Pro-life supporters must consider voting for their local Renua candidate
Published 08/01/2016 | 02:30
The coming election is extremely challenging for those voters who hold positions that are not in step with the views of 'Official Ireland' on issues like abortion, marriage and the family, education, the place of religion in society and so on.
The big majority of voters in this country, like in every democratic country, vote mainly on the basis of the economy. Only a minority will vote on the basis of social issues. Some of this minority will be attracted to a party because it is 'liberal' on social issues and others to a party that is 'conservative' on those same issues.
It's probably not too far off the mark to say that roughly 5pc of the Irish electorate vote on the basis of whether a party is 'liberal' on social issues and about the same percentage vote on the basis that a party is 'conservative' on these issues.
The five or so percent who vote for a party mainly on the basis of its support for socially liberal policies is spoilt for choice. Virtually all of the main parties vie for their vote.
Why is this the case when people are mostly influenced to vote one way or the other by the state of the economy? Why aren't the main parties equally concerned to attract the votes of the minority who vote mainly on the basis of whether a party supports 'socially conservative' positions?
I think a big part of the answer lies in the nature of our media. They control the public discourse and socially conservative politicians are given a hard time and end up with an image problem in short order.
Journalists will incessantly ask a politician who is socially conservative about issues like abortion. It will become very hard for that candidate (or his or her party) to show voters that they also have interesting things to say about the economy which is what will allow them to reach out to more voters.
This immediately makes them 'niche' candidates and can limit their electorate prospects.
Liberal candidates do not have this problem. Their support for the likes of abortion will find favour with most journalists. They won't be harassed about it at press conferences and will be perfectly free to talk at length and directly to the electorate about the big economic issues. This allows them to appeal to a much bigger section of the electorate than they would if they were seen as social issue candidates only.
Since the launch of Renua, a vastly disproportionate number of questions fielded by its members, and especially by Lucinda Creighton, have been about abortion.
To some extent, this is understandable. Lucinda Creighton and the rest of Renua's Oireachtas members lost the Fine Gael party whip over the abortion legislation of 2013.
Every major media outlet in the country backed that legislation and most felt it didn't go far enough. So Renua already had a big media problem. If journalists had supported the stance of Creighton and co, they would not be harassed with continual questions about abortion. Instead, they would be allowed to freely put a bigger and wider policy platform before the public.
When Renua launched its election manifesto earlier this week, a disproportionate amount of attention was given to the abortion issue. The party's 18 candidates were asked by journalists whether they supported repeal of the pro-life amendment - the Eighth Amendment - from the Constitution. Five said they did.
The other issue that grabbed attention was its flat-tax policy. It proposes to replace our current very complex tax system with a single rate of 23pc. It says this will leave a shortfall of €3.5bn in the tax take but that this will be made up for in due course by increased economic activity.
This is hotly contested. Revenue says a flat tax, if there was one, should be set at more like 46pc to take in the current amount of tax. This topic is way outside my field so I simply can't say who is closer to the mark.
Back to the social issues. The ironic thing is that Renua does not actually have a position on abortion as such at all. Its lengthy manifesto does not mention it or the right to life one single time. Instead, the party allows each individual candidate to have his or her own position on the matter.
I would prefer that the party itself had a strong position in favour of the Eighth Amendment and then allowed its members to take their own stances, in much the same way that David Cameron is allowing each of his cabinet members to campaign for or against UK membership of the European Union.
But Renua has not chosen this path, probably in an attempt not to be overly defined by the abortion issue. Given that it is being defined by it anyway, maybe it should have doubled down instead and come out officially in favour of the right to life, while allowing a free vote.
That might have energised more of those pro-life voters who are a bit disappointed by the fact that the party has been doing its best to avoid the issue since it was launched precisely so as to appeal to a broader constituency.
This, in a way, sums up the catch-22 situation Renua finds itself in. It doesn't want to be defined by the abortion issue and so it avoids it as best it can.
But this disappoints the minority of voters who want to vote for an unapologetically pro-life party.
If it appeals too much to this constituency, however, it might lose lots of other potential voters. It would not be in this situation at all if it had a few more friends in the media.
In the coming election, I won't be voting on a party basis. I'll be voting on the basis of the candidates put in front of me. I'll want to see what they think about the social issues and economic issues.
Pro-life voters should be gratified to know that 13 of the 18 Renua candidates on offer are solidly pro-life themselves. The flat-tax proposal, good or bad, has no chance of being implemented but Lucinda Creighton would be a great addition to the cabinet if Renua managed to get enough seats in the coming election to be part of a coalition government because Fine Gael ends up struggling to make up the numbers in the Dáil.
My suggestion is that if you are pro-life, and you have a Renua candidate locally, find out if they back the Eighth Amendment and if they do, then consider giving them a vote.
If pro-lifers don't do that, then all of those who lost the Fine Gael whip over the abortion issue, not just the members of Renua, might begin to wonder if the pro-life vote is worth courting in any way, shape or form.