Wednesday 28 September 2016

'No' side employing crafty manipulations to create doubt and fear in marriage poll debate

Niamh Gallagher

Published 29/04/2015 | 02:30

Enda Kenny and Jerry Buttimer at the launch of Fine Gael's 'Yes' campaign
Enda Kenny and Jerry Buttimer at the launch of Fine Gael's 'Yes' campaign

In conversation recently, a gay friend told me that a 'No' vote would make him feel unwelcome in his own country. It would suggest his own people did not see him as an equal citizen or respect his right to make the same decisions regarding relationships as they can.

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His sentiment captures exactly what we are voting about on May 22: do we want to change our Constitution to allow for the institution of marriage to be opened up to same-sex couples in the same way it is to heterosexual couples? Do we want to end the discrimination against gay couples that sees their relationships as somehow 'less' than ours?

It seems like a reasonably straightforward issue for debate, and yet it is not. For two reasons: fear and obfuscation.

David Quinn, writing in this newspaper last week, talked about the 'secret no'. On his estimation, this group could be large enough to tip the vote despite the overwhelming lead for 'Yes' in the polls. But we won't know until polling day, because these people are afraid to come out (no pun intended) and say what they really think. So successful have the 'Yes' side been in drumming up political and media support, their challengers would rather stay silent than question the prevailing view.

He has a point. I met some 'No' voters last week. They planned to vote 'No' because they felt marriage is about a man and a woman and deep down they were worried about the children. They hadn't had any conversations about the referendum because they didn't like to suggest they had any doubts. They know and like lots of gay people but felt marriage is different.

There are people out there - who knows how many - rational, mature, thoughtful people, who are afraid to ask questions about this referendum because they don't want to appear bigoted. Who are afraid of causing offence to the numerous gay people among their family and friends by asking them to explain, really explain, why they should vote Yes. And if they asked, they would realise these are things that have nothing at all to do with what they are voting on on May 22.

Because the 'No' side is obfuscating. It is the oldest trick in the referendum campaign handbook. The first Nice treaty was lost because we were concerned about neutrality. Lisbon fell because women were concerned their sons would be conscripted into a European Army. Neither of these things had anything to do with the referendum, they were crafty manipulations dreamed up by the No side to create doubt and fear, the old adage: if you don't know, vote no - it's easier, isn't it?

And, if recent referenda are anything to go by, we're not even that much in favour of things we seem to think we are. The children's rights referendum - in a country that celebrates our 'cherishing' of children - passed with just 58pc. It is not outrageous to think that we are capable of convincing ourselves that while we are very pro-gay people, we just don't want them getting married - what's so wrong with that?

Well, actually there is a lot wrong with that. But we can only establish that by having the conversation - allowing people to ask difficult questions and answering them with the facts, pure and simple.

Should gay couples be allowed to adopt and raise children? This may be a question worth debating, but it has nothing to do with the vote on May 22. The Child and Family Relationships Bill, a mammoth piece of legislation that recently passed through the Dáil and Seanad, modernises legislation governing the family and allows for the extension of adoption and guardianship rights to civil partners or a same-sex co-habiting couple of more than three years. So, no matter how we vote, gay people will raise children.

Will the referendum lead to a booming surrogacy market fuelled by gay couples? No, it won't. And what's more, it is deeply disingenuous to bring this complex legal and ethical issue into a debate where it has no place. Surrogacy - something that is predominantly an issue for heterosexual couples - will be dealt with in a forthcoming bill looking at assisted human reproduction.

Addressing these facetious arguments requires the 'Yes' side to demonstrate its openness to discussing these issues, even if they may at times cause offence.

There is a constituency out there who are voting no because civil partnership is as far as they are willing to go.

They don't want same-sex marriage recognised in our Constitution and they don't see gay relationships as equal to heterosexual ones. That may be uncomfortable to hear but it is a clear, considered reason to vote 'No', and the only one that is relevant to the question being asked.

Do we want to extend the right to marriage to same-sex couples in the referendum and state clearly that we see their relationships as equal in our Constitution? It is this alone that we are voting on on May 22.

Irish Independent

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