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21 May 2015

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.

By Ciara Dunne

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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