get the Boat 2 Vote” aim to encourage Irish people overseas who can vote to travel home to do so. From the diaspora, from Australia to Abu Dhabi, emigrants are urging those back home to use their vote as part of the #UseYourVote and #BeMyYes social media campaigns.

At home, some 28,000 student voters have been directly registered by the Union of Students in Ireland, which ran a nationwide sign-up campaign last year ahead of the referendum. Almost 66,000 new voters have been added to the supplementary register, many of whom will be young people voting for the first time.

Yet despite this drive, and the strength of umbrella group “Yes Equality”, Friday’s outcome is far from certain. Although the majority of last weekend’s polls gave the yes vote a clear lead, it will still be a nervous wait for both sides.

This referendum has brought a clear dichotomy in Irish society into sharp focus: the divide between traditional Catholicism and a more progressive, global outlook. But recent decades have seen rapid change – the motion to legalise divorce passed by just 0.6 per cent in 1996, and homosexuality remained illegal until 1993.

Last Sunday, the Catholic church upped the ante, with bishops’ letters advocating a no vote read out in parishes across the country. A poll carried out by Millward Brown for the Irish Independent gave yes a 53 per cent lead with no on 24 and “don’t knows” on 23 per cent. Convert those “don’t knows” into negatives and the gap looks very tight indeed.

Whatever happens on Friday, attitudes in Ireland are undoubtedly changing. This very public debate, which has forced people to come forward with their own personal stories, has only helped them to change further. Now the country is in a position where a yes to same sex marriage is a distinct possibility by the weekend. All we need to do now is wait.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.