News John Downing

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Labour has too much at stake to just hang Shatter out to dry

John Downing

Published 21/02/2014 | 02:30

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'Do I have confidence in Mr Shatter? Yes, the Government has confidence in Mr Shatter." There was not a smidgen of wriggle room in Joan Burton's answer to Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin's challenge yesterday. She went out of her way to repeat the question and gave an uncharacteristically direct and concise answer.

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Labour TDs and senators are impatient and unhappy with the embattled Justice Minister as he battles on at least three fronts.

But there are two very good reasons why it is in Labour's interest to stand solidly beside him right now.

First, that's what coalition partners have to do. They cannot peel off and/or sound off at early signs of trouble. To do that would be the beginning of the end for the Government.

Second, whether they love or loathe Mr Shatter is irrelevant. Far more importantly, he belongs on the liberal side of Fine Gael on social issues.

"We're very often on the same side as him," one Labour source explained.

The left-wing party is driving the referendum on same-sex marriage, to be held in 2015. The experiences of all referendums generally – and the 1986 and 1995 divorce referendums in particular – counsel great caution. All sides agree the campaign will be an uphill struggle. The more conservative FG politicians quietly predict it will be lost.

In the 1986 divorce referendum, early opinion polls predicting a Yes were overhauled at the end. The outcome was a two-to-one No vote because the preparatory work had not been done to tie down key questions about property and succession.

By the time of the 1995 vote, these issues had been dealt with by Equality and Law Reform Minister Mervyn Taylor. But, still, the final Yes vote could hardly have been tighter – divorce was carried by half of one per cent, or about 9,000 votes.

True, the opinion polls appear hugely favourable right now. A Paddy Power RedC survey last November indicated three-quarters of voters would support same-sex marriage.

But it is becoming increasingly obvious that opinion polls, while highly reliable in elections, are not so dependable when it comes to referendums. There are various intriguing reasons for this but they are for another day. Political tacticians will tell you the secret to overturning a convincing Yes campaign is to sow enough confusion.

If voters are sufficiently confused, they will either abstain or vote No on the 'if-in-doubt' principle.

So, Labour is relying on Alan Shatter as Justice Minister to deal with legal issues associated with gay marriage. These include child custody, guardianship and access rights as well as adoption.

The Justice Minister has promised to deal with those separately and simplify the issue down to a single question: do voters believe that same-sex couples are entitled to a full marriage ceremony?

Labour have no guarantee that a new FG Justice Minister would take the same view – or make the same wholehearted effort at clearing the ground to ensure a Yes vote.

In saying all of this, there are of course limits to how much grief Labour can ship in support of retaining Alan Shatter in the Department of Justice. But, right now, they do not appear to be vastly much more than the potential costs to Fine Gael.

After all, that party has always been the one that pledged 'law and order' – and central to that is full trust in An Garda Siochana.

Irish Independent

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