Government fears silent No will sink referendum
FG politicians warn Coalition has under estimated Catholic backlash
Senior Fine Gael figures privately believe the Marriage Equality Referendum is under serious threat because the Government has underestimated the strong Catholic vote and silent No element in many communities across the country.
The Coalition's concerns come as one of the leading supporters of a No vote, Iona Institute patron Breda O'Brien, revealed she has been approached by a number of TDs who said they will vote against the referendum but are "too afraid" to make their views public.
"Some of them in the privacy of the ballot box will be voting No. Obviously I am not going to out them. I don't believe in outing people," Ms O'Brien told the Sunday Independent.
However, Agriculture Minister and Fine Gael's referendum campaign director Simon Coveney insisted the party is not silencing members and they are free to campaign how they choose.
"We are not Sinn Fein, you could not accuse Fine Gael of not allowing TDs to speak their mind," Mr Coveney told the Sunday Independent.
Meanwhile, the Government is bracing itself for another abortion controversy that Coalition sources say could distract from the gay marriage debate and consolidate support in the predominantly Catholic No camp.
Socialist TD Ruth Coppinger will bring a bill before the Dail seeking to remove the eighth amendment from the Constitution on May 12 - 10 days before the marriage equality referendum. The bill will be a major headache for the Labour Party which will be forced to vote against the bill despite passing a motion at its recent party conference pledging to hold an abortion referendum.
"This will incentivise the conservative element of society to go out and campaign harder for a No vote in the marriage equality referendum. It will be like a red flag to them and they will fight all the harder to get a No vote," one minister said.
The Sunday Independent also understands a previous bill on legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities tabled by Clare Daly is due for debate at the Oireachtas Health Committee but is being held off until after the marriage referendum over fears it will affect the Yes vote.
Last week, Mr Coveney called on reluctant party members to canvass for the constitutional change at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting in Leinster House. "A lot of people still need reassurance and honest explanations and this is where Fine Gael comes in. A particular responsibility for Fine Gael is to reassure the naturally conservative. I am sure the Taoiseach and I were in that boat," he said.
However, senior members of the party believe the referendum will be lost despite the efforts of Mr Coveney and Taoiseach Enda Kenny to secure a Yes vote.
"He didn't put a gun to our heads but he said to get out and canvass," one minister who attended the meeting said. "I don't think this thing will pass."
Another minister said he-would "bet any amount of money" the No vote would win.
Cork TD Jim Daly, who is personally supportive of the referendum, said the party needs to be aware of the silent No vote which could see the referendum lost.
"There is the public and the private face. People initially say Yes but when you probe and ask the second question they are more uneasy. It is a brave man that would confidently predict a Yes. If you took Dublin out of the equation No would have the edge," he said.
Cork TD Jerry Buttimer has called on his party colleagues to "stop fearing" the electorate and campaign for a Yes vote.