Sunday 22 September 2019

Day we discovered Ireland's past really is a foreign country

The voters' sober and thoughtful position on repeal won the day against slick campaigning and Trumpian tactics

SUPPORT: Micheal Martin came out early to back repeal
SUPPORT: Micheal Martin came out early to back repeal

Eoin O'Malley

Last October a small group of TDs and senators from different parties came together to provide an umbrella for Oireachtas members who were in favour of repeal. The group hoped to support a mainstream campaign to deliver a referendum and a Yes vote. At the time there was concern that the referendum might not even get through the Oireachtas. If it did, they worried that those who had been at the vanguard of repeal for decades might construct a campaign that would be so focused on women's right to choose that the centre ground would be driven into the arms of the anti-repeal side.

In the end, the Oireachtas passed the referendum bill easily, and in the new year several mainstream politicians, such as Micheal Martin, and eventually Simon Coveney, came out to support repeal, and perhaps crucially, the proposed legislation to replace it. But there were still concerns.

We all assumed that in the heat of a campaign the innate conservatism of the Irish people fuelled by a slick campaign against repeal would mean the best Yes could hope for was to scrape over the line. A Brexit or Trump-style event might be possible.

Even last weekend, when the polls pointed to a clear win, conventional wisdom told us to expect it to tighten. That's what always happened. People would be scared off change by the campaign.

In fact, Yes opened up a yawning lead.

What was it in the two campaigns that delivered this resounding win? Campaigns work by trying to pick issues on which to run, and to state a position on those issues in a clear, logical, and emotionally appealing way. The Together for Yes campaign knew from polling that people didn't want the status quo, but that the No side would try to paint repeal in such an extreme way that people might take fright.

It knew also that people were concerned about women's health, about fatal foetal anomalies and rape cases. It knew, again because polling said so, that messaging about choices and human rights wouldn't appeal to the undecideds or soft No voters who were to eventually surge to the Yes side.

The result was a campaign that from the start played it safe. It was safe, perhaps to the point of banality. While it was very professionally organised, and put together big canvass teams remarkably quickly, the posters took a bit of deciphering. It dealt with legal and medical questions adeptly, but there wasn't much emotion.

How Did Your Constituency Vote?

Final Results Constituencies declared: 40/40

Map Key

Yes 55% 50% 55% No

The emotion came from the activists. On the TV debates, those women in the audiences telling their stories probably did more to connect with people than the campaign leaders on the stage. In the first RTE debate, the Yes side came off second best.

While the cervical cancer scandal, which broke mid-campaign, can only have resonated the message about women's health, the fear remained of what was to come from the No side.

Yet for all the threats of US money, Retain never really landed a punch. It was quick to get posters up, and they were good posters - designed to touch people. Its literature was also pretty good. There are reports that it was all over the paid online ads. But on the airwaves, where much of the real work is still done, the Retain side got sucked into campaigning on hard cases.

The hard cases, it turned out, were remarkably common, and very real. Retain campaigners found themselves having to defend a cruel position. The Retain message of protecting human life is a very difficult sell when the messengers sound so inhumane.

Constituencies with the strongest Yes/No vote

The table below shows the top five constituencies with the strongest vote for or against repealing the Eighth Amendment.

Dublin Bay South 78.49% 21.51%

Dún Laoghaire 77.06% 22.94%

Dublin Fingal 76.96% 23.04%

Dublin Central 76.51% 23.49%

Dublin Rathdown 76.10% 23.90%

Donegal 48.13% 51.87%

On the Yes side, the parties took a bigger role in the last week of the campaign. There was a recognition that Mary Lou McDonald was the best performer for Yes in the first debate, and then we saw other leading politicians come in. Simon Harris was clinical in his debate with Sinn Fein's Peadar Toibin, and Micheal Martin made it easier for undecideds to go to Yes. Ronan Mullen and John Bruton were, at best, careless in their use of language in their appearances. They sounded callous.

From last weekend there was a sense of a swing to Yes - but many thought maybe it was just their echo chamber.

Perhaps the plain people were still thinking No. Yet on the doorsteps there were bigger crowds than we've seen in my lifetime.

The reactions were overwhelmingly positive.

There was a cascading effect on the Yes side, with a sense that its success has brought more people on board.

When Michael Creed, the minister for agriculture, came out with Farmers for Yes, it felt significant. He would not have dreamed of taking this position two years ago, maybe not two months ago.

A photo op with TDs for No last Wednesday was much less well-attended than the same one a week earlier.

The most senior TDs who had come out for Retain, Dara Calleary and Michael McGrath, went to ground. Only Eamon O Cuiv kept fighting.

Retain spent its energy on conspiracy theories of a corrupt media elite under the control of the Government. It suggested Leo Varadkar controlled Google. It was all very Donald Trump.

Retain used its last bit of ammunition on the idea that the Government's proposed legislation was too extreme. But at this stage, it was the Retainers that appeared too extreme.

Campaigns alone can't have won this. Across Ireland, plain people, women and men, urban and rural, young and old voted to remove the Eighth Amendment. It turns out that the Irish people aren't innately conservative, nor are we immature. Whatever your position on abortion, it was clearly the more sober and thoughtful position that won out. The Trumpian tactics failed miserably, and O Cuiv was left looking like his grandfather, a man from the past. It turns out the past is another country.

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