Tuesday 16 July 2019

Decency versus the shadow of a doubt

The urge voters have to treat people with common decency may be trumped by fear, says Gene Kerrigan

Cartoon - Marriage Referendum 2015
Cartoon - Marriage Referendum 2015
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

John Waters is right, I think, when he says a lot of people are afraid to say openly that they intend to vote against marriage equality. They tell the pollsters they'll vote Yes, or that they Don't Know - but in the privacy of the polling booth they'll vote No.

John is wrong, I think, about the reason for this timidity. "People", he says, "are being scared into silence". No, they're not.

No one knows how the vote will go on Friday. That uncertainty is a tribute to the relentlessness of the campaign by the No side. Originally, the Yes side was so far ahead in the polls that some were celebrating already.

The 70-30pc result of yesterday's Irish Times poll might well breed complacency.

Today's Sunday Independent poll shows 53pc Yes to 24pc No - but with a significant Don't Know total of 23pc.

The experts have always seen the Yes total as a soft vote that might melt away under pressure. Some look with distrust at all poll figures and conclude it's too close to call.

Sean Donnelly is a figures man - he writes books that analyse election results, he knows every political ripple running through every constituency. His political analysis is based on long experience. The figures say the Yes side is home and dry, he told The Irish Times last week. But he wouldn't be surprised if the No side wins.

"Older people always come out to vote", he said, "and the young people might not bother. There is a reluctance to tell pollsters that you are voting No . . . there is doubt emerging . . . All you need is a bit of doubt."

And that, I believe, is the key to the No campaign - all you need is a bit of doubt.

In 1995, in the referendum on divorce, the Yes side seemed well home and dry. The No side focused on raising doubts. "Hello divorce, goodbye Daddy." Vote Yes and your husband might do a bunk. Some raised issues about property rights. In February 1995, Yes led by 62.7pc to 37.3pc - a solid 25pc lead. By November, the Yes side squeaked home by only 0.6pc.

The No campaign on marriage equality has been well-paced and focused. The Yes campaign had the cutest 'Pets for Yes' photos, the funniest jokes - but the No side has a hunger for victory.

At the beginning, the figures gave the No side no chance - 70pc to 30pc. But they've managed to create a campaign that produced respectable figures in the polls. And if the supposed softness of the Yes vote is real, the result might be a lot closer than first thought.

The issue to be decided is straightforward. Marriage equality. You have two children. Both in fulfilling relationships. Both want to get married, to experience all the social and personal and legal benefits of that union.

The straight one can marry; the gay one can't. Should we make them equal in the eyes of the law? More important - should we make them equal in the eyes of the rest of us?

The answer, for about 70pc of us, was Yes.

There was a time when it would have been dangerous for a politician to come out. They risked possibly being beaten up, and the certainly of being subjected to the sneering and jeering that could end a career. Now, Pat Carey or Leo Varadkar come out and it's - "Good on you, mate, about time."

In the bad old days, we didn't see gay people - they were strange outsiders who lived in the shadows, and we projected our fears on to those faceless deviants.

Young people who realised they were gay knew to hide it. Their parents reacted in fear and anger - You can't be gay, don't you know how people will make you lonely and scared and rejected?

Thanks to the courage of a range of people, from David Norris to Stephen Gately, from Panti to Jerry Buttimer, the strangeness was taken away. The facelessness that bred fear is gone. We learned that gay people are our sons and daughters and the sons and daughters of our relatives, friends and neighbours.

The violence is not dead, the discrimination lives - but things are immeasurably better.

And that, I believe, is the reason that 70pc of those asked at the beginning of the campaign said they'll vote Yes. Common decency.

It is also, I believe, the reason for the shyness of those who don't want to admit they'll vote No on Friday.

The No side knew they couldn't win on the question of equality. You can't argue against the common decency that motivated a 70pc Yes response.

Instead, the strategy has been to raise doubts. And not about abstract moral issues, but about that which means most to us - the welfare of children.

The issue of equality before the law has been put aside. Instead, people are told that you either want to protect children or you don't - and if you do, you have to vote No.

Last Friday, after Daniel O'Donnell said he's voting Yes, a statement from the Iona Institute put the issue as squarely as possible: "If we vote in favour of this referendum, the result will be that a certain number of children will be deliberately raised without a mother or a father from the very first day of their life, with the full blessing of the State".

In the words of an Iona Institute leaflet: "A Mother's Love is Irreplaceable - Vote No".

Again - forget equality before the law: voting Yes will wrench a child out of the arms of its loving mother. Voting No will save it.

If Yes wins, then - "with the full blessing of the State" - two men will adopt a child, which will thereby be deliberately deprived of a mother's love. Or two women - which will deprive a child of the love of a father.

Vote No, we're told, to stop this.

That's a powerful image - it creates a dilemma. Do I obey my feelings of common decency and vote Yes, to treat gay people equally? Or should I act on my doubts?

After all, if I vote Yes, according to the No side, this will irrevocably change how children are adopted, it will affect the very meaning of marriage - and on and on, through the litany of terrible things the referendum is alleged to be about.

Now, the chair of the Adoption Authority, Geoffrey Shannon, can and did explain the reality - but it's a powerful image, a child deprived of a mother's love. It pitches equality against the welfare of children and that's asking a lot of voters.

The truth is, as the chair of the Adoption Authority says, if you're single, married, gay or straight, you can apply to adopt. You are rigorously assessed, and if you meet the criteria for raising a child in security and love you get the okay.

That's the law, right now. And voting No won't change that. The outcome of the referendum will have no effect whatsoever on the adoption laws.

The purpose of the call to vote No, because a mother's love is irreplaceable, is not to protect the child's right to a mother's love. It's to raise a doubt.

And that's why a lot of good people - who want to act in common decency and assure gay people of equality before the law - are this weekend wondering if they should vote No.

If they do so it will not be homophobia - it will be because of doubts.

Such people know voting No will cause a lot of pain. It will reject the claim of gay people to be equal. It will do so in a very public, humiliating way.

But, believing they are defending children's rights, they will vote against their own sense of common decency.

Which is why they don't broadcast it.

Sunday Independent

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