Thursday 18 July 2019

The eight hurdles the Taoiseach must clear to resolve the Eighth crux

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Brian Lawless/PA)
John Downing

John Downing

Leo Varadkar set resolving the abortion question as a key priority when elected Taoiseach on June 14 last.

The issue has periodically convulsed the nation over 35 years, so this is a big prize which could be a career-defining moment.

But just six days after he outlined his referendum plans, the obstacles are piling up. The doubts, which can be fatal to a referendum campaign, are already abundantly clear.

Here are the Taoiseach's eight hurdles to be cleared in successfully repealing the Eighth.

1. Unity: Leo Varadkar will not have the active support of key lieutenants. He may well be left campaigning virtually alone alongside Health Minister Simon Harris and a handful of Dublin-based TDs.

Being unable to rely upon your own base is a poor start. The Taoiseach will hope his internal party opponents will play a low-key game.

2. Opposition support: Since referendums were introduced in 1937, the experience is that they are rarely carried without the Opposition parties' support.

Only a minority of Fianna Fáil TDs appear ready to back Mr Varadkar's approach. Fianna Fáil referendum opponents, operating below the radar, have a record of packing a campaign punch.

Read More: Spotlight on Sinn Féin as clear majority of TDs rejects 12-week proposal

3. Opinion polls bringing good news for now, must be treated with extreme caution. While good at predicting elections, they are unreliable for referendums. The topic is complex and people delay deciding until very late on.

In 2013, surveys had predicted a win in a referendum to abolish the Seanad. But it was defeated. In 2012, a referendum on children's rights had a modest win despite predictions of a landslide.

4. A big campaign is needed to win - almost as big as a general election. That is often hard to achieve as it depends a lot on local politicians mustering their own troops.

It's a big demand as there is every danger the same busy people will be called upon to campaign in a general election sooner rather than later. Very many politicians want this one to go away and will try their best to hide in plain sight. That may not enthuse voters to turn out.

5. Turnout is more usually the deciding factor in referendums. When the EU Treaty of Nice was rejected in June 2001 turnout was barely over one-third of voters. In a re-run in October 2002, turnout was up to 50pc and it was carried by a margin of 25 percentage points.

There are many examples of how low turnout loses the day. Good turnout requires a big campaign effort which may be lacking this time.

6. Dublin is central to winning - but it is not everything. The last time the nation voted on abortion, in March 2002, all 11 Dublin constituencies rejected efforts to tighten the rules.

A majority in the capital will likely back Mr Varadkar on this one and that will be a big help. But a big turnout in rural areas could offset a narrow win or low turnout in the capital.

7. Suspicion pervades the modern day electorate. Even when faced with straight-forward propositions, voters are likely to ask: "But what's the trick here?"

A great example was Enda Kenny's referendum to abolish the Seanad in October 2013. It was pitched as getting rid of politicians and saving money, at a time of huge disillusionment with politicians and deep recession. But it was narrowly defeated in part because it was feared to be a Fine Gael "power grab".

8. Doubt is by the far the biggest enemy to the Taoiseach landing this referendum successfully. Opponents only have to sow an element of suspicion when an issue laden with detailed complex arguments is put on the agenda.

Doubt, indecision, inertia and decisions by default are all near neighbours.

Watch opponents of repealing the Eighth work on the 12-week provision in the parallel legislation to sow doubts.

Doubt depresses turnout and in turn urges people in doubt to "leave it out".

Irish Independent

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