Sunday 25 September 2016

At least this time, both Yes and No camps debated with some dignity

Published 21/05/2015 | 02:30

Banners encouraging voters to support the Yes and the No campaign in the Irish same-sex marriage referendum are seen in Dublin
Banners encouraging voters to support the Yes and the No campaign in the Irish same-sex marriage referendum are seen in Dublin

We are getting better at public debate on sexual morality.

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If you doubt that statement, then you are not old enough to remember the events in the autumn of 1983 and the referendum on the eighth amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann. The vulgar, personalised and hurtful abuse, which 32 years ago masqueraded as debate on that amendment aimed at banning legislation to permit abortion, was happily nowhere evoked during this referendum debate.

A better-quality public discourse is one conclusion we can definitively draw from the past month of at times intense discussion about whether or not we should permit marriage between same-sex couples.

Granted, there will be a collective sigh of relief across the nation as this referendum on gay marriage draws to a close with voting tomorrow.

Single-issue campaigns are wearing for all but the most committed zealots on either side of the equation.

The general public find their boredom threshold rather early. And when they do focus, they decide swiftly enough to go with a Yes, No, or Can't-be-bothered.

But, as the last few straggling canvassers head home today, there is just time to stand back and assess how this campaign went.

Did the Yes side play it well? How was it for the No side? And did anyone bother at all with the second referendum on the presidential age?

Let's deal with the last one first. No. Nobody bothered much with the presidential referendum, and more is the pity. It will be heavily defeated, and the lingering question is why it happened at all.

Staying with reverse order, the No side did rather well once you consider that they were a motley collection and up against pretty well everyone who is anyone in Irish politics. They will lose tomorrow - but their success will be measured by the margin of loss.

They had a narrow range of arguments, largely focused on changing the institution of marriage and the welfare of children.

Their advocates were little-known but the journalist David Quinn and Senator Ronan Mullen, a tireless debater in Irish and English, are among those to emerge with some credit.

The Catholic bishops were measured in their intervention and well entitled to contribute to this discourse. There was yet again a strong indication that they cannot inspire the level of loyalty they could, even a generation ago.

The Yes side held all the aces: cross-spectrum support from every party blocked a lot of potential opposition.

They had a wide range of speakers with skill and experience to call upon. It is clear that the big parties spent large sums of money, on postering in particular.

But the Yes side suffered from a lack of preparedness, with legislation on families and children rushed through at the eleventh hour, and a new surrogacy law still pending. This facilitated the No side in keeping children's issues live in the debate. There was also huge doubt about the backing for Yes within Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, with the latter causing Government tensions.

Two final observations. On the negative side, there was a certain lack of welcome for those backing a No.

More positively, the Yes side assembled a large body of new activists who canvassed urban areas.

Irish Independent

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