Decision time: Why noisy Yes fears silent No
It would be easy to imagine a Yes vote is inevitable in Friday's same-sex marriage poll, but which way will people turn in the privacy of the polling booth? Kim Bielenberg goes down the country and finds a nation divided
Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30
As the Yes bus parked next to the O'Connell monument towering above the centre of Ennis, voters were forthright with their views on the same-sex marriage referendum.
The bright multicoloured bus that is travelling all over the country lit up the streetscape, and brought a festive atmosphere, but that did not stop Stella Murphy berating the Yes canvassers while waving her umbrella. To her, marriage could only be between a man and a woman, pure and simple.
"Why knock down institutions that have been there for yonks? I have no objection to gay people, but they already have all the rights they need."
And then she walked away, as Yes canvassers gazed heavenwards.
Opinions on the canvass were sharply divided. Another elderly voter, Mary Synnott, had come down firmly for Yes: "Live and let live! That's what I say. We are here for a good time, not a long time."
The opinion polls so far have shown an overwhelming support for the Yes side, with those in favour as high as 76pc. But in recent days, there have been mutterings in political circles about "silent Nos", who could swing the vote wildly in the other direction.
These are the Irish equivalent of the "silent Tories", who told pollsters one thing and then turned out and voted Conservative. Are they waiting with their stubby pencils to scupper the hopes and dreams of thousands of gay and lesbian couples?
The Yes and No side in this debate may be at loggerheads, but they agree on one issue: the final vote next Friday will be much closer than the polls have indicated.
Certainly on the streets of Ennis, many of the No supporters were not silent at all. As Yes supporters milled around their bus, one woman waiting at an ATM machine repeated a slogan that was popular among the Republican right in the United States: "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."
Across the country a lot will depend on the key constituency of older voters, who turn out in much higher numbers at referendums and elections.
Orla Vaughan, a Yes supporter from Kilfenora, tells me: "This will be a lot closer than people think. It's going to be very tight in this area."
While the Yes lobby has a vast army of canvassers going door-to-door across the country, and seems to be winning the ground war, many backbench rural Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs are not campaigning enthusiastically.
"They are not canvassing strongly in this area," says Orla Vaughan. "Perhaps they are afraid of losing votes if they go out on the doorsteps."
The No side will not just attract Catholic conservative traditionalists. There seems to be a substantial body of voters who prefer the sound of No to Yes, and dislike being dictated to by the political buckos and media pundits up above in Dublin.
One man emerging with two bottles of wine from Lidl in Shannon told me it was all a fix.
However, older voters go to the polls in much higher numbers, and this cohort can be expected to have a significant number of No voters, the Yes side has one point in its favour.
"In some areas people vote No, no matter what the issue is," says Dr Adrian Kavanagh, lecturer in political geography at NUI Maynooth. "Donegal tends to always vote No."
According to Mr Kavanagh, turnout tends to be higher in referendums on social issues in the liberal constituencies of Dublin.
"In places like Dún Laoghaire and Dublin South, the turnout is likely to be 10pc higher than average, and this would seem to favour the Yes side."
Dr Kavanagh believes the poll during this week's Claire Byrne referendum debate showing Yes on 76pc was skewed, because participants had to own smartphones. He expects the final vote to be closer to 55-45 in the referendum.
During my trip across Clare on board the Yes bus, campaigners were keen to visit the holy ground of Father Ted's house. They parked the bus outside the Craggy Island parochial house, which in real life is in North Clare.
The hierarchy's campaign against same-sex marriage has been stepped up markedly in the past fortnight with pastoral letters issued from bishops. But sometimes the response of the clergy has been fitful, and could be likened to the episode of Father Ted, where the priests are ordered to campaign against a blasphemous film, The Passion of St Tibulus.
Ted and Dougal half-heartedly carry placards saying "Down with this sort of thing". Their heart isn't really in it, and the same could be said of some of the ordinary parish priests who have been ordered to stop the gay folk getting hitched.
Martin Long, of the Catholic Communications Office, said of the recent spate of pastoral letters: "The bishops have responded to the demand from the faithful for an explanation of the Church's teaching on marriage. There have been calls to bishops' offices throughout the country."
Some regular Mass-goers I met on my journey across the west said their local clergy had not been giving advice on how they should vote. And often they were prepared to go against church teaching.
Kitty Nugent, who goes to Mass every Sunday, says: "The Church is entitled to its opinion, but to me its about equality.
"Gay people may be allowed civil partnership, but they need to have constitutional protection. As far as I am concerned, two loving parents are better than bad parents, and it doesn't matter if they are gay or not."
While the polls show that the vast majority of people support same sex marriage, their attitude to the separate issue of adoption by gay and lesbian couples is often quite different.
A Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll last month showed more voters (45pc) have some or a lot of unease over the adoption of children by gay male couples compared with 42pc saying they have no difficulties.
In the terminology of political strategists, this is the "wedge issue" that the No side is trying exploit in order to split swing voters away from same-sex marriage.
Keith Mills, of the campaign group Mothers and Fathers Matter, said: "The issue of protection of children and the redefining of the family is really playing well for us, particularly among the over 40s outside Dublin."
Some of the concerns about children may have been dispelled during Monday's Claire Byrne debate when the chairman of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, Geoffrey Shannon, said the referendum will not affect the adoption process. He said "the best interests of the child is the key requirement" when determining adoption applications.
Adrian Kavanagh of NUI Maynooth believes the result of Friday's poll is still hard to predict: "We have had a lot of referendum campaigns that looked done and dusted in opinion polls, but were defeated.
"As campaigns go on, a lot of arguments are raised and often these are not relevant, but they can stick and cause confusion. People think if they don't know, they should vote No."
As well as attracting voters in the middle ground, the Yes campaign will have to ensure the surge in enthusiasm for the cause among the under-25s is actually translated into votes.
In the younger age groups, where teenagers often don't come out as gay because they have never been in, the attitude to same-sex marriage seems to be overwhelmingly in favour. Among this generation, suggestions that the country might continue to ban same-sex marriages are likely to be greeted with bewilderment.
Adrian Kavanagh says: "Everything will depend on the turnout on the day. You can get all the support you like in opinion polls, but how many of the Yes supporters will actually vote."
The referendum has generated more enthusiasm among students than any other issue in recent years.
But Mr Kavanagh warns that Irish young people have one of the lowest turnout rates for votes in Europe.
A survey by National Youth Council of Ireland last year showed that as many 43 pc of 18-21 year-olds were not even on the electoral register.
Since then, student unions and the Yes campaign have had a concerted push to encourage young voters to register.
For Mary McDermott, who has been touring the country on the Yes bus since April 22, the referendum is the culmination of a lifetime of campaigning.
Success will depend on the extent to which the liberal attitude to same-sex marriage has embedded itself among ordinary voters across the country, and whether young Yes supporters translate Facebook likes into ticks on a real-life ballot paper.